House of Stairs by William Sleator (1974) 166 p.


A short, engaging YA novel from the 1970s about five teenagers who find themselves imprisoned in an inescapable and inexplicable Escher-like construct, enslaved to a machine which dispenses food, slowly turning on each other. Unlike the movie Cell, of which this will no doubt remind many modern readers, the cause and purpose of the teenagers’ predicament is revealed in the conclusion. It’s very much a book of its era, with shades of the Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment and MKUltra – the unethical psychological salad days of the 1960s and ’70s.

I thought I’d read this as a kid but I think it was actually a collection of Sleator’s short stories; I have very strong memories of The Elevator. Between that story and House of Stairs… well, y’know, I’m not an eggshell Tumblr type, but I’ll crack this word out in earnest for the first time in my life and call Sleator fatphobic. He portrays obese people not merely as physically unappealing, but as actively evil and malevolent, and does so with tedious regularity. I started playing armchair psychologist and trying to figure out why, settling on the idea that maybe he came to associate obesity with greed and privilege during Britain’s wartime rationing days, but it turns out he was American. Which is strange, because his fiction feels very fundamentally British in a way I can’t put my finger on. Possibly his writing style reminds me of some of Roald Dahl’s short horror stories. Anyway, aside from Sleator wearing his prejudice on his sleeve, this was a quick and decent YA psychological horror read.