AS a teenager, I discovered Stephen King and that in turn, initiated me into my lifelong passion of armchair travelling. Of course, the adventures I took with King in my mind were a lot more terrifying.
Within every frightening tale about a shape-shifting killer clown, homicidal father in a haunted hotel, a horrifying vampire who descends upon an unsuspecting small town or a strange super flu that rapidly depopulates the planet, the relentlessly prolific writer has filled his pages with equally powerful supplies of strength, selflessness and even hope. That may be why so many readers, many of whom discovered his books when they were kids themselves, have remained loyal for over 45 years of storytelling.
I remember keeping the lights on at night after reading one of King’s novels. I also moved my bed away from the window after reading Salem’s Lot. Nope, NOT going to have some boy vampire scratching the window pane asking to be let in. King does that to you.
Some of his most unsettling antagonists were frighteningly human-size: the blocked writer sliding into delusions of grandeur and domestic violence; the fan possessed to the point of madness by someone else’s fiction; the bullied teenager made homicidal by the cruelty of her peers.
We can see something of ourselves in these characters, and recognise in them our own capacity for evil. That makes his stories absolutely terrifying. What makes his stories work, however, is the fact that normal people with no discernible talents or abilities can rise up and face such mind-blowing terrors despite their deepest fears.
His heroes are often humble or apparently weak: children, working-class stiffs, abused women, the poor, the disabled and the overlooked — people who must summon the courage to fight back against seemingly impossible odds. We see ourselves in them too. Through his stories, King has constantly shown us that humankind has a profound capacity to do good or evil. The choice, he writes, is ours.
“I wanted to write about how weak people can be strong,” King said in a recent interview. “We’re each on our own island, and at the same time sometimes we can yell at each other and get together, and there is that sense of community and empathy. I love that. I love that in stories.”
The 72-year-old King’s latest offering however showcases terror of a different kind. The Institute contains no ghosts, no vampires, no metamorphosing diabolical entities or invaders from other dimensions intent on tormenting innocent children.
But there’s the usual trope — brave albeit terrified children with supernatural abilities pitted against a bunch of middle-management automatons, headhunted from the US military or plucked from well-paid careers. In a nutshell, innocent children are tormented in The Institute, but the people who do it are much like you and me.
GOOD VERSUS EVIL
The concept for The Institute isn’t new where King is concerned. He had depicted similar psychic characters in books such as Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter and The Dead Zone. Longtime King fans will recognise similarities between the Institute and the Shop, an organisation that first appeared in King's 1980 novel Firestarter.
In fact, King usually borrows certain tropes and storylines from much of his previous writings. The Institute is a tale delineating a troubling separation between children and the adult world, one that evokes images of Carrie White (Carrie), Danny Torrance (The Shining), Jack Sawyer (The Talisman), and Tyler Marshall (Black House).
The Institute begins in DuPray, South Carolina, far from the eventual centre of the narrative. King quickly introduces us to the town and its denizens, chief among them Tim Jamieson, a roving former policeman who’ll play a vital role in the dramas to come.
The action then shifts to Minneapolis and to the home of the novel’s protagonist, 12-year-old Luke Ellis. Luke is a bona fide, off-the-charts genius who possesses a minor talent for telekinesis. The story begins in earnest when thugs invade Luke’s home, kill his parents and carry him off to the dark destination of the novel’s title.
The adults who run the Institute subject Luke and his compatriots — all of whom have telekinetic abilities — to unexplained experiments, ranging from the innocuous to the uncomfortable, to the existentially terrifying: injections; flickering lights; blood samples; MRIs; and, worst of all, dunkings to the verge of drowning in a tank of water.
If the children comply, they get tokens good for treats from vending machines that offer snacks, booze and cigarettes. If they resist, they’re beaten or tased. After a few weeks, most of them will be transferred to the Back Half, a part of the Institute shrouded in rumour. No child ever comes back from the Back Half.
Those shady authority figures see their actions as noble as they believe that they have ultimately “saved the world from nuclear holocaust over five hundred times”; thus, kidnapping and torturing children in order to “awaken” their abilities is justified even though it ultimately leads to those children’s deaths.
At its core, The Institute is indeed a story of good versus evil, children versus adults, the haves versus the have-nots, but there are clear motivations behind the actions of each character, and these motivations turn the “hinges” that drive the events of the story.
The aforesaid “hinges” is King’s most compelling axiom which comes just a first few pages into the story, when King’s narrator remarks that “great events turn on small hinges.”
The Institute’s plotline runs along that significant phrase. Small deeds, choices we make and the paths we choose ultimately make a significant difference. For the protagonists, Tim and Luke, those minor actions would eventually serve as critical turning points for greater (although not necessarily “better” or even “good”) outcomes.
The harrowing book is a reminder of why I’d keep buying all of King’s books, including duds like The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher. Every single story — no matter how bizarre (and sometimes downright silly) his plot may be — has the ability to serve up an engaging narrative that keeps you turning the page. While I may not search under the bed for monsters after reading his latest book, there’s more than enough true-to-life villains in there to keep me awake at night.
Author: Stephen King
Available at all major bookstores.