The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stephen King’s ‘The Institute’ turns our political moment into gripping horror


Twenty years ago, Stephen King’s highflying career nearly came to an end when he was struck by an out-of-control vehicle near his home in rural Maine. The decades since that near-fatal encounter have been a kind of bonus round, and King has taken full advantage. His output during this period includes more than 20 novels and several collections of short fiction, along with numerous screenplays and assorted nonfiction. Always prolific, King seems to have tapped into a bottomless reservoir of narrative. “The Institute,” is the latest to emerge, and it is classic King, with an extra measure of urgency and anger. Beneath its extravagant plot and typically propulsive prose, the book is animated by a central concern that could not be more relevant: the inhumane treatment of children.

King once famously remarked on his willingness to “go for the gross-out” should a fictional situation require it. He has, of course, done so to great effect over many books and many years, and his place at the forefront of America’s literary boogeymen is beyond dispute. But King’s ability to generate world-class scares has never been the most important aspect of his work. More central to his enduring popularity is his ability to create textured, credible portraits of real people beset by appalling circumstances and struggling, often futilely, to survive. Lately, King has turned his empathetic vision outward, addressing the social and political crises pressing down on us all. Last year’s “Elevation” was a lovely, fable-like novella about the divisions running like fault lines through the country. “The Institute” is a very different sort of book that takes an equally hard look at who — and what — we have become.

“The Institute” begins in DuPray, S.C., far from the eventual center of the narrative. King quickly introduces us to the town and its denizens, chief among them Tim Jamieson, a roving former policeman who will 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 a trio of thugs invade Luke’s home, kill his parents and carry him off to the dark destination of the novel’s title.

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The Institute is a clandestine organization located deep in the Maine woods. It exists for one purpose only: to study, enhance and exploit the paranormal talents (telepathy and telekinesis, for the most part) of its youthful prisoners. Through invasive techniques that amount to little more than torture, the Institute staff attempts to transform their charges into psychic weapons in an endless war against political enemies. The ensuing narrative invites us to ponder the image of children separated from their parents and forced to live in brutal circumstances, all to serve the purposes of powerful men.

The bulk of the action takes place in the Institute itself and concerns the concerted efforts of a group of traumatized kids to understand and utilize their own abilities, and to turn those abilities against their captors. The result is a scenario that plays to the author’s strengths. Few writers have King’s ability to create credible young people whose nascent qualities prefigure the adults they will (with luck) become. And even fewer have the imaginative resources that King brings to bear on his portrait of life at the Institute, a life filled with large and small cruelties, and with a chilling indifference to the effect those cruelties have on the most vulnerable among us. The Institute, King tells us, not only destroys its chosen victims. It also destroys the “moral compass” of those who work there too long. Once again, the real world peers out from behind the curtain of King’s fiction.

Two notable ironies drive the novel to its conclusion. The first is the fact that Institute personnel, in focusing so completely on Luke’s minor telekinetic abilities, ignore the one weapon he can use against them: his prodigious intellect. Second, in creating human “weapons” to be used against perceived enemies, the Institute has created a weapon to be used against itself. Through the combination of Luke’s intellect and the linked mental efforts of the imprisoned children — particularly a powerfully psychic 10-year-old named Avery Dixon — a revolution takes place, shifting the balance of power dramatically. Luke escapes and finds his way south to the town of DuPray, where unexpected help awaits.

Throughout his long career, King has been committed to the bedrock notion that stories matter, that they help us understand both ourselves and the world we inhabit. “The Institute,” filled as it is with anger, sorrow, empathy and, yes, hope, reiterates that commitment with undiminished power. It is a first-rate entertainment that has something important to say. We all need to listen.

William Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”

By Stephen King

Scribner. 576 pp. $30.00

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