So here’s the plotline. Five young men and women – all orphaned – wake up in a room unlike any other. Staircases that go long distances to nowhere. And a red food machine that will only dispense nutrients if the teenagers perform specific gestures.
Forget Hunger Games or Twilight or any of the other dystopian young adult novels out there. This book, House of Stairs, will mess with your mind and really affect your thought.
I read House of Stairs as a teenager. The book is quickly paced and, for all intents and purposes, forces its characters into this weird behavioral science experiment. They are trapped in a chamber that offers no escape – similar to if M.C. Escher was your architect – and to get any sort of food, they must perform various tasks – and, upon the completion of these tasks, they will receive sustenance from a mechanical food dispenser.
Essentially, these kids are the Pavlovian control dogs, and the food machine is an elaborate Skinner box. And the way this book is written – very simple phrasing, easily understandable concepts and developed characters – draws you into the story and keeps you there throughout.
But before long, the machine changes its control mechanism, as it no longer responds to the teens’ original methods of food rewards, and instead will only provide food in return for arguments. The teens slowly turn on each other, with arguments and violence between them.
Eventually, the final chapter reveals that the entire experience for the five teens was a social experiment in behavioral modification. Essentially, the teens were forced not only to change their emotional interactions and free will – but they also eventually accepted this as both normal and benevolent. This is Lord of the Flies level stuff, people.
And the thing is … nearly 50 years later, this book’s plotlines and concepts still resonate today. Look at our politics and government right now. It’s existing on conflict and chaos. We’ve slowly developed from one nation indivisible to everyone for themselves.
And my earlier reference to Pavlovian dogs? Pavlov would put dogs in electrified cages and shock the cage walls and floors, causing the dogs to leap and bark in pain. But eventually, the repeated shocks would have a lesser effect on the dogs, who would simply lay on the cage floors and accept the shocks – whether willingly or unwillingly.
Trust me. This is what we’re dealing with in the news today. Look at the news cycle. It’s conflicted and it’s vulgar and it’s frightening. It’s House of Stairs, 45 years after the book was originally published. Yikes.
But yeah, this needs to be made into a movie. The special effects technology is available today, of course. Just find the right actors to play Peter, Lola, Blossom, Abigail and Oliver… this could definitely work. Trust me on this.