HOUSE OF STAIRS by William Sleator


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A riveting suspense novel with an anti-behaviorist message that works, despite the lack of subtlety or originality, because it emerges only slowly from the chilling events. Five sixteen-year-olds, all of them orphans from institutions, are separately blindfolded and taken to an enormous, mystifying enclosure, consisting of nothing but an endless series of flights of stairs, which is later identified as a prototype "reinforcement center" for training (under Presidential contract) an elite corps of Gestapolike super-plumbers who can be relied upon to follow orders without question and without getting caught. The subjects of course are given no explanation for their abduction or any hint as to what is expected of them, and readers as well learn only gradually that the glowing machine on one landing dispenses food, that they must figure out what sort of behavior on their part will get it to work, that the rules themselves change unpredictably, and at last that it will reward them only when they are cruel to one another. It is at this point that two of the five, a tough rebellious girl and a boy who had seemed cowardly, dependent and dangerously withdrawn, refuse to cooperate -- moving to another landing where they weaken physically while the other three are systematically dehumanized by the machine. Before Lola and Peter can starve quite to death (and, it happens, just as Lola is about to give in) the experiment is terminated by a scientist obviously chagrined by the two "intractables" though he plans to send the other three -- now vicious, untrusting robots -- on for further training. House of Stairs is really more a scenario than a novel and as a scenario it has its vulnerable links -- for example, Lola's instinctive use of positive reinforcement to strengthen Peter's resolve and her assertion to the doctor later that rewards work better than punishments begs the moral/ political question of mind control per se. But Sleater does a masterly job of differentiating and developing his five human subjects, compelling readers to share in the process of their enlightenment, and communicating his ominous conjecture.
Pub Date: April 1st, 1974
ISBN: 0140345809
Page count: 180pp
Publisher: Dutton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1974


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