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Remembering William Sleator's Haunting Tales

Petra Mayer is an associate producer and director for the weekend editions ofAll Things Considered.

Children's author William Sleator died last week at the age of 66.

He'd written more than 30 books — the best-known was probably House of Stairs, a terrifying vision of a dystopian future where five teenagers are thrown together in a strange house and slowly conditioned to turn on each other.

But House of Stairs was actually too upsetting for me as a kid — to this day I've never finished it. The Sleator book I read over and over until the cover almost wore off was Interstellar Pig.

I can't remember who first gave me a copy. But I do remember that the book consumed me for most of the fall of 1984. I was 9 years old, and up to that point I'd mostly been reading Little House books and safe, if depressing Newbery Medal winners (Island of the Blue Dolphins, I'm looking at you).

Interstellar Pig was something different: first wacky, then menacing, then nightmare-inducing. Sixteen-year old Barney is stuck at his parents' boring summer rental cottage with nothing to do until a trio of quirky neighbors moves in, bearing a board game called Interstellar Pig.

Over the course of the book, Barney discovers that his neighbors are aliens, the board game is actually horrifyingly real, and he has inadvertently been entered in the game as a human contestant who must solve the mystery of the titular Piggy to save the world.

William Sleator wrote science-fiction and fantasy books aimed at young adults. He died last week.
/ Courtesy of Jason Wells
William Sleator wrote science-fiction and fantasy books aimed at young adults. He died last week.

And oh, did I mention, the aliens next door have probably done away with Barney's parents?

Of course, the world doesn't end ... Sleator's vision was never that grim. But at the end of Interstellar Pig, I knew things weren't going to be the same. Barney was changed and probably damaged by his encounter with the aliens next door, in a way I'd never seen before.

That was a common theme in Sleator's writing, says his brother Tycho. "There's a certain technique that he used in a lot of the books, where he took some kind of supernatural thing and assumed it existed ... and the rest of the thing is the human interaction, how does that affect [the character's] life."

William Sleator was born in 1945, in Havre de Grace, Md. He was extremely close to his brothers and sister, whom he often used as characters in his books — Tycho, now a physics professor, was the inspiration for the title character in 1981's The Green Futures of Tycho.

Some of his earliest efforts at writing were aimed at entertaining his siblings. Younger brother Danny recalls a song about the horrors of being made to eat peas, with a chorus that went, "Why should I, a boy of ten, be made to suffer again and again?"

He was a musician as well as an author, supporting himself for a time as the piano accompanist to the Boston Ballet until he was able to make a living from storytelling. In recent years, he'd been dividing his time between the United States and his second home in Thailand.

Sleator is survived by his father and brothers Danny and Tycho. His longtime companion Paul Peter Rhode died in 1999, and a second companion, Siang Chitsa-Ard, in 2008.

He was writing until the end — his latest and last book, The Phantom Limb, is set for release in October.

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