May 26 2011 11:02am

The Power of Hunger and Stairs: House of Stairs

House of Stairs may be one of the most disturbing and memorable young adult science fiction books ever. I first encountered it in junior high, and it left a chill that has never completely left. Written in the 1970s, in a period of deep distrust of government, it is a chilling tale of brainwashing, governmental power, distrust, and stairs, terrifying for its bleak visions of humanity and our future.

House of Stairs opens in a chilling, nearly unimaginable environment of, yes, stairs. The place—whatever and wherever it is—contains one endlessly running toilet (apparently with no pipes in either direction, raising still more disturbing questions) providing both drinking water and bathroom facilities (and no privacy), and one small platform—attached to more stairs—with one small screen, and nothing else except stairs. Straight stairs, bent stairs, spiral stairs, some stairs connected by narrow bridges, some stairs connected to nothing at all. Stairs so abundant and yet so confusing that it is nearly impossible to tell where they begin and end, narrow enough to cause genuine fear of constantly falling off, a particular terror since no one can find the bottom.

I don’t know why stairs, in particular, unless the idea is to also enhance physical fitness. We are later told that the entire point was to create a terrifying, cold, comfortless environment, but I can think of other ways to accomplish this without wrecking people’s knees or creating a near constant risk of a broken neck. My best guess is that William Sleator had a nightmare about stairs and decided to weave it into this dystopian tale. It certainly works to create a nightmarish feeling.

Left on the stairs are five teenagers: Peter, Lola, Blossom, Abigail and Oliver. Peter is a shy, nearly inarticulate kid who is almost certainly gay (and an implied, not stated survivor of sexual/physical abuse); Lola a teenage rebel; Blossom an indulged and fat mean rich kid; Abigail a pretty girl determined to please everyone to keep herself from getting hurt; and Oliver a popular jock. None of them have any idea why they are there (although in the case of the first three, it seems clear that they were chosen because of their inappropriate social behavior, and this may be true for the other two as well.) They can only see the infinite stairs, and the screen, and know that they are hungry. Very hungry. And that they can fall off the stairs at any time.

And that if they do the right things—whatever the right things are—the machine will reward them with food. Otherwise, they will starve.

Sleator shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint in each chapter, creating five distinct personalities. The five kids are introduced as stereotypes, but none stay that way: even Blossom the mean girl turns out to have unexpected depths. Abigail and Oliver begin a strange, twisted relationship that is half pure teenager, half terror. Blossom, Oliver and Lola vie for control of the group, Blossom with lies and gossip; Oliver with force; Lola with desperate logic and intelligence. Lola manages to detox from cigarettes and get into shape through jogging on the stairs. (Since first reading this book, I have now had the fun of living with someone quitting smoking cold turkey, and let me tell you, a good half of the kids’ problematic issues can probably be blamed on Lola’s nicotine withdrawal alone.) Peter retreats more and more into his fantasy world, the only small comfort he has, beyond the food.

In side conversations, the five kids reveal the daily horrors of their pre-stair lives, in what is apparently a future United States. (This isn’t directly stated, but several references to a President are made.) As children, the sexes are severely segregated—even the independent, outsider rebel Lola admits that she has never been alone with a boy, and Blossom is horrified by the very thought, while Oliver and Abigail feel extreme shame and uncertainty at being alone with the opposite sex and Peter oddly seems to have no thought of it at all. Books have nearly vanished, replaced by screens tailored to scroll by at the exact speed you are reading, and which contain stuff, according to the not overly intelligent Abigail, more interesting than books. (Peter likes books because, as he notes, you can become lost in them.) Nearly everyone lives in enormous, dreaty, industrial block housing. The few exceptions—the very wealthy—live in houses with, gasp, separate rooms for eating and cooking and even own the occasional real tree. They are kept strictly segregated from everyone else, to ensure that no one else learns that individual houses still exist. Orphans abound. Suddenly, the house of stairs is not sounding as bad.

Between conversations like this, the screen begins to train the kids to dance upon command, giving them just enough food to survive, not enough to satisfy. (And almost certainly not enough to prevent them from getting various vitamin deficiencies—the food served is meat, and the book never mentions other substances, but does mention that none of the kids are looking all that well.)

And then the machine encourages them to turn on one another. Hit, betray, lie—and be rewarded with food. Refuse, and starve.

And yet, despite the hunger, the terror, and the endless stairs, two of the five kids manage to resist, to fight. Not surprisingly, these are the two who had the most problems adjusting to real world society: Lola and Peter. As even Abigail, not the most perceptive person, notes, Lola has rarely cared what anyone thinks about her, and even here, on the stairs, where her ability to eat is completely dependent on four other people performing a proper dance and being willing to share food with her, she still doesn’t care much. And Peter can simply retreat into his fantasy world. I like that the rebel and the loser are the two able to resist, to fight conformity, while the nice girl, the jock and the mean girl all fail to resist. Even if it means that they do nearly starve to death, rescued only at the very last minute by an elevator and a lot of IVs.

I have said that this is all chilling and terrifying, and it is, but in some ways, the last chapter, which explains everything as part of an elaborate experiment, is even more chilling. By then, thanks to their conditioning, none of the five can tell the difference between the colors of red and green. They can only see a light. The thought that anyone could train me not to see colors terrified me then and terrifies me now.

A related horror: although it’s not entirely surprising that both Oliver and Blossom, who display a strong streak of nastiness even before the machine begins training the kids to be cruel, end up falling completely under its influence, it is terrifying that Abigail, who begins as a rather nice girl, becomes so utterly nasty and cruel. She is, of course, driven by hunger, and it is clear that she was the sort to follow the crowd and not make waves before this; nonetheless, to see a nice person turned evil is distressing.

Sleator’s detailed, clinical description of how easily people can be broken—coupled with Lola’s insights on other training methods—is all too believable. It is, I suppose, a small comfort to learn at the end that even the three conditioned kids are going to be fairly useless spies. (The shaking and fear of the experiment’s director also suggests that some serious questions are about to be asked—mostly, I should note, because the experiment does not succeed.)

As readers, we are meant, I think, to identify with Lola and Peter, while recognizing that some of us, at least, probably have some of Abigail and Blossom, and perhaps Oliver in us as well. (I say perhaps Oliver because he is the only one of the five that I really couldn’t identify with.) Abigail’s need to conform, to not upset people, to be politely skeptical, is all too human.

And, oh, yes, Blossom.

Blossom is a Mean Girl, and yes, she was almost certainly a Mean Girl even before her parents died, back when she had everything. She doesn’t hesitate to blab state secrets to two kids that she’s known for all of fifteen minutes. She gossips, she lies, her desperation for food leads her to interrupt the food distribution, leaving the others hungry. What she does to Lola and Peter and Abigail and Oliver is beyond despicable. Her constant whining and blaming of others is grating. And yet.

She is also a 16 year old who, one month before her arrival, lived a life of privilege and excellent food, which she has lost partly, I assume, because of her attitude (and the results of whatever testing done on her, tests that undoubtedly revealed her mean streak), but also partly because her parents died. As her inner monologue reveals, she needed, desperately needed, something to hate, since she has not been allowed to grieve, or blame whatever killed her parents. (The text doesn’t say, but I get the distinct impression the death was not as accidental as Blossom claims.)

As Lola notes, Blossom is not originally as helpless as she appears; indeed, she may be one of the most clever of the group. She does what she can to survive. The terror is seeing what she’s willing to do to achieve those goals—and how easily a group of scientists can enable her to do so.

I have one lingering question: where exactly did the experimenters build these stairs? The compound, by its description, is a huge place, and four of the kids confirm that the United States of this book does not exactly have a lot of free space available. And exactly how is the water running to and from that toilet? (As a kid, I figured they should be able to follow the water pipes to a wall someplace and from there find their way out, but that never happens.) An optical illusion effect covering up the pipes?

I don’t know. All I do know is that this is a book whose stairs and ending linger long in the memory.

With a horrific description of just what depths hunger will lead you to.

Housekeeping note: The Madeleine L’Engle reread starts next month with And Both Were Young. I’ll be rereading the books in publication order, and in a slightly new touch, I’ll be looking at some of L’Engle’s mainstream fiction work along with her science fiction/fantasy.

Mari Ness didn’t even want to look at stairs for days after finishing this book.

Madeline Ashby
1. MadelineAshby
I'm really happy to see an appreciation of this novel here. It broke my heart when I read it at age eleven or twelve (I went through a big Sleator phase), but when I mention it to other people they never seem to have heard of it. I remember it being deft and savage and haunting all at once, a real feat of writerly heroism.
2. NChenier
Thank you for bringing this novel back from my formative years! I shivered when I saw that cover again. The descriptions often gave the ten-year-old me vertigo. And the freaked out dance by the end--shudder.
It occurs to me now that there are some interesting parallels between this and Hunger Games. Both deal with conditioning children for a desired result, the insidious "they" being the government/military in HoS, but more government/corporate in HG.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
First, a quick housekeeping note to everyone: As it turns out, I won't actually be starting L'Engle next week - instead, I'll be starting that reread in November. Next week will be another filler post, and then it's on to another series - I should know which one by next week.

@Madeleine Ashby - I don't know how widely available the book was -- it is at the Orange County (Orlando) library, but only at one branch, and the local chain bookstores all currently list it as out of stock, although you can order it. So that might be part of the issue.

But I definitely agree with the haunting part; this is a book you don't forget reading.

@NChenier - I have to confess; I still haven't gotten around to reading Hunger Games, although that's on my reading list for the summer!

But yes, I think possibly the most memorable part is that freaked out dance by the end. Or their inability to tell the difference between red and green. Close call.
4. Nicole F
I loved William Sleator's books and sought them out wherever I could find them. I'd love a re-read of these-- it's too bad, not that YA dystopias are so popular, that he's not better known. "Interstellar Pig" was great too.
Kristoff Bergenholm
5. Magentawolf
Interstellar Pig, hah! I was trying to remember where I knew Sleator's name from. I absolutely loved that book, along with Singularity and The Duplicate back when I was young..

I'll have to see if I can pull up a copy of this one from somewhere...
6. Laura Price
This book has haunted me since I read it in junior high, but I didn't remember its name--I was actually just thinking about it earlier this month when I checked The Scorch Trials out of the library. So thank you for this!
Amy Young
7. ceara
I was just thinking about this book last week for some reason, but only remembered the barest outlines. I was probably 10 or 11 when I read it, and it COMPLETELY freaked me out. I should read it again now I've been reminded of its title.
Beth Mitcham
8. bethmitcham
This book recently came up in my book club, when we talked about lost childhood books. Another member described this book, sure that no one else had ever heard of it, and I immediately gave her the name and author. The creepiest part for me was the dance at the end.
Brent Longstaff
9. Brentus
William Sleator was my favorite author when I was younger. He is still in my top ten. Although most of his books are for younger readers, they are entertaining for adults too. I recently read a bunch of them again, and was pleased to note that the suck fairy had passed them by. Most of my introduction to theoretical physics came through Sleator's books. Some of them are fantasy, but others have a lot of relativity or quantum theory in them. Most are less disturbing than House of Stairs. Interstellar Pig is a lot of fun.
Risha Jorgensen
10. RishaBree
This book terrified me as a child, and I still think of it often. It's interesting how much of the plot I had forgotten - I didn't even remember that it took place in a dystopian future! But the stairs and the dancing and two children slowly starving to death on principal have been impossible to forget.

I did find the dancing at the end kind of darkly hilarious, though. I mean, it's horrible, but it also means that their torturers didn't really win.
11. TomT
I had a viceral reaction of shock on seeing the cover. I remember reading this book checkd out of the local library in Butte County, CA. It was haunting and creepy and I think I did read it twice because the story had such an impact. That dance at the end is yes something else.

Oddly movies such as Cube have brought this book back to mind in recent years.
Mari Ness
12. MariCats
@Nicole F, brentus - As it turns out, the fabulous Orange County Library System (responsible for bringing you most of these posts) does have an extensive William Sleator collection, so I may be able to look at more of his books.

@Magnetawolf - It looks as though Interstellar Pig is available through at least some online bookstores, and it's at my county library (not my small local library, admittedly, but available through the county system.)

@Laura Price and @ceara - Yeah, I don't think the title is particularly memorable - I forgot it myself for a few years. Descriptive, but not memorable. On the other hand I can't come up with memorable titles myself so I regard this as a very small flaw.

@bethmitcham - Yeah, that end dance is one of the creepiest scenes ever. To my surprise I pretty much remembered it word for word twenty years later, which is freaky and creepy all by itself.

@Rishabree - Yeah, the three of them are going to be pretty useless spies if they have to stop and dance whenever they see a traffic light! Thanks for bringing that up - I have to admit that I was so caught up in the horror of that last scene that I totally missed that aspect of it.

@TomT - I haven't seen Cube, and now I don't think I want to. One creepy vision of dancing and stairs is enough for a lifetime.
13. DeAnna Knippling
I loved this book when I was eleven. I ended up reading this and More then Human about the same time, and the two blended together for a few years, until I went back and read them again.

I couldn't deal with Hunger Games - got through the first 50 pages and went "meh." I think part of that goes back to how much I liked House of Stairs...
14. HP
I read this book when it was new (thanks, Scholastic!), and had forgotten the title and most of the plot until today (thanks, Mari!). But forty years later, I still wake up sweating from nightmares about stairs.

I too thought of this book when I saw Cube, but my only reaction was to compare it unfavorably. I believe that the Cube screenplay was written by someone who'd read HoS, but was otherwise not terribly bright.

I'm kind of surprised no one's made a movie of HoS, especially since I've been expecting it any day now since 1975.
Paul Howard
15. DrakBibliophile
I saw this book on a library shelf and something about it made me check the end of the book. So I never read it and after this review, I'm glad I didn't read it.
16. TomT
Whoever concieved of the movie Cube had clearly read HoS. Basically a group of people wake up in white cube like rooms. There is a hatch in the middle of each side of the cube. Around each hatch are strange marks and symbols. Going through a hatch can be an adventure because the next cube could be a death trap, or perfectly fine. Oh and the cubes appear to move around in a big array we are shown this in at least one scene.

The characters meet up and attempt to survive. I think there were some other simularities but the movie really wasn't that memorable so I can't remember all of the details of it. ::shrug::

Cathy Mullican
17. nolly
I never happened across this one as a kid, but your description of the stairs reminds me of some of Escher's artwork; I wonder if that might've been an influence?
18. Els Kushner
I LOVED this book as a teen-- and it terrified me, maybe even more than Lord of the Flies or 1984. And I had the same reaction as you to the red/green color thing at the end-- so chilling.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment