House of Stairs, Science Fiction Horror by William Sleator
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I think I could read this book three times a year and never get tired of it. It’s brief and intense, like a cerebral storm.
Five people, all sixteen and orphans, are blindfolded and transported to a dismal facility made up of nothing but stairs and bridges. There is one bathroom, awkward and perilous to reach, nowhere to sleep comfortably, and their only chance of food is to obey the capricious, impenetrable demands of a machine.
I rather wish someone on the development team for Final Fantasy XIII had read a translation of this book. Then the Hallway could have been a terrifying Orwellian device rather than bad game design, and the Fal’cie might have had a chance of actually seeming like impossible to understand alien entities. But I digress.
Each of the characters is a fascinating study, and they only need the time that they receive in order to be properly established and developed. Lola is a self-confident, empowered young woman with compassion who shows that good doesn’t have to be nice (not all the time, anyway). Peter is a soft boy half-defeated by the world, but not quite down and out. Blossom is right in the middle between one of the most interesting and so obvious in what she is so immediately that it’s pathetic (which works right into her characterisation). Abigail could have been like Peter, but she seems to have or lack something that would complete the comparison. And Oliver is a clean divide between the cheerful, capable manly leader he wants to be perceived as, and the weaker selfish shadow inside.
The atmosphere is my favourite thing. Even though there aren’t reams of pages dedicated to describing the facility or the stairs, I can see them quite clearly. Down to what colour they must be. The placement of their one toilet, as well as its awkward and intentionally humiliating construction, makes me uncomfortable in a very real way. It’s also their only source of water. I have acrophobia, and even if I missed something in two readings and there actually are railings, I imagine the stairs to be narrow and without safety rails of any kind. I have a physical reaction whenever the stairs or a bridge are mentioned. So effective!
It seriously amazes me how much this story accomplishes in so little time. The world outside the house of stairs is even established as a post-apocalyptic science fiction-y world. No one lives in real houses but the elite. Books are considered outdated and undesirable in comparison to their screen replacements. Meat is not commonly available. But we get no more detail than we need, which again adds to the atmosphere. Whatever is outside, the world is now the house of stairs. There is nothing but the machine.