House of Stairs by William Sleator

House of StairsHouse of Stairs by William Sleator

[Wikipedia entry]

I read this book originally when I was about 11 years old and hadn’t re-read it until just recently. This book has stuck with me through all these years (nearly 30!) and had been the subject on an on-again/off-again search for it for probably the last 20 years. Reading through the other comments on sites like GoodReads and just googling for it, and you’ll see lots of  posts that include “I’ve been looking for this crazy little book for decades!” and the offer of the sketchiest of outlines and someone inevitably responds “Yeah, that’s House of Stairs, by William Sleator.”

Upon reading it again recently, I was worried it would disappoint – as meeting the expectations of so many years would be nearly impossible. However, I was happy and surprised to find myself enjoying it all over again. “Happy” and “enjoying” are odd words to be using in connection with this book — it’s dark in a way few books for teens or pre-teens are. But reading it again was like eating a Sour Patch Kid — at first you’re like “Why am I doing this?” and then you get used to it, and once you’re done, you want it to start all over again.

It’s a strange book, not easily pigeonholed and I find it difficult to specify exactly whom I would recommend it to. Though I suppose that it’s a good thing that this strange, quirky (and subversive) little book exists to be happened upon by some other young teen or pre-teen. I think I can promise it will stick with them.The closest I could come to a description is a sort of neo-Orwellianism mixed with Judy Blume. Yes, it’s that odd.

And I suppose that is why this book has stuck with me the way that it has. This was the first book that I didn’t just read — it was an event that happened to me. Brief as it is (under 200 pages), I was a different boy at the end of it than I was at the beginning. Here were characters a little older than myself at the time, being very adult in some ways, and dealing with something horrific not as children but as human beings. It was dystopian, it was cynical, and it was different than anything else I’d ever read up until then (and many things I’ve read since).

It has a ending that doesn’t really involve a twist or surprise, but in it there is a punch that gets delivered that is the final grace note in the dance the story has been doing on your brain. I’m not sure I could say this odd little book is “perfect” but I can’t imagine a thing you could change or improve in it and still have it pack the same punch.

As for the effect this book has had on me over the years? I’m not sure if it has made me a better or worse person, but I’m pretty sure it made me a more interesting person, and along with the age I was when I read it, is why I started off with this one.

If anyone else remembers this book, I’d be interested to hear about it in the comments.

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