The Horror Honeys: Hardcover Honey's Book of the Week!

Hardcover Honey's Book of the Week!

A Hardcover Honey Young Adult Review

"House of Stairs" - William Sleator

Way way back in the hazy days of middle school, I read a YA book called "House of Stairs" by William Sleator - it stayed with me through the years, to the point that I remembered the closing lines (very unusual). Now, approaching 40 (holy shit) I thought I would give it another read and see if it's held up.  Spoiler alert, I liked it even more this time around.

Coming in at a tight 166 pages, House of Stairs kicks off quickly as 16-year-old orphan Peter, blindfolded and hands bound, is pushed gently off an elevator and into the titular House of Stairs, an Escher-like space where everything in sight is white and, quite literally, all that can be seen are stairs - leading up, down, side-to-side - but not out.  Peter, feeling vulnerable and confused, opts to stay exactly where he is until "perhaps something would happen; perhaps they had made a mistake, and someone would come and get him out."

Peter is soon discovered by the second addition to this confusing scene, tough little Lola, who bounds up the stairs with bristling energy and encourages Peter to join her on her search for an exit. During their fruitless search, the two soon discover that they are both 16 and both orphans - and that all this stair-climbing is making them hungry.  Intrigued by a a noise (memorably described by Sleator as "an undefinable series of noises, partly whirring and mechanical, but also strangely moist" (ick, don't you hate the word "moist"??) and driven by hunger, Lola and Peter soon come across a landing, where they find a third occupant, the chubby and golden-curled Blossom, sitting in front of a mysterious red-glowing machine.  As they watch her unnoticed, Blossom leans forward, peers into the plastic of the machine and sticks her tongue out - she is rewarded by a series of clicks and a brown cylinder drops out, as it turns out, basically a meat stick, with a "rich, succulent flavor".

When Lola makes a quick move and grabs the next cylinder from the machine before Blossom, Sleator notes that it's "different from the synthetic protein she was used to", which is one of the intriguing hints at the futuristic world these characters must have come from.  Blossom is startled by the arrival of Peter and Lola but quickly tries to gain the upper hand - she is 16 also, and an orphan too, but a recent one, and smarter than she appears.  She even claims to have been living in a real house "with real grass around it, and a live growing tree" (more future stuff!).  The Lola vs Blossom dynamic is quickly established.  And we all know there's little scarier in this world than a 16-year-old girl with nothing to lose.  Lola and Peter get the lowdown on the machine from Blossom, that she happened across it, yelled into it, stamped on it, etc, all to no avail, in frustration, stuck out her tongue, and was rewarded with a food pellet.  Unfortunately the "sticking out your tongue" routine pretty quickly stops working once Lola and Peter stumble onto the scene.

The last two characters are quickly introduced, as sweet, gentle Abigail and the final group member, Oliver, full of confidence, energy, and high spirits arrive on the landing shortly thereafter.   Both, of course, are 16, and orphans as well.  With all five in place, the story gets into gear.  Lola goes exploring and finds a toilet, constantly flushing, to be used for waste and presumably as their water source as well.   Alliances are quickly formed and abandoned and the machine begins to teach them "the dance", a series of moves that they must hit exactly to be rewarded with food.  The light glows, sometimes red, sometimes green.  The dance sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, as the participants are taught variations in steps and movements.  One day nothing seems to be working to get the food - tempers are growing short and things get physical, with Oliver grabbing Abigail by the hair and shaking her.  The light begins to flash and food begins to roll out.  The machine is teaching them to hurt each other, and once they realize it, they are all too happy to oblige.

I don't want to ruin anything for you - and this is far from a horror book, more a psychological study of conditioning and how it might work to create a very specific type of individual.  But if you have a couple of hours to spare and you are as interested in "slot-machine" conditioning as this former Psych major, you may find "House of Stairs" as unforgettable as I did.

Hardcover Honey verdict: Three out of five evil bookworms