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 Tor.com 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: Tor.com)