House of Stairs – one step away from the beast within

House of Stairs★★★

by William Sleator

I am insanely addicted attracted to stories about “the group in peril”, when people are thrust into an alien setting absent of any social rules and obligations. Under such circumstances, it usually doesn’t take long for humans to throw off the shackles of civilized conduct and resort to a more brutal “survival of the fittest” approach. That’s not just the pessimist in me coming out, but the realist.

house of stairsWhat we become in extremis is both fascinating and frightening in the heroic heights we reach and the craven depths we sink to, and how quickly we revert to our most primal and baser urges. One hundred thousand years of evolution gone in the blink of an eye. William Golding shows us this in Lord of the Flies, as does Scott Smith in The Ruins, Jose Saramago in Blindness and Stephen King in his novella The Mist. These books teach us that there are even worse fates than losing your life – it’s losing your humanity.

In House of Stairs, William Sleator proves just how quickly humans can be stripped of their humanity. First published in 1974, I imagine Sleator was influenced at least in part, by some of the more famous psych experiments of the first half of the 20th century including the Little Albert Experiment and the Milgram Obedience Experiment. Just a few years prior to its publication there was also the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment – a study designed to ostensibly observe the effects of becoming either a prisoner or prison guard. Twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly. This “experiment” degenerated so rapidly into violence and the dehumanization of its subjects that it had to be stopped after only six days. Good times.

The five 16-year-old protagonists here are subjected to much the same mindfuck (pardon my French), enclosed in a never-ending space of stairs – there are no walls, no floors, no doors, no ceiling, just stairs, going up, going down. That’s the set-up. What follows is pretty tame by today’s standards, and in my books does not hold a candle to Lord of the Flies; however, it still makes for pure, unadulterated compulsive reading. It doesn’t surprise me that in 2000, the American Library Association, with teen participation, chose it as one of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of the last 50 years. Recommended!!

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