Wednesday, September 10, 2014

House of Stairs

If you are ever forced to choose which futuristic dystopia you’ll live in, that of The Hunger Games or that of William Sleator’s House of Stairs, please, please pick Panem. Even if you’re chosen as a tribute, the worst that will happen is that you’ll die.

And what’s really scary is that Sleator’s book was written in 1974.

The story begins very simply. Sixteen-year-old Peter, an orphan living in a state home, is blindfolded and taken elsewhere. When he’s allowed to see again, he’s in a vast white room filled with nothing but stairs.

Without railings they rose and fell at alarming angles, forking, occasionally spiraling, rising briefly together only to veer apart again, crossing above and below one another, connected at rare intervals by thin bridges spanning deep gulfs.

I love bizarre houses, mazes and strange testing grounds. This is all three.

Left to his own devices, Peter would close his eyes and wait for punishment, but he quickly meets another teenager, Lola. A juvenile delinquent, she’s got all the toughness he lacks, and they discover the one source of food in their new world. Located on a landing, it’s a machine which dispenses pellets (cooked meat, though neither of them are used to that) when they do what it wants them to do.

One by one the other involuntary participants in the experiment—handsome, manipulative Oliver, uncertain Abigail and Blossom, who’s the most dangerous—gravitate to the food source. From there, the five of them try to make sense of what’s happened. The machine quickly conditions them to do a repetitive dance for their meals—and never quite dispenses enough for them to be satiated.

Once that foundation has been laid, though, the machine slowly but inexorably rewards them for a whole new set of behavior patterns—harming each other. Here’s where the nightmare really begins.

I’m not going to spoil the ending. I’ll just say that while no one dies, what happens is not at all predictable, and the horror grows to Lord of the Flies-esque proportions. And then the experiment ends, so I breathed a sigh of relief—except for the denouement and explanation that unfolded in the epilogue. Which was even more horrifying, because it shows what the United States has become (this is why even Panem would be preferable) and because it ends with a six-word sentence that is utterly chilling.

At least with the Hunger Games, if you won, that was a good thing. You could go home. Not so here.

If you’re getting burned out on YA dystopias, you need to read this. No love triangles—no romance, period—just a meticulously crafted psychological thriller. House of Stairs is unforgettable.

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