Déjà vu Destroyed: On Stephen King’s “The Institute”

“YOU’VE BEEN HERE before.” Stephen King writes these four simple words at the beginning of Needful Things, the “last” Castle Rock story in King’s ever-expanding body of work, and, at first glance, these same words could just have easily been imprinted on the first page of his newest novel, The Institute. Indeed, the book’s front flap suggests that The Institute is another link in the growing chain of King’s literary universe: “As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good versus evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.”
Aggressive foreshadowing aside (particularly as King begins with an epigraph from Judges in which a “good guy,” Samson, kills himself for a purportedly greater purpose), I will admit that when I first read the synopsis of this story, I was concerned. My initial impression was that King had decided to merely revisit a key idea from his Dark Tower series — that children with special “talents” would be exploited in order to facilitate the end of the world. Again, the dustjacket failed to convince me otherwise, and, yes, while King does selectively borrow from much of his previous writing, The Institute ultimately holds up well as an original and enjoyable text. The pages almost turn themselves, the descriptions facilitate rather than dominate the imagination, and King even elicits tears as we follow new characters — Tim Jamieson, a retired police officer, and Luke Ellis, a child genius — from far corners of the United States to their eventual meeting in a small South Carolina town.
To put it bluntly, first impressions are cheap. As advertised, 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). While I admit that King recycles certain tropes and scenarios in his latest work, the results are nevertheless new and vibrant. Perhaps the most compelling axiom of The Institute comes just a few pages into the story, when King’s narrator remarks that “[g]reat events turn on small hinges.” This comment initially refers to the actions of the first character to whom we are introduced, Tim Jamieson, whose simple, spur-of-the-moment decision to give up his seat on a flight to New York might eventually (we suspect) lead to some sort of critically important plot element not wholly revealed until later in the story. While not necessarily a masterful maneuver in terms of plotting, King nonetheless lays the groundwork for the nuanced webs of action and consequence that comprise this engaging narrative.
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. For example, the employees of the titular Institute kidnap and imprison children with exceptional abilities — telekinesis and telepathy — for a nefarious clandestine operation. The adults running the Institute see their actions are 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 (a perverted take on the claim that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”). Despite the easily identifiable evil of these antagonists, King exhibits a keen understanding that simply pitting mean, evil adults against innocent children is hardly sophisticated; the adults cannot, and should not, merely be deluded, unstable, cliché, or even sociopathic. As such, King is careful to adhere to the novel’s principle that minor actions often serve as critical turning points for greater (although not necessarily “better” or even “good”) outcomes.
To be certain, at times King goes for the easy emotional reactions, noting early on, for example, that “it’s always the nice ones who get hit with the shit” — but again, he is ultimately careful to make sure that The Institute is far from a pity party that elicits easy emotions. When Luke Ellis first arrives at The Institute, for example, he is almost immediately subjected to the pain and torture that is commonplace within these frightening walls: one of the “caretakers” slaps Luke across the face when he initially refuses to have a tracking device placed onto his earlobe, remarking casually, “That hurt a lot more than an earlobe pinch. […] Want another? Happy to oblige. You kids who think you own the world.” These words suggest that not only do these “caretakers” enjoy hurting children, but also that they have reasons for inflicting such abuse. In this case, the nod toward the generational gap — “you kids” — and the subsequent disdain for children’s fear suggests a deeply embedded belief that those who run The Institute know what is “right” because of their age and life experiences. As such, the pain inflicted upon the children becomes, to the caretakers, a matter of necessity, or an adherence to a twisted interpretation of (automatic) respect for elders. Such an attitude, though twisted, indicates that there is more at play than simply a sadistic drive to hurt children.
A clearer and more compelling argument for King’s laudable and revealing development of his despicable adult characters, and the subsequent horrors they perpetrate, occurs in a description of one specific caretaker, Corinne Rawson: “She knew the kiddos called her Corinne the Slapper, and that was okay. She had been slapped plenty in the Reno trailer park where she had grown up, and the way she looked at it, what goes around comes around. Plus, it was for a good cause. What you called your basic win-win situation.”
Corinne’s perspective sounds at first like something my father told me as a child: “If someone hits you, hit them back … and twice as hard.” Although my father did not advocate violence or even revenge, he saw himself as a proponent of justice — but he also knew that true justice requires more than a basic (or even vapid) understanding of the events at hand. What he wanted me to know was that, yes, sometimes the good ones get hit with shit, but that does not mean you have to sit idly by while the feces piles up around your ankles. In other words, his approach to justice was anything but a simple formula, despite the seemingly simplistic thrust of his words. For Corinne and the rest of the adults at The Institute, however, their understanding of the world and the charges for whom they “care” is a very simple formula: they are in the “right,” and their past experiences form the small hinges upon which great and disturbing events turn. These subtle insights into the adults within The Institute slowly and methodically propel readers toward a greater sense of animosity for injustice than they may have held before reading the novel, rather than promoting simplistic rhetoric for the sake of a cheap sale.
King’s layered approach to the conflicted morality of The Institute’s adult world contrasts with his endearing treatment of these same turning points within his child characters. Although it may be a stretch to say, for example, that allusions to Auschwitz throughout The Institute (such as the phrase Arbeit macht frei [“Work Will Set You Free”]) are “endearing,” King is careful to only point toward compassion and concern for the children of whom he writes instead of engaging in insipid didacticism. King never resorts to maudlin sentiment and instead carefully places enough breadcrumbs throughout the story for even the most cold-hearted reader to follow, leading them to feel both horror and compassion for children denied happiness and comfort. To that end, the children of The Institute have only one another to help navigate their ruined, violent youth, and there are only a few small moments of normalcy. Friendships form, above all else, out of necessity, helping the children to survive and endure their imprisonment, but even something as small as a kind gesture creates notable ripples. The final pages of The Institute, for example, depict a critical scene in which several imprisoned children band together to tap into their special talents to facilitate a revolution of sorts, allowing others to escape. While readers may not be surprised at what comes next — the sacrifice of a child, one Avery Dixon, to aid his compatriots’ escape efforts — King is nevertheless masterful with his delicate handling of Avery’s death. There is no drawn out recounting of Avery’s heroics, no emotional premonitions regarding the lives that Avery will effectively save, and no overt appeal to the reader to blindly cherish Avery’s selflessness. Rather, King uses just four words to end the scene, four words that turn the story toward its conclusion and that beautifully capture the motivations of a small, scared child who knew very little in the way of kindness until he was brought to The Institute, where bullying and domination from the adults became tolerable because of one small hinge: “I loved having friends.”
To think that a child would willingly sacrifice his life in gratitude for the small kindnesses that are shown to him by other children is the height of emotional manipulation, I will readily cede, especially as each Constant Reader examines and experiences King’s writing differently. (For me, I must admit, Avery’s final words prompted tears.) But for this Constant Reader, King displays a revitalized writing style that I have not seen — or, rather, felt — since Duma Key (the friendship between Edgar Freemantle and Jerome Wireman is beyond touching and enduring), and for that I commend him. All in all, I cannot help but agree with Luke Ellis’s mother when he asks her, “Do you think memory is a blessing or a curse?” and she replies, “Both, dear.” The memory of The Institute I will carry is little Avery Dixon perhaps channeling the final lines of Tom Robbins’s book Still Life with Woodpecker: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” But I will also carry the burden, or curse, of a first impression artfully and dismayingly destroyed, of knowing the horror that such a small hinge — friendship and decency — is denied to too many children, fictional or real.
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Patrick McAleer teaches English and literature at Inver Hills Community College just outside of the Twin Cities. His primary scholarly interest is the work of Stephen King, and he is the author of Inside the Dark Tower Series and The Writing Family of Stephen King.
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