House of Stairs by William Sleator

A review of the young adult science-fiction novel House of Stairs by William Sleator.

Five sixteen-year-old orphans, whose parents either died in ‘the war’ or were conveniently killed in recent car accidents, find themselves inside a bright white structure with seemingly no walls, ceiling or floor, and filled entirely with rail-less staircases, the occasional small landing and one unusual machine.

In true young adult fiction style, House of Stairs brings readers right into the action, as we follow one of the five blindfolded characters as they are inserted into the unusual structure.

One of them is arrogant.

One of them is spiteful.

One is a victim.

One never forgets.

Two are manipulative.

Three want to be the leader.

All are at the mercy of the machine.

House of Stairs by William Sleator

After the initial meeting of the characters and the first judgements that are made, and past the inevitable sexual tension and awkwardness of having both sexes in such close proximity (because boys and girls are usually kept strictly segregated in institutions), the characters start to realise that the structure they are imprisoned inside is lacking in their most basic needs: water, a safe place to sleep, and food.

I can’t tell you much more about the story itself as I don’t want to ruin it for any future readers, but I will say that I was able to relate events in my own life to each and every character through different stages of this story, whether it was speaking without thinking, needing revenge, being taken for a fool, or wearing my heart on my sleeve.

House of Stairs focuses on the utter importance of how each character wants to be perceived by some, or all, of the other characters. In doing this it highlights mankind’s need to be perceived in a certain way by others, and reminded me of the philosophical quote by Max Weber.

“I am not who I think I am, I am not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am.”

Max Weber

This craving to be liked and admired, even if only to use their positive position for manipulation, only grows as the story increases in both pace and unsettling atmosphere, and the characters’ primitive urge for survival becomes reliant on each other when their painful hunger is truly more important to each of them than anything else.

Author William Sleator has revealed that all five characters are based upon real people in his own life, including himself. This is no-doubt why every character’s personality was created to such a high detail, making them so relatable and believable, but in no way boring. Everyone who reads this should be able to see aspects of themselves in at least one on the five teenagers, and have the others remind them of people they know. This story, and the machine that controls all of them, truly brings out the very best and the very worst in the characters, and I wonder what the ‘friends’ of the author who inspired the characters thought of their parts House of Stairs.

Written as a third-person narrative, House of Stairs is broken into two parts. Part One covers chapters 1—10, with each chapter focusing on one of the five characters, allowing the reader to discover their thoughts and see the current scene from their perspective. Part Two covers chapters 11—20 and the epilogue, and the narrative in this half gracefully glides between different characters within chapters, and the chapter breaks instead flick between two different groups as the teenagers divide.

This story has subtle and tantalizing hints at being set in the future after a cataclysmic event of some kind, with the mentioning of gas masks being worn near roads, synthetic food, and only the rich and powerful being able to reside in houses with real grass, whereas the mass of civilisation are housed in residential megastructures.

It was only once I had finished reading House of Stairs that I had a look at the year of publication and was utterly shocked to find it was first published in 1974—making this addictive young adult novel over forty years old—yet I found nothing in the story that led me to believe it wasn’t a contemporary work of fiction. The story’s confinement within the unsettling structure and its true character responses makes House of Stairs a truly timeless piece of fiction.

In 2000 it was chosen by the American Library Association as being in the top 100 young adult books of the last 50 years.

“It gets pretty wild, but for some reason the book has never once been challenged.”

William Sleator

The strange setting and title of this ominous novel were taken from House of Stairs by Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher, who created a piece of art featuring endlessly twisting stairs at impossible angles.

If you enjoy stories where a small group of teenagers—all of widely varying personality characteristics—get thrown together and dynamically react to the same situations in a multitude of different ways, then this book will be of interest to you.

I will definitely be seeking out many more novels from this author, not only because of his realistic depiction of human behaviour and his ingenious imagination, but because this book has made me compelled to ask the following question:

In the extremes of hunger, what are we all truly capable of?

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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