Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: House of Stairs by William Sleator

Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

Today's publishing industry (and the entertainment business as a whole) places a heavy emphasis on bigger hitters, those folks who can produce titles that draw down huge chunks of revenue. While that's great for Stephen King and Dean Koontz, such an attitude means that many mid-list authors have their books dumped into the marketplace with precious little support behind them. Such seems the case with William Sleator, an author who has gamely worked the speculative fiction field since 1970 and received only marginal attention. Indeed, I'd never heard of him until ran a retrospective of his 1974 novel House of Stairs.

The five sixteen-year-old orphans share precious little in common. There's Peter (lonely, emotionally troubled, sexually confused); Lola (brash, impertinent, independent); Blossom (obese, sly, manipulative); Abigail (lovely, retiring, longing for relationship); and Oliver (handsome, jovial, controlling). Mere circumstance wouldn't have conspired to bring them together, but someone else has. One day, each finds him- or herself blindfolded, shoved in an elevator and dumped into a massive, white-walled edifice filled with nothing but stairs, a single toilet and the machine. Relieving oneself in the open is bad, and so is trying to make sense of the crisscrossing steps that never seem to lead anywhere. But the machine proves worse than either. When its light begins flashing and the strange voices start whispering, it gives them food -- sometimes. See, the rules keep changing. At first, it dispenses the meat-flavored pellets when they stuck their tongues out at it. Then it feeds them if they danced in time with the lights and sounds. Now, though, it seems to want them to do something new: It wants them to hurt each other.

One has to give House of Stairs credit for a winning premise. Part Lord of the Flies, part Cube, part horrifying human Skinner box, the book prods readers with ever-present paranoia and the supposition that deep down humanity isn't as good as it pretends to be. Sleator also creates a winning secondary world with left-handed exposition, revealing a smog-choked, centralized-government-oppressed America through snippets of conversation. Unfortunately, most of the characters barely become anything deeper than broad sketches, and Sleator's style tends toward the tell-don't-show school of composition. A disappointment, but not a fatal one. Though not a classic, House delves into dark covers of the human soul most would rather neglect.

(Picture: CC 2006 by cowsgomoo :); Hat Tip:


pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, it gets harder and harder to get your name and title out there, save for social networking sites. Thanks for the new title.

Jim Murdoch said...

Just spent a pleasant half hour finding out more about this guy. A shame - for me, at least - he focuses on YA but he definitely seems like someone I would have enjoyed when I was younger, this book especially.

Loren Eaton said...


I think it's harder to get one's name out -- period.

Loren Eaton said...


You know, House of Stairs really didn't feel like YA. There's a fair amount of profanity and some pretty mature themes. They only reason why I can see it would get lumped in with the genre is that its protagonists are 16.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've added it to my Amazon wish list.

Loren Eaton said...

Let me know what you think when you read it!

Chestertonian Rambler said...

YA has become a pretty darn dark genre. As one apology for the genre puts it, "Subjects associated with the agonies of the young and formerly considered taboo are treated with surprising frankness and compassion. Divorce, sexuality, racial unrest, drunkenness, teen pregnancy, abortion--subjects which contribute to the growing despair of the young--are now found in the 'Honor Sampling' of the best books for teens" (Giant Despair Meets Hopeful 9).

From a publishing perspective, YA means no censorship is necessary whatever, as opposed to Children's (K-8 or so) which requires significant cleanliness regarding language, violence, sex, &c.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is probably closer to G-rated than the average YA book, for instance. After all, it has no sex, a positive (if ambivalent and fatherless) parent-child relationship, and violence that comes more from external forces (even monsters) than from friends, loved ones, authorities and parents.

Welcome to the brave new world of YA lit. But then again, it's not like the average 14-year-old hasn't heard all the profanity from friends, been close friends with someone from a broken home, know someone struggling with teenage pregnancy, &c. Kids may not have to grow up as quickly now as in previous historical periods...but the gap is closing fast.

Loren Eaton said...


And yet I find it interesting that Serial Killer wasn't marketed as a YA book. I dunno, sometimes I think all the "adult" content in YA makes it feel more juvenile than when there were stronger content boundaries around the genre. Though I'm definitely in the minority, I thought the profanity and violence in The Knife of Never Letting Go made it seem like a kids' book that was trying to act grown up. It didn't work at all for me.

Anyway, this is all tangential to Stairs, which really didn't feel YA to me despite its characters' ages.