It is easy to downplay the craft of a Stephen King novel. Perpetual best-sellers, the Maine author’s works jump from the page to the screen with regularity, and despite their brick-like bulk (his new work weighs in at 576 pages), their pop culture appeal suggests something easy or cheap, the fictional equivalent of pablum.
What often gets overlooked is the skill behind the story, the details that make King’s books so compulsively readable. Because, yes, his latest, “The Institute,” is another winner: creepy and touching and horrifyingly believable, all at once.
The set-up is simple. Twelve-year-old Luke Ellis wakes to find himself not in his own bedroom, but in a near-perfect replica of it. He’s been taken to an isolated compound – seemingly part hospital, part dorm – where he finds himself in the company of other kidnapped children. Though they come from different backgrounds around the country and range in age from approximately 10 to 16, they all have demonstrated various levels of telekinesis or telepathy, and it soon becomes clear that their captors are seeking to expand these paranormal skills through a series of painful and disorienting medical experiments.
These procedures, which might be better described as torture, aren’t the worst part of their captivity, however. As Luke’s new friend Kalisha explains, they are only in the “front half” of the place she’s dubbed “the Institute.” After an unspecified amount of time, the abductees all disappear into the “back half” and are never seen again. As Kalisha explains, “Back Half’s like the Roach Motel – kids check in, but they don’t check out. Not to here, anyway.”
Her casual description of the looming unknown is emblematic of what makes King’s writing, and this book, so effective. Although Luke, Kalisha, and 10-year-old Avery – a powerful telepath whom Kalisha and Luke befriend – have superhuman powers, they’re just American kids, using pop culture references and slang to describe the indescribable. A newcomer with dyed hair is nicknamed “Punk Rock Girl,’ while Avery’s powers are described as “the real deal, like in a science fiction movie.”
Left to their own devices between the various experiments, they tease and fight and flirt – and worry about what might be to come. What makes their plight more touching still are the descriptions of the ordinary angst that surfaces even as they try to cope with the unthinkable – everyday troubles such as the biting flies on the playground or the ache of an unrequited crush.
But while the folks in charge might have seen Kalisha kiss Luke, what they don’t realize is that in addition to his relatively weak telekinetic powers, Luke is a genius. And so, between the injections and the near-drownings, the corporal punishment and the mind games, he sets his powerful brain to figuring out not only how to escape and save his new friends, but what the Institute’s master plan involves.
In some ways, “The Institute” reads like a re-working of “Firestarter” for our times. As in King’s 1980 blockbuster, a shady government organization experiments on humans, essentially exposing and amplifying latent psychic powers. In both books, the powers in children grow to the point where the government organization – the Shop in the first book, the Institute here – can no longer control them. It’s a wonderful analogy for the arms race, one that still resonates: when we mess with nature, we may unleash monsters. In “The Institute,” it is also an explicit warning to tyrants.
And in both books, the seemingly powerless – specifically children – are pushed too far. When they rise up, the results are messy. In “The Institute,” the political moment is referenced directly. During a key moment, Kalisha recalls “the old, faded Hillary Clinton sticker on the back of her mom’s Subaru. It said STRONGER TOGETHER.” “Of course that was how it worked,” she realizes.
The ultimate solution to governmental outreach, in the earlier book, was public exposure. In “The Institute” – and in Trump’s America, King appears to be saying – that isn’t necessarily the case, as the government has either grown too powerful for the usual checks and balances or is simply immune to shame.
Instead, King’s denouement proceeds through several stages. As Kalisha, Luke, and Avery come to understand, the imprisoned children must forge a community: first, among themselves, as they learn to look beyond some very real differences, and later with sympathetic adults as allies.
And these days it will also take more than a band of like-minded civilians to take down an inhumane government agency. Following a fast, very bloody, and rather funny face-off (which plays the NRA trope of “a good guy with a gun” to its logical extreme) Luke works to find another way around the seemingly omnipotent Institute. The result is a conclusion that plays out logically, with every possibility considered. It is also a tad long-winded. It’s always lovely to have more of a King novel to read, but this one could have lost some pages as Luke’s detailed and thoughtful plan plays out.
That’s a minor complaint for a major work, however. The vast bulk of “The Institute” is essential – plot and characterization working hand-in-hand to create an intimate picture of horror.
The only other extras are King’s little zingers. Some are political: A kindly, determined librarian is hauling books for her library, which has no funds. “Trump and his cronies took it all back,” she says. “They understand culture no more than a donkey understands algebra.” Others are self-referential: Two newcomers, identical twins, “reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie” – a shout-out to “The Shining,” obviously (although there are no twin girls in King’s book).
Such sly humor is best enjoyed in a work’s original form, even if “The Institute,” like so many of King’s best works, is fated to find its way into popular consciousness through the screen.
By Stephen King
Scribner, 576 pp., $30
Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “A Spell of Murder.” She can be reached at CleaSimon.com.