1974’s House of Stairs is a standalone young adult novel by William Sleator.
In a not-too-distant future, five children — timid Peter, unruly Lola, confident Oliver, accommodating Abigail, and cunning Blossom — are consigned by the authorities to the House of Stairs. Although they have very different backgrounds and personalities, all five of them share one characteristic: they are all wards of the state.
Make that two things: Nobody will ever miss any of them.
It does not take the five fifteen-year-olds long to work out the essential facts of the House. It is a vast, staircase-filled void. If there is an exit, it is very carefully hidden. Aside from the endless stairs, which lead nowhere useful, the House of Stairs is very nearly without distinguishing features, save for two items:
there is a toilet, useful for its intended purpose, and also the only source of water;
an odd machine studded with blinkenlights; it beeps; it will sometimes provide food.
The machine does not randomly provide food. The children must first perform some innocuous task. Initially, this task is merely foolish capering, nothing to which any reasonable person would object. But the machine is capricious. Even when the teens perform their dance, the machine does not always reward them. Still, the device is just reliable enough to keep the teens focused on mollifying it.
Once the five are used to appeasing the machine, the device begins to demand more complex behavior. Not wishing to starve, the teens rise to the occasion. The crisis comes when the teens realize that the coin the machine now demands is acts of spiteful cruelty inflicted by the teens on each other.
Blossom, once rich, sees others only in terms of how useful they are to her. Being cruel pleases her. Oliver, confident and entitled, is also quite willing to hurt others to get delicious food. Abigail isn’t happy about this new turn of affairs, but she has spent her life going along with the crowd and isn’t going to grow a spine now.
Peter, seemingly the weakest of the five, finds a hidden pool of moral fibre. He refuses to bend to this new whim. Lola earned her spot in the House by being unruly and uncooperative. She’s not going to start being vicious merely because some machine demands it.
Peter and Lola’s mutiny consigns them to slow, lingering starvation. Blossom, Oliver, and Abigail obey the machine in a hundred spiteful ways and are rewarded with food. At least for the moment. Who can say if the machine might not punish all five teens for the disobedience of Lola and Peter?
It’s only a matter of time before the three desperate teens turn on their former companions.
This book is less than 160 pages long. Long in the right way: it is lean and efficient rather than thin. More pages would only have made it longer, not better.
It seems likely that among Peter’s other challenges is that he’s gay or possibly bisexual; a crush on another boy named Jason ended badly for him. The text handles this information in oblique fashion, probably because this book was published forty-four years ago in a very different time. The author sympathizes with Peter, even if the society in which Peter lives doesn’t.
Some readers do not care for pointless surrealism. They should be assured that the peculiar state of affairs was deliberately engineered, and for a purpose beyond merely tormenting vulnerable teens. The torment is merely a side-benefit of the project.
Sleator didn’t ordinarily write happy books. This one, with its poisoned world, the apparently capricious house, the victims (sure to suffer long-term damage), and the apparent immunity awarded the antagonists, is particularly bleak.
I wonder how many of the authors penning today’s young adult dystopias have read this book, or read books inspired by this book.
Parents whose teens smile too much might want to buy them this book.