I think I have been lucky with Stephen King so far.
I’ve heard from other readers that some of his books are a real bore, just slogs to get through. The ones that come to mind are The Tommyknockers and Dolores Claiborne, two that I own but have yet to read because I’ve been told they’re just sort of, “why?” I felt this way, somewhat, about Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary, too, but when I say that out loud, people tend to give me the ol’ stink eye. But still, when you stack those few disappointments up against books like It, The Stand, The Shining, The Long Walk, Doctor Sleep, Misery, Christine, Carrie…. need I go on? In other words, the odds are pretty darn good that I’m going to like a Stephen King book, and his latest novel, The Institute, just adds to the positive chances.
At the heart of this novel is a classic Stephen King battle of good versus evil, but in this case he tries to be a bit more nuanced than many of his other stories in the same theme. Where books like It, The Stand, and The Outsider set up a very distinct dichotomy between the forces of good and evil, The Institute, being in effect science-fiction rather than horror or fantasy, delves deeper into the nature of human actions and the complexities of right and wrong. There is no evil alien force such as the one that poisons Derry, nor is there an anti-Christ or legendary villain, the likes of which oppose the good forces in The Stand or Salem’s Lot. In The Institute, King pits children with special abilities against international government forces who want to manipulate their powers. On the surface, the distinction is clear. Children good, secret military agency bad. Yet, as the story unfolds, King complicates the message by delving into philosophical questions about how we weigh the rights of the one, or the few, over the needs of the many. (Beam me up, Scotty!) He uses phenomena such as telepathy, telekinesis, and precognition to explore the individual’s responsibility to the collective, or a person’s responsibility to humanity, in a way that is more convoluted and circuitous than King typically is. We root for the children; we cheer when they begin to unite; we become inspired by their bravery and selflessness in standing on their own against such a dangerous, impossible foe. And yet, in the background, King is needling. He makes the reader question, right up to the end, whether The Institute was a necessary evil, or just simply evil.
King has a tendency to get into long-winded exposition on characters and character backgrounds, sometimes taking one at a time and going on for pages and pages. Usually, it makes the story better, as in The Stand, when all of the characters eventually meet up and form two sides in a battle of good and evil. Then, it makes sense to have become so invested in them and their outcomes. They’re at war. You want to “feel” for them. Sometimes, though, that payoff is missing, and you wonder why you had to sit through so much history and detail about people who don’t seem to matter very much in the long run. Although the first part of the book, maybe even a full one-third of it, is pretty slow and tough to get into, in this case there is the payoff. The Institute is much more like The Stand or It in this regard; it’s not quite as long as either of those, so the exposition doesn’t go on as long, but it definitely makes up a very good chunk of the novel, and you have to get through it in order to get to the action. When the pace finally does pick up, though, and the story rushes toward its climax and resolution, King has made you invested in the outcome and the stakes for these characters seem higher because you, as the reader, care. You’ve been made to hate the sinners and love the saints, right down to those small town characters introduced early in the novel who don’t show up again until hundreds of pages later.
One thing that I’ve been enjoying about King’s more recent works, is that they are much more explicit in their philosophy and cultural criticisms. King has always been concerned with politics and society, but his earlier works, particularly those in the horror genre, heavily mask the very real and biting social statements he makes. Since about 2014, though, with the release of Revival, it has become clear that even in his genre fiction, King has decided to lay it all on the line. It’s almost as if someone whispered in his ear, “Let Stephen King be Stephen King.” As a great writer, he never allows the cultural criticisms to overtake the story itself, but it’s fun to see his spine making up the tone of the work, particularly as a reader who tends to agree with King’s stance on politics. In the case of The Institute, some of the philosophy gets a bit muddled, though. Because of the apparent need to create sympathy for the villains, which is nothing new in savvy “good versus evil” plots, there are moments where the reader is almost being encouraged to empathize with deeply concerning, widely derided, and wholly evil concepts and methods. There were moments where I noticed that I was being asked to find sympathy for what is essentially a kind of Nazism, and that was very hard to swallow; in the end, King rights the ship, but the fog he creates, perhaps intentionally but perhaps because he couldn’t avoid it, seemed unnecessary to me. Is the discomfort worth it? I’m still not sure.
Ultimately, with The Institute, King proves again that his power is not waning in the slightest and that he’s not just a master of horror. This is an excellent sci-fi thriller that also tackles current social and political issues (though some of that is problematic.) I think this one and his recent horror, The Outsider, are two of his best. Who says all writers do their best works early in their careers?
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You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. Octavia E. Butler
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