Monday 16 September 2019

The Institute by Stephen King: Suffer the children from the evils of their elders

Horror: The Institute

Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, 480 pages, €14.99

Stephen King, now in his 70s, hasn’t lost any of his narrative skills, his sense of pacing, or his gift for creating memorable characters
Stephen King, now in his 70s, hasn’t lost any of his narrative skills, his sense of pacing, or his gift for creating memorable characters
The Institute by Stephen King

John Boland

Stephen King's scary and disturbing new novel, which mainly concerns the cruelties inflicted by dark forces on gifted children, begins innocently enough with disillusioned Florida ex-cop Tim Jamieson accepting a monetary offer to relinquish his plane seat and hitching a ride instead to South Carolina, where on a whim he ends up in the town of Dupray.

There he befriends the local sheriff and accepts the job of night knocker, which means checking on houses and business premises after hours - basically, as Tim reflects, acting as "a beat cop circa 1954, only without a gun or even a nightstick".

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And while nothing much happens in this sleepy backwater, the politely watchful Tim is an intriguing character and we sense there's more to him than meets the eye.

But we're only 30 pages into a 480-page story and we don't encounter Tim again for another 300 pages, at which late point he reappears as a pivotal figure in the lives and fates of the book's other main characters, whether victims or villains.

In the meantime we're in the company of 12-year-old Luke Ellis, a preternaturally gifted boy whose brain, a school guidance counsellor tells Luke's mother, is "a huge, gleaming machine that's running at only two per cent of its capacity" and thus needs far more stimulation than the school can provide.

Others know about him, too, and one night Luke is abducted from his suburban Minneapolis home by kidnappers who murder his parents before whisking him off to a secret facility in Maine, where he finds himself locked up with similarly gifted children.

From this point on, the book may become too upsetting for some readers, with Luke and his fellow captives subjected to all sorts of abuse, both physical and psychological, by their monstrous masters, who inflict various gruelling tests to see if they're telepathic or telekinetic or both and if their talents can be used to help create a sinister new world order.

Luke, though, is more resilient and resourceful than his captors have envisaged and, with the help of a disaffected ageing employee, he plots his escape, which brings Tim Jamieson back into the story - though to say more would be to spoil things for readers. King, after all, is a master of suspense.

He's also something of a wonder, with almost 60 novels and 200 short stories to his name - starting with Carrie in 1973, which was actually the then 26-year-old's fourth novel, though the first to be published. That, of course, was made into the brilliant 1976 movie, directed by Brian de Palma and starring Sissy Spacek as the ­telekinetic heroine, and indeed for many King is better known for the movie adaptations of his work than for the books from which they came - certainly far more people have seen The ­Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me and Misery than have read the originals.

And when it comes to these adaptations, there have been none better than David Cronenberg's underrated 1984 version of The Dead Zone, with Christopher Walken using his telepathic gifts to thwart the rise of far-right populist politician Martin Sheen; or the splendid recent two seasons of Mr Mercedes, starring Brendan Gleeson, which was equally underrated and little seen, except by RTÉ2 viewers.

But these screen versions shouldn't distract us from the fact that the books themselves are the work of a master storyteller, though too often disparaged by sniffy critics who equate popularity with lack of seriousness - such academic Harold Bloom deploring them from his Yale University ivory tower as worse than penny dreadfuls to be devoured only by the semi-literate masses.

They're certainly not that, and The Institute is proof that King, who's now in his 70s, hasn't lost any of his narrative skills, his sense of pacing, or his gift for creating memorable characters - the facility's administrator, Mrs Sigsby, is an especially chilling creation, while Luke's fellow inmate, 14-year-old Kalisha, is a spirited and lovely friend in need, especially as the going gets even crueller for both of them.

You may not want to read about children in distress, especially when depicted so unsparingly as here, but Luke is so vividly realised that you put your trust in his resolve and in his ability to see things through, and when Tim reappears as the only adult capable of doing what's right, you may well feel justified in breathing a sigh of relief - even if nothing remains certain almost right up to the end.

This unsettling story of a global conspiracy and how it seeks to use the innocent in furtherance of its goals encompasses both horror and the supernatural, but the author never loses sight of his young characters, their humanity and their determination to escape their intended fate.

Already I can envisage the movie version, though what it really cries out for is a cable series in which the nuances of the plot and the quirks of its characters can be properly explored.

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