With his latest book 'The Institute', Stephen King remains pleasingly committed to the unusual
He is one of our time's most influential authors and, at 72, he continues to find enthralling stories to tell
Before Stephen King’s 61st novel, his fifth in two years, was published, he remarked that “creative life is absurdly short. I want to cram in as much as I can”. There is something cheering about one of the most suspenseful, entertaining and influential authors of the late 20th and early 21st century – a man who has sold more copies of his books than there are people in the US (about 330 million) – continuing to find enthralling stories to tell at the age of 72.
There’s more than a hint of Stranger Things throughout the book, although admittedly that in turn was influenced by King’s bibliography
Whether that means there is the same commitment to quality control, to breaking new ground, to telling the kinds of stories that are relevant in 2019, is up for debate. With the best will in the world, King is not in his purple patch of the 1970s, a decade during which he brought us Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining.
Certainly, on first inspection, the tropes of The Institute – a child with telekinetic powers, small-town America, malevolently powerful forces – are comfortingly familiar and, at the same time, slightly old hat. As always, there’s plenty of evidence that King remains a master storyteller as he expertly fashions a compelling, thrilling narrative, but whether it actually does much more than gently intrigue readers in the way you’d expect a King novel to do is a moot point.
The Institute is the setting for much of the plot – a strange complex run by an even stranger government-backed organisation that has abducted Luke Ellis, 12, and executes his parents along the way, just to emphasise their badness. All the other residents are children with telekinetic or telepathic abilities and they are subjected to various appalling experiments.
If they are meekly compliant, they earn tokens for vending machines. If they aren’t, well, this is a horror story of sorts. No one has escaped the Institute and its director, the satisfyingly evil Mrs Sigsby, believes the inmates should regard themselves as true American heroes.
The reason for their detention is unclear to the children, who are promised they will be returned to their families in the end. They know, however, that this is an (un)likely story. We slowly find out the Institute’s real purpose, and while it’s both interesting and predictably horrific, this isn’t a book concerned with dealing out big reveals.
Instead, King is clearly asking his readers to consider how people working for organisations committing monstrous wrongs against children can overlook that in favour of the “greater good”. “Keeping the world safe for democracy was secondary,” says one believer. “Keeping it safe full stop was primary.”
King argued that The Institute was written before Donald Trump became US president, but there’s a chilling similarity in the actions of the Institute’s staff and those policing the camps housing migrants who tried to cross the US-Mexico border, centres that have become such a humanitarian concern in the past 12 months.
The former police officer we meet at the beginning of the novel, Tim Jamieson, muses that peace and freedom bought with the suffering of innocent children is not much of a freedom at all and while there aren’t the gasp-out-loud moments of horror – there’s no hand reaching from the grave a la Carrie – the gradual slip into inhumanity is almost more sickening and scary.
King makes good points about the easy cruelty of unchecked power. But the slightly clunky way he combines the stories of Jamieson (who seems to be in the novel primarily so King can delve once more into backwater America) and Luke, pitting them against the authorities, requires a lot of faith in the story. You need faith in humanity, too, which is perhaps the point. In the end, Luke represents King’s more hopeful view of a decent world.
There’s more than a hint of Stranger Things throughout the book, although admittedly that in turn was influenced by King’s bibliography, as well as X-Men, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go and a lot of King’s early work. Although he makes it incredibly easy to compare The Institute with some of his classics – despite it not quite matching up – there’s a lot to enjoy as the tension mounts towards the inevitable confrontation between the forces of good and evil.
“I don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with here,” says Jamieson as he considers the lot of both Luke and Mrs Sigsby. “But I know it’s something extraordinary.”
That is almost true of King’s late career, too. We might know what to expect these days, but there’s still a pleasing commitment to the unusual.
Updated: October 10, 2019 06:31 PM