America in the distant future is a Crapsack World with little room to live, hardly any food to eat and even less to go around for the disadvantaged. Five sixteen-year-old orphans are abducted and relocated to a house filled with nothing but sets of endless staircases, a landing with running water and a flashing machine that forces them to play mind games for food. None of them know the reasons behind being put in the House of Stairs, and the machine forces them to perform acts of escalating cruelty upon one another. Their escape hinges upon being able to divine what they can about their circumstances and the motives of their captors.
House of Stairs provides examples of:
- Bittersweet Ending: Peter and Lola have been released from the House, are recovering from their ordeal, and their rejection of the experiment has at least slowed it down. However, the results will be studied to create a newer, more effective setting. And the other three kids are not only severely traumatized, but are still following the programming instilled by the experiment, immediately going into their "dance" routine when they see a traffic light that is too similar to the flashing lights of the food machine.
- Blank White Void: The setting of the House itself is mainly a big white void filled with stairs that lead nowhere.
- Conveniently an Orphan: All five of the main characters are orphans. Justified in that the government specifically took teenagers from orphanages so they wouldn't run into as many legal/missing persons issues.
- Crapsack World: The food that comes out of the machine is actually cooked meat, but most of the teenagers describe it as "brown pellets" because none of them, save Blossom, who had come from a wealthy background before being orphaned, had ever even seen or heard of eating meat before.
- Lola tells the others how, after stealing a car that breaks down, she had to keep ducking back into the stopped vehicle for a breath of filtered air so she wouldn't expire from the pollution before the highway police rounded her up.
- Love Makes You Evil: Though Abigail starts out as a kind, sweet person, her attraction to Oliver gives him power over her, and ends up just as warped as the others at the end of the novel. Averted for Peter, when Oliver tries to do the same for him.
- Ontological Mystery: None of the characters know how or why they were taken to the house of stairs, or what the whole purpose of them being there might even be.
- Shown Their Work: Sleator clearly did at least basic research on psychological conditioning.
- Super Soldier: The ultimate purpose of the mental conditioning the House provides.
- Either that, or Super Secret Police. The experiment cultivated cruelty rather than strength, after all.
- Unwitting Test Subject: The characters are part of an experiment.
- You All Meet in a Cell: These are the circumstances of the book in a nutshell.
- Zeerust: The depiction of the food machine as a giant metal box with flashing lights and beeping sounds is quite retro by today's standards.