Lars Guthrie's Reviews > House of Stairs

House of Stairs by William Sleator
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's review
Sep 19, 2010

really liked it
Read in September, 2010

I avidly read 'Nineteen-Eighty-Four' and 'Brave New World' as a teen, so understand the appeal of futuristic coldness and cruelty (of course tempered by indomitable individualism and youthful moxie) to readers of that age. These days, when the final volume of Suzanne Collins's 'Hunger Games' trilogy garners the attention that formerly went to Harry Potter or 'Twilight,' young dystopia fanatics have a much larger pool of doom to dive into.

There's good reason for the attraction of those waters. Scott Westerfeld, another popular author in this burgeoning genre of YA lit, notes that he owes his success 'partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.'

I stole that quote from Laura Miller's fabulous June 14 New Yorker article, 'Fresh Hell: What’s behind the boom in dystopian fiction for young readers?' In it, she also lists some of the progenitors of the trend. The author of this book was one of them.

'Readers of a certain age,' she notes, severely dating me, 'may remember having their young minds blown by William Sleator's "House of Stairs," the story of five teen-agers imprisoned in a seemingly infinite M. C. Escher-style network of staircases that ultimately turns out to be a gigantic Skinner box designed to condition their behavior.'

That's a pretty good summary of this deliciously bleak story of gnawing tension. Published in 1974, closer to the heyday of behaviorism, a few years after the Stanford Experiment, it may not hold quite the same relevance today. The cover illustration of the edition I got from the library was outlandishly dated.

But Peter, the shy and moody one of the five kids, offers a Bradburian, if halting, defense of reading books that has the timelessness of Professor Faber's in 'Fahrenheit 451.' And the riposte by the handsome and brashly insipid one, Oliver, is all too apropos in our era of 'screen invasion.' What you see projected 'right before your eyes,' he tosses off, 'is better than anything you could "imagine."'

I think 'House of Stairs' still holds up pretty well and deserves a shot by the kind of reader who cut his teeth on Margaret Haddix's 'Hidden' or Jean DuPrau's 'City of Ember' series, and has moved on to the Collins blockbusters.

That's usually someone seventh grade and up; it all depends on your ability to handle seriously spooky stuff.

By the way, if 'SSS' is your bag, I think Susan Beth Pfeffer's 'Life As We Knew It' books are miles ahead of 'The Hunger Games' in quality.

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