House of Stairs


William Sleator




Date Reviewed:

December 10, 2007

his slim book was a disappointment. I don't recall why I picked it up. Perhaps it was on the "recommended by staff" shelf at the library? It is a "Young Adult" novel, but even targeted for a more juvenile audience, I found it shallow and unengaging. It didn't seem like Sleator invested much thought into this book, it reads like he wrote the whole thing from start to finish in one month, and never went back to liven things up, or add a plot twist.

House of Stairs is about 5 teenagers, who are abandoned in a huge chamber filled with nothing but stairways and landings. I suppose it is meant to resemble a three dimensional maze, but the stairs turn out to have nothing to do with the story. The five characters are part of a diabolical experiment in psychology, manipulated by unseen watchers into becoming nasty and violent upon the cue of the machine that periodically provides them with food. Initially, the characters explore the stairways, but soon the stairs are nothing but an afterthought, and all attention is focused upon the food dispenser. So why couldn't the big experiment have been performed in a sealed room? (Notice in the cover painting that the three of the characters are passively slumped by the orange food machine on the landing. Where are the tubes replenish the supply of food in the machine? The cover painting makes about as much sense at the plot.)

Each of the five characters represents a personality type. Presumably, this not an accident, the test subjects have all been selected from orphanages and will not be missed. Unfortunately, none of the characters grow or change - Sleator introduces us to each one, and despite the strange situation, each one remains just as they are when we first meet them.

Peter is a passive dreamer. He spends long hours in trances, just sitting on the landing - so quiet that he may be sleeping. Perhaps he is brain damaged? Peter displays zero initiative. Peter the Daydreamer is boring.

Lola is the most interesting of the five. She is a tough talker, wanting to take charge and be the leader. Unfortunately, Lola never leads. Lola never suggests any plans, never organizes her compatriots into any scheme - explore the stairs? Follow the pipes that provide the water to find an escape route? Find the hidden cameras that are obviously observing them? No. Lola's sole plan is a passive hunger strike, and she is only able to enlist the witless the Peter into her plan.

Blossom is an annoying, spoiled person; she is malicious and vindictive. Blossom exists solely to make others miserable. Note that it is not the machines that made her this way, Blossom is thoroughly unpleasant from the moment we meet her.

Oliver seems to exist solely as an obstacle to Lola. Handsome, charming Oliver would like to be the leader, but he displays zero leadership skills. None of the characters in this book ever seems to think about their circumstances, or imagine how they might change things.

Abigail is even less of a presence than daydreaming Peter. Abigail is a follower, she is the least interesting of the bunch.

The thin plot involves the food machine attempting to program the behavior of the five characters. If the subjects of the test act appropriately, food is the reward. But the feedback mechanism is peculiar - no instructions are provided, instead the five subjects move in mostly random fashion, and if the sequence of their movements is correct, they are fed. They call it a "dance", but there isn't any rhyme or reason to their frantic gyrations. Think how difficult it would be to determine the machine's intent - each of the five subjects can move any limb, turn in any direction, perform any sequence of gestures - what are the chances that they would hit upon the correct combination? What scientist would devise such a difficult test?

Sleator's motive seems to be to get his book read in classrooms, and then have teachers assign a writing assignment of "How would YOU respond if placed in such a situation?" I guess that is one way to sell books, but a better way to sell books is to write an interesting story, not this lame material. This is book is a major disappointment. Young Adult novels don't have to be stupid.