As a long-time fan of Stephen King’s works I suffered a few disappointments in the past handful of years, at times wondering if he had lost some of the… special powers that made his books so compelling in the past. Something of the old vigor seemed to have returned with the previously published book, The Outsider, although that too fell a little short of the mark, at least for me, but reading his latest creation, The Institute, I realized I was witnessing the long awaited… Return of the King 🙂 The main reason, from my point of view, is that once again Stephen King chose not to delve into supernatural horror, although he does that quite well, but to explore the kind that comes from the darkest corners of the human soul: what we, as humans, are capable of once compassion and empathy are removed, is indeed much more terrifying than any fictional vampire or clown-shaped evil entity.
The Institute starts with one of those themes King does so well, a small town background in which former cop Tim Jamieson lands after leaving his old job and starting an aimless peregrination through the country: the city of DuPray is one of those creations we often encountered – with different names – in many of Stephen King’s stories, a small community where everyone knows everyone else and the interpersonal dynamics are built on equally well-known figures like an older, world-wise sheriff; a shifty motel manager; a possibly crazy old lady who hides unexpected depths; and so on. Despite this stagnant, somnolent tableau, one can feel the mounting dread, almost like the sound of approaching thunder, and it would be easy to imagine that whatever is going to happen, will happen here, shattering DuPray’s day-by-day sameness.
Instead we are surprised by an abrupt change of perspective (at least for a good portion of the book) as the focus moves toward twelve-year old Luke Ellis, a boy gifted with extraordinary intelligence and such a balanced disposition that he’s not isolated as many geniuses are, but rather knows how to successfully integrate his cleverness with any kind of social situation. But Luke is special in another way: he possesses some telekinetic powers – not much, just enough to move a pizza pan or to ruffle a book’s pages, but evidently enough to catch the attention of a shady governmental agency. One night a team infiltrates Luke’s house, kills both his parents and kidnaps him. When Luke wakes up from his drugged sleep he finds himself in a room that mirrors his own, apart from the missing window and the fact that the door opens on a corridor with many other similar doors and a few motivational posters depicting happy children at play.
The Institute, located in a remote area of Maine, has been in operation since the mid-fifties, acquiring gifted children in the same, merciless way as Luke was: the prisoners’ talents in telepathy or telekinesis are enhanced through injections with often unpredictable after-effects or sheer torture – like the near-drowning in the dreaded tank – and the new arrivals placed in the first section of the compound, called Front Half, are then moved to the Back Half, from which they never return. Children are told they are serving their country and that once their stint at the Institute is over they will be returned to their families after a mind-wipe that will erase all memories of their experience – and if we readers know what bare-faced lie this is, many of the kids have already learned not to trust these adults who treat them so callously and to doubt anything they are told, despite their desperate need to believe it.
This novel offers a story in which tension builds with each new chapter, leading with page-turning intensity toward a massive showdown, and as such it’s a very satisfying read that to me brought back the excitement I used to find in older King works, but where it truly excels is in the exploration of the human soul in both its brightest and darkest sides. The former comes from the children, who are forced to grow up very quickly in the face of the situation they find themselves in, creating bonds with each other that go beyond any consideration of gender, race or temperament: they are all victims here, aware that a ruthless machine they have no control over is using them, chewing them up and then discarding whatever remains. Deprived of their freedom and their dignity (at some point one of their captors uses the word property) they try to cling to whatever form of defiance is allowed them, while dealing with the incredible, often terrifying powers that have been wakened in them. I admired the way Stephen King never resorts to easy sentimentalism when portraying these kids, even when they are faced with heart-wrenching circumstances or unbearable losses, which lends an incredibly powerful intensity to a key moment when one of those children chooses sacrifice for the good of others, the last thought in that young mind being “I loved having friends”. I am not ashamed to say that the sentence made me cry, such was my connection with these wonderful characters.
On the other side of the equation, the adults managing the Institute are a case in point for what happens to one’s conscience when the perception of a supposedly worthy goal makes them stop caring for collateral damage: the abducted children are seen as a means to an end – preventing the annihilation of the human race – and as such they must be driven to serve, whether they want it or not. If the people in the top echelon of the Institute are imbued with such blind zealotry and deal with the children with dispassionate practicality, the lower ranks are another matter: many of them actually enjoy hurting their young charges when they don’t obey orders or refuse to submit to painful and dangerous procedures. Even though it’s never expressed openly, the parallel with concentration camps guards is there for everyone to see, the dehumanizing of the victims and the unwillingness to see them as people – there is a painfully lucid reflection from Luke Ellis that paints this divide in no uncertain terms:
Luke realized he wasn’t a child at all to her. She had made some crucial separation in her mind. He was a test subject. You made it do what you wanted, and if it didn’t, you administered what the psychologists called negative reinforcement. And when the tests were over? You went down to the break room for coffee and danish and talked about your own kids (who were real kids) or bitched about politics, sports, whatever.
Once again, King paints children as both victims and heroes, and this time they don’t battle with supernatural evil but with an earthly kind of wickedness that’s even more terrifying because it’s a part of the human mindset, one that might lie dormant but can be all too easily reawakened given the right input. The Institute is at times a hard book to read, but it’s one that compels you to think, and to think hard about what makes us human and what can rob us of that oh-so-thin veneer of compassion toward our own kind. And it’s also a story that made me delight in the return of the narrative strength I so enjoyed in the past from this author.