Monday, January 16, 2012

3. House of Stairs

By William Sleator

Continuing my exploration of YA fiction, House of Stairs is a 1974 dystopian classic about five 16-year-old orphans mysteriously confined within a huge, Escher-like complex of stairs. Left alone without purpose or explanation, they come across a machine that emits voices and flashing lights, but more importantly, the machine dispenses food (meat pellets!) after the kids act, or even move, a certain way. The kids soon rely on this machine for sustenance and it gradually becomes apparent they have to psychologically torture each other in order to survive!

The title is a little misleading since the confines are much more vast than the interior of any house, yet no less claustrophobic. It’s like a reverse locked-room (white void), psychological horror story where people are trapped with others whom they grow to hate. Each character has distinct, if rather stereotypical, personality traits: Peter is socially awkward and withdrawn; Lola is rebellious and distrustful of others; Blossom is manipulative and spoiled (as well as obese); Abigail, despite being pretty, has low self-esteem and is a total people-pleaser; and lastly, Oliver is your typical douchebag jock. It's no surprise that it’s going to take a miracle for this demented Breakfast Club to get along, let alone work together as a team in order to beat the system.

As the characters converse or bicker at each other, we get pieces of information about the outside world , which seems not much better than the maze-like prison they're stuck in. In fact, America sounds eerily like North Korea except that the environment is ruined to the point where even the air is no longer fit to breathe. There are constant resource shortages where only a privileged few can live in relative comfort and society has become extremely regimented, if not authoritarian, in its control over citizens.

There are obvious, heavy-handed themes of governmental mind-control, individualism vs authoritarianism, paranoia, and behavioral conditioning that was trendy in the 1970’s. As a YA book, however, this was dealt with enough skill and respect to the reader. The author obviously had no qualms about disturbing young minds. For instance, when the cruelty escalates amongst the teenagers, a rift splits the group. One group gives into their sadistic tendencies to the point of urinating on each other. Interestingly, there are no overt portrayals of sexuality in the novel: Abigail and Oliver never go beyond the furtive kissing stage and it’s merely implied that Peter is a closet homosexual. In reviews I’ve read, there was a writer who remembered seeing this book in the “Special Permission” shelf at the high school library. So I’m sure this book was a minor shit-disturber in its day.

House of Stairs was not a terribly profound book and it felt a bit dated at times, but the story was a treat to read, as it made an absorbing psychological character study.  My only regret was not discovering this book in my youth. I was so into finding out what happened next that I even brought the book with me to work and finished it during my lunch break. Being a slim paperback also helped since I don’t like lugging thick books around when I’m commuting.

Interestingly, Dark Carnival, the genre bookstore conveniently located near my in-law’s house in Berkeley has a nice collection of William Sleator books in their YA section. It’s amazing how well-stocked their store is, it’s no wonder they still have stacks of un-shelved books on the floor. Unfortunately, thanks to me, House of Stairs is no longer in stock!

In keeping with the YA dystopia movie trend, there’s supposed to be a film adaptation planned for late 2012. Exciting!

Here is the review which made me put this book on my Xmas list.

Here’s a site which looks at the various literary tropes that Sleator used in House of Stairs.

Here’s a site which looks at 25 William Sleator books.


OlmanFeelyus said...

I feel like this guy is an author I should have come across when I was a young adult, but I have no memory of any of his books. They all sound really compelling. I love how this stuff was so dark back in the day, so dark and agressively anti-authoritarian.

Jason L said...

Thanks for the great review. I've never heard of this book which somehow seems surprising.

I love the concept but don't hold out much hope for a quality film translation.

Anonymous said...

The producer working on this was involved with the film (500) Days of Summer which was really great. Don't write off the House of Stairs film just yet.