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A lie of the mind - ‘The Institute’

September 10, 2019
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Stephen King’s reputation is that of a master of horror, a writer who plumbs the depths and brings forth supernatural terrors to be confronted and defeated by regular people who have been thrust into irregular circumstances. And that reputation is well-earned.

But make no mistake – King is often at his horrifying best when his villains are ordinary rather than extraordinary. Finding the evil that lurks within the human heart – that’s a skill for which Mr. King doesn’t always get his full due.

Those are the villains in King’s latest novel “The Institute” (Scribner, $30), regular people willing to do unspeakable things simply because they have been told those things are necessary. There’s a timeliness to this book, an of-the-moment quality that also possesses a sense of universality. It is a look at the evil that men do when they believe their cause is just.

But while these villains may not be possessed of paranormal girts, the targets of their villainy certainly are – children. Children, stolen from their homes in the dead of night and confined to an isolated compound, selected for imprisonment and torture so that a shadowy cabal might somehow bring forth the full force of the children’s inexplicable talents.

Luke Ellis is 12 years old. He lives in Minneapolis with loving parents. And he is special. Not “all kids are special” special, either. Special. He’s a genius, a once-in-a-generation mind with a tendency toward autodidacticism whose current teachers have been left in the dust. At their behest, Luke makes plans to enroll in college. Two colleges, actually – MIT for engineering and Emerson to study English.

Oh, and occasionally, when he gets overly excited or anxious, stuff … moves. Plates rattle and doors shut and the like. It’s never very much or for very long, but it happens. That movement – such as it is – is what leads to a team of commandos in a black SUV rolling up to his house in the dead of night, where they kidnap the sleeping boy and remove his parents from the equation.

Luke awakens in his room … only it isn’t his room. At first glance, it appears identical – except there are no windows. And when he opens the door, instead of his home’s upstairs hallway, there’s a grim corridor featuring ridiculous motivational posters and a line of identical doors. Home is no longer Minneapolis. Home is The Institute.

As Luke learns from his fellow prisoners, The Institute is a secret facility devoted to developing the abilities of those children born with telekinetic or telepathic talents. And the staff has no problem doing whatever it takes to these kids to achieve their shadowy goals. There’s some carrot – sweets and candy and even booze and cigarettes – but a whole lot more stick, with kids verbally, emotionally and physically assaulted as motivation. There are weird and painful experiments happening as well.

It all leads to what they call Back Half, where all kids are sent when the doctors and administrators determine that they’re ready. No one knows what goes on in Back Half – they just know that no one ever comes back.

If Luke wants to avoid taking his own one-way trip to Back Half (and maybe save his friends as well), then it’s up to him to focus his genius on one singular task – escape. But there are a lot of people invested in preventing that from happening – many of them evil, but some simply doing a job … and just following orders.

“The Institute” is another strong entry into King’s prolific and ever-more-impressive late-period oeuvre, a continuation of the storytelling ranginess that he’s put on display over the past decade-plus. He’s gleefully veered all over the narrative map, telling tales that are both different than what he’s done before while also absolutely being of a piece with his previous work. It’s astonishing to consider; the surprises keep on coming.

Nobody captures what it means to be a kid quite like Stephen King; so much of his best work seems to deal with adolescents and adolescence to some degree. He evokes not just the complexities of childhood, but also a real sense of the adult a child might grow up to be; it’s a big reason why his books have always resonated with a wide age of readers. Luke and his friends are the latest in a long line of exceptionally-crafted kid characters in King’s work.

King’s certainly no stranger to outsized representations of supernatural terror, but he is also one of our best at digging into the most human aspects of evil. Yes, he has written plenty of demons and monsters, but he has also given us seemingly everyday people who prove willing to become monsters themselves given the right set of circumstances.

THAT’S what’s scariest about “The Institute.” The bad people are just … people. Not evil clowns or demonic shopkeepers or vampires. People. People fanatically devoted to a mission whose details are known to precious few, people with a twist in their soul that makes them unapologetic sadists, people willing to look away from cruelty in the name of a job – but people nonetheless. That’s the terrifying place in which Luke and his friends find themselves, a place disconcertingly familiar in the current climate. These baddies unsettle and discomfit in ways that feel all too real.

All of this, by the way, is packed into one hell of a thriller. King’s plots are unfailingly propulsive; the manner in which he unfurls his stories compels the reader’s consumption to an almost-greedy degree. And the settings he creates are exquisitely vivid; he evokes place with an easy, immersive grace. “The Institute” is no different; it’s a wild ride endowed with that elusive “just one more chapter” quality that the most readable fiction has and that few authors can reliably create.

“The Institute” is more outstanding fiction from our greatest storyteller. It is a book of the moment in ways both large and small, a thoughtful and thought-provoking tale that is exquisite in its anger and steadfast in its hopefulness. Narratively powerful and thematically challenging, “The Institute” accepts and explores the notion that the greatest evils often appear not from outside humanity, but from within.

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 September 2019 13:58

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