The Institute by Stephen King

UK Hardback

Kids with psychic abilities are kidnapped and taken to the Institute, where they’re put through a series of demeaning and abusive medical procedures in “Front Half” before being taken to “Back Half”, where their abilities are put to use. They’re told that, once they’ve served their term, they’ll have their memories of the Institute wiped and be set free, but none of the kids are buying that. There’s rumours of a back half to Back Half, where the burn-outs are kept. And after that, well, the Institute has its own cremation facilities.

My first reaction on reading about The Institute was, “Ah, Stephen King does Stranger Things,” because of the psychic-kids-in-an-institute idea, though of course Stranger Things is the Duffer Brothers doing Stephen King, so really it came down to Stephen King doing Stephen King. Kids with psychic powers have been there in his fiction from the start (Carrie), and Firestarter was a key influence on both the character of Stranger Things’ Eleven, and Hawkins Labs where she’s held, but I wonder if watching the show sparked King off with a need to revisit the idea. (According to an article in the New York Times, he began writing the novel in March 2017, so that would have been between Stranger Things’ seasons 1 and 2.)

German cover

But the Institute is no Hawkins Labs, and its kids are nothing like Eleven. Most of the children have no conscious control of their powers, and even those that do, know how weak they are — the best of them can, by really concentrating hard, just about hold back the midges that hang around the rundown Institute playground, or get a vague telepathic sense when someone’s lying. So it’s a mystery why anyone would go to such an effort to kidnap a bunch of children with “psychic abilities that wouldn’t even pass an America’s Got Talent audition”.

The Institute itself is hardly hi-tech. It’s tired and rundown, and mostly just going through the motions. It’s not interested in scientific discovery. (One doctor’s allowed to experiment on the less promising subjects, but it’s strictly a side project.) The main purpose is to get the kids through a well-worn process — give them the necessary jabs, put them through the standard tests — and most of the staff have long since ceased to regard their charges’ humanity as anything but a nuisance. Most are casually cruel; the few who aren’t are outright nasty.

There’s a weird air about the Institute of belonging to another age. The snacks in the vending machines (which kids can purchase with tokens they’re given for good behaviour) include sweets from decades past (candy cigarettes, for instance), though I wasn’t able to pick up on all of King’s hints about this as, to me, all American snacks sound made up. The TVs in Back Half, meanwhile, show “only prehistoric sitcoms like Bewitched and Happy Days”. I was wondering if this was going to be a plot point, or even a joke about Stranger Things’ retro appeal, but in the end I think it was just King connecting these kids’ experience to his own childhood.

US hardback

The main character we follow in The Institute is Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old prodigy who has minor, unconscious telekinetic abilities. He’s super clever, but the Institute doesn’t care about that. To them, he’s just another kid to be put through the grinder — to be processed, but also humiliated, controlled and broken along the way. One thing that really came through in the first half of the novel is how powerless these children are in a world where the adults don’t give a damn about them. Luke’s first task is to fight as hard as he can not to be institutionalised — not to give in to that sense of powerlessness and simply accept the situation, but also not to pointlessly rebel for the sake of it, which just ends in pain.

I haven’t read much criticism of King’s work taken as a whole, so it was only when I was halfway into the book that I realised how often the theme of incarceration, and escape at great odds, occurs in his work (in, for instance, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, Misery, and Gerald’s Game, as well as being an early rite of passage for a number of characters in The Stand). All of these stories are about characters fighting unfair and often life-threatening imprisonment with a combination of cleverness and patient determination, and King seems to have a particular penchant for that sweet feeling of pure, abstract freedom which follows.

As the book goes on, there are growing hints that the Institute is doing what it does out of a genuine belief in a greater good, and not just the standard thought-stopper of “national security”. It made me feel the novel was heading towards an outright moral argument — could any ends ever justify such means? — but it never did, not in such abstract terms, anyway. Which is a pity, because I think it’s good to have even such basic moral arguments aired every so often. (Virtually every review and interview I’ve read about The Institute brings up the incarceration and separation of children from their families on the U.S.-Mexican border that started in 2018, so it’s not as if the novel needs to evoke the horrors of the past to find any relevance.)

The Institute is the best King novel I’ve read in a while. It may be in part thanks to its having only a very light touch of the supernatural — meaning King couldn’t indulge in the sort of over-the-top horrorshow pyrotechnics that have put me off reading him in the past (Duma Key, for instance) — but also thanks to some very tight plotting, with a large chunk of the novel switching between three very suspenseful situations all playing out at the same time. It made The Institute into a real page-turner.

The Chocky Trilogy

I always felt John Wyndham was something of a presiding spirit over the culture of the 1970s and early 80s, because the two genre tropes I most associate with him — “cosy” catastrophes, and mind powers (especially in kids) — achieved something of a peak at this time (thanks to SF-tinged shows like Survivors and Doomwatch for the catastrophes, and The Omega Factor and The Mind Beyond for the mind powers, as well as YA fiction such as H M Hoover’s Morrow series). Hard evidence didn’t arrive till the 80s, though, when proper Wyndham adaptations hit the screens. First there was the BBC’s Day of the Triffids in 1981, then Thames TV’s Chocky in 1984. The Wyndham estate were so pleased with the latter, they allowed its adapter, Anthony Read (who’d been script editor for Doctor Who in 1978, as well as writing for shows like The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel), to follow it up with a couple of sequels.

Chocky must surely have been commissioned on the back of the success of Spielberg’s ET, which came out in the UK in December 1982, but the show itself has a bleaker air, in part thanks to the rather melancholy, Eno-esque theme music (which no longer matched the show’s feel by its third series). Aside from a few 80s updates — a Rubik’s cube, Space Invaders on a home console, a Rodney Matthews poster on Matthew’s bedroom wall, and the way he does some Uri Geller-style spoon-bending early on — the adaptation’s pretty faithful to the book. Perhaps too faithful, as the book itself is quite episodic. The dramatic highpoint, Matthew’s kidnapping, takes place within about ten minutes of the final episode and gets a fairly limp resolution, and surely it, with its hints of ill-defined but oppressive government/corporate forces taking an interest, deserved to be brought more to the fore in a kids’ TV show. On the other hand, it’s nice that the low-key family-drama elements were given so much room to breathe.

Matthew (Andrew Ellams) chats with Chocky, from the first series

Chocky’s Children, from 1985, is perhaps a bit more satisfying purely as TV, even if, to be so, it has to drop the more atmospheric elements of the first series. Matthew, now Chocky-free but missing that sense of inner connection, goes to stay with his arty Aunt Cissie while his parents jet off on a business-and-pleasure trip to Hong Kong. (The little sister, meanwhile, gets left with the neighbours!) Following his post-Chocky interest in art, Matthew has been drawing various scenes from around the world — in surprising detail, considering he’s never been to them — one of which is a windmill. When he finds the actual mill in a field near his aunt’s house, he also meets Albertine, a young maths prodigy whose grumpy, over-protective father (who once had a stand-off with the police over his refusal to let his daughter be educated by anyone but him) is preparing her for an early entrance to Cambridge. The story comes to be about the relationship between these two sensitive, talented children, both of whom have been — knowingly or unknowingly — touched by Chocky’s influence. The oppressive government/corporate interest — now firmly corporate — is there from the start, and given the whole six-episode run to build more satisfyingly into a much more active kidnap-and-rescue than the first series.

Matthew and Albertine (Anabel Worrell), from Chocky’s Children

One thing that’s interesting about the way Anthony Read took his Chocky sequels, is how they seemed to naturally fall into line with other Wyndham novels. Matthew meeting up with, and finding he has a telepathic link to, another of Chocky’s protégés in Chocky’s Children brings in the secret, shared telepathic connection of The Chrysalids and the gestalt power of minds-combined from The Midwich Cuckoos. The next instalment, Chocky’s Challenge (broadcast in 1986), with its gathering of Chocky-influenced children from across the world, even starts to recall that other Wyndham sequel, Children of the Damned (the 1964 sequel to the Midwich film, Village of the Damned), but it’s the polar opposite of it in feel. With so many kids with even more explicit mind-powers (not just telepathy, but telekinesis and mind-projection to the stars), and a lot more appearances from Chocky (who even drops in to back up Albertine in her application for a research grant), the supernatural/spooky elements are no longer spooky or even unusual, and the more psychological elements — Matthew’s inner-world development from the first series, the relationship between him and Albertine in the second — are dropped entirely.

The kids from Chocky’s Challenge.

The story follows Albertine, now a (still very young) Cambridge graduate, wanting to bring Chocky’s gift of free-and-plentiful cosmic energy to the world. To do this, she applies for a research grant, wins the only one remaining, and assembles her team of Chocky-chosen kids from around the world (or the USA and Hong Kong, anyway). There’s no room, really, for character drama — except for a brief subplot with one boy’s search for his mother — and the feel is more along the lines of, say, The Tomorrow People, in that it’s an adventure story first and foremost. Only, where the threat in The Tomorrow People would be something strange or alien, here the main focus of the drama is… research funding. With the kids essentially super-powered, and guided by a highly intelligent mind from the stars, the only limiting factor is how they get the money to pay for the equipment and materials they need. (Nobody suggests asking Chocky for some cheap-and-easy invention they can flog for a quick cash boost.) For a while, the main villain is a rival astronomer who loses her grant to Albertine, and does her best to win it back. Meanwhile, the military only gain a hold on the kids because they can promise unlimited funds. Lessons the kids ought to be learning — such as Albertine’s very thoughtless ruining of Dr Liddle’s astronomical experiment, or the kids’ being too immature to handle the inevitable disappointments when their experiments don’t all go right on the first try — don’t get learned, and there’s a feeling that the kids are in the right simply because they’re telepathic kids, so they must be right. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. But even so, I think the third Chocky series took the show too far from its more emotional/spooky roots. John Wyndham’s novel is, really, about how something special and unique in a child can get crushed by the forces of commercialism and social propriety; the third Chocky TV series was basically about the kids crushing all those forces thanks to their super-powered (but still morally and emotionally immature) minds. Fun all the same, though.

Reaching out to the stars… From Chocky’s Challenge.

The Chocky trilogy began with the feeling that it had one foot firmly planted in 70s kids’ telefantasy. The Chocky sound effect recalled the weird electronic sounds of The Changes, and it had enough environmental concern (the need for a new source of energy to replace our reliance on fossil fuels) to feel it was still waving the flag brandished by The Changes, Raven and Sky. But by the end, it had lost those elements, and so, perhaps, had the culture as a whole. There were a couple of New Zealand kids’ shows mixing alien influences, telepathy, and environmental concerns at the same time — Under the Mountain (1981) and Children of the Dog Star (1984) — but to my mind, kids-with-psychic-powers stories seemed to give way, as the 80s went on, to adaptations of fantasy classics, often based in the past (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, Moondial), often better made, but perhaps less connected to the pressing issues of the day. Or it may be that, having grown up myself by then, I simply saw fewer of them. (There’s a psychic-twins TV series, The Gemini Factor, from 1987, that I’ll have to check out, for instance.)

And perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but as the idea of kids-with-psychic-powers is so closely tied to the notion of a new stage in human evolution — Bowie’s “homo superior” — it came with a feeling that, even without super-powers, kids had the potential of bringing something new into a world very much in need of fresh ideas and un-cynical outlooks. Part of me wonders if something of that empowering influence might have been lost when kids’ TV fantasy switched to classic adaptations (with The Box of Delights the first to be deliberately developed as an internationally marketable commodity), and the revolutionary ideals of the late 60s, which were so evident in those 70s shows, gave way to the more money-minded 80s. But even if so, it wasn’t permanent. The current generation, raised on tales of teens standing up to dystopian governments, has certainly been making itself felt, and rightly so. Now, if only some of them had super-powers…

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Weird Science, July 1951, containing “The Seeds of Jupiter”

After his last film, 78/52, a feature-length documentary about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera set-ups and cuts in the scene), Alexandre O Philippe’s latest is an examination of the imaginative, mythical, and artistic roots of the xenomorph in Alien. So, we get to learn something about writer Dan O’Bannon’s rural upbringing (plenty of bugs about), and his early fascination with sci-fi, including a number of films and comics that have startling similarities to Alien (an EC Comic from 1951, “Seeds of Jupiter”, for instance, where an alien gestates in a man’s stomach), as well as his various attempts at scripting the film that would eventually become Alien. (One of these, which O’Bannon called Memory, was almost identical to the first 30 minutes of Alien. The title came from the fact that, once the spaceship crew were down on the planet they visit, they start losing their memories.) In terms of artistic influence, there’s not just H R Giger’s evident input (fought for, and at times personally paid for, by O’Bannon), but also Ridley Scott’s directing him towards Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” as a guide to designing the chest-burster.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from Tate.org

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary, for me, were the parallels it drew between Alien and ancient myth. The film itself opens with the ruins at Delphi, and shows us the three Furies of Greek Myth being woken from sleep by a spaceship-computer-like announcement, then breaking a laser-through-smoke “membrane” as they rise — all very much in the style of Alien. “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” one says (quoting the Oresteia), displaying a very xenomorphish set of metallic teeth. One of the film’s contributors, Dr William Linn, explicitly draws a parallel between the xenomorph and the Furies. In Alien, he says, “You see a major curse, in the form of the alien, who is very much a Fury responding to an imbalance.” It’s a pity he’s never given the chance to explain this at length — perhaps there’ll be an extended interview with him as a DVD extra sometime — but this, to me, seems to miss a fundamental point that made Alien, and so many of the most characteristic examples of 20th century horror, so different to their forebears. Because, for me, the point about what happens in Alien is that the xenomorph’s killing of the crew is not in response to some cosmic or divine imbalance. It happens not because the crew have done anything wrong; it happens because this is the sort of thing that can happen in the universe, and it just so happens it’s this crew it happens to. It’s not because they did anything wrong, simply because they exist.

The ancient Greeks believed that if something good or bad happened to you, you could attribute it to the good- or ill-will of a supernatural entity, a god or goddess who was pleased with you or angry with you. Even if it seemed to make no obvious sense, you just had to assume you’d angered or pleased one of the many (and not always very reasonable) gods, so better make a sacrifice to appease/thank him or her. 20th century mythologies such as Lovecraft’s did away with divine agency. To them, the universe wasn’t full of intelligent forces that cared enough about mankind to punish it when it did wrong. The universe simply didn’t care. It was a machine, rolling on, doing its thing, and if you got caught up and crushed in the workings, well, that was what happened — the universe was full of danger. Not hostility, which implies feeling. Just danger. To the likes of Lovecraft, not having bad stuff happen to you was a matter of luck — such luck being, to Lovecraft, the “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” — and when the bad stuff did happen, it wasn’t because you’d done wrong, it was because it was just bound to happen eventually.

Lovecraft did have divine-seeming entities in his mythology, but they were only “divine” because they were so much more powerful than humans. They weren’t gods in the truly religious sense. They didn’t create the universe nor did they stand outside of it. Even when (as in At the Mountains of Madness) they took part in the creation of humankind, they didn’t do so out of divine benevolence, but because they were toying around with genetics, trying to create something useful to them, and mankind was a by-product. Their attitude to humanity was indifference, as was the universe’s. (And Lovecraft’s most god-like being, the “blind idiot god” Azathoth, is a cosmic force without intelligence, and certainly without any feelings toward, or awareness of, humanity.)

The closest thing Alien (till Ridley Scott came out with Prometheus, anyway) has to a divine force is the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who send the crew to find the xenomorph in the first place. But the corporation does this not out of any desire to punish the crew; it does it out of indifference. The crew just happens to be close, and is expendable. They’re a tool. Ash, the android who’s human in appearance but without human feeling, is the closest we get to an embodiment of the corporation on-screen. He’s detached, scientific, obedient, indifferent: 20th century corporate man.

The Furies are very much not indifferent. They’re roused by the need for vengeance, and their role is to hound someone — into madness if necessary — till they carry out that vengeance. In the Oresteia, they urge Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, for her murder of Agamemnon — her husband, and Orestes’s father — whom she murdered because Agamemnon killed their daughter. The point of the Oresteia, though, is that the Furies represent a primal, irrational, uncivil force, and obeying them only leads to more and more vengeance in a never-ending cycle. That primal force is replaced, at the end of the last play in the trilogy, by the civilising force of justice, where the need for vengeance can be answered, but also ended.

I’d say that the point about the xenomorph in Alien is that it embodies an even more primal force than the Furies: life reduced to its utter biological basics of reproduction and death. The Furies are roused by human emotion, and can be placated by human reason; the xenomorph belongs to the region of the “lizard brain” where reason does not apply, and must be fought entirely on its own terms.

You may think your cat loves you, but this is how he’ll look on while you’re attacked by a xenomorph — with mild, professional interest

Because Memory moves quickly, giving us snippets of its various arguments rather than anything extended, I don’t feel Dr Linn was given the full opportunity to present his xenomorph-as-Furies argument, so I feel bad arguing against it on such scanty evidence. At one point he does say that “Alien is the response to Prometheus trying to steal fire from the heavens”, which I take it isn’t a reference to Scott’s 2012 sequel, but the mythical figure. But is he saying the crew of the Nostromo are “stealing fire from the heavens”? If anyone is, it’s the Weyland-Yutani corporation, but it’s the crew who suffer the punishment.

(That line from the Oresteia, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” reminds me of the xenomorph-like demogorgon in the first season of Stranger Things, which is attracted by blood, and does, in many ways, act as a Fury — it’s the abused Eleven’s uncontrollable rage against a world that misused her, and which, at the end, threatens to consume her, too.)

Though I love the way Memory explores links between Alien’s xenomorph and ancient myth, I think Alien, and Lovecraftian horror-mythologies generally, represent something genuinely new that the 20th century brought to the cauldron of myth. Before that, whether the divine forces that governed our lives were vengeful, wrathful, hostile or benign, our mythologies depicted a universe alive with active, intelligent forces interested in human beings. The 20th century, and the strand of Lovecraftian cosmicism that leads up to Alien, introduced a wholly new element in which the universe was utterly indifferent to humankind, and anything good or bad that happened did so by chance. This is what I feel is the real power behind the xenomorph in Alien, and it was something that was only intensified (and further Lovecraftified) when Scott began working on his 21st-century sequels, starting with Prometheus. Although these later films address religious-level questions — who created us and why — they’re met with cosmic-horror answers, not the sort we’d get from the divinities of ancient myth.

Still, I liked Memory, which did a good job of exploring the thematic depths of Alien and the story of how it came to be made, and why it still feels so powerful. After the shower scene in Psycho and the chest-burster scene in Alien, what is the next iconic moment in cinema that Philippe is going to examine?