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.

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?

Daphne du Maurier’s weird fiction

Although she’s more well-known nowadays for her modern-Gothic/psychological suspense novels such as Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951), both of which have been filmed several times, Daphne du Maurier produced some good shorter fiction that can be classed as weird, supernatural, or science-fictional — in a couple of cases all three at once — some of which have also been filmed, including The Birds (by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963), Don’t Look Now (by Nicolas Roeg in 1973), and The Breakthrough (adapted for TV in 1975, and then filmed as The Lifeforce Experiment by Piers Haggard in 1994).

Hitchcock said that, when adapting, he would read the book or story once, then never look at it again, and it can seem that, with his film of The Birds (scripted by Evan Hunter), it’s only the basic idea of mass bird attacks on humans that the two have in common. Du Maurier’s story (in The Birds and Others, 1952) is set in rural Cornwall and has a male working-class protagonist; Hitchcock’s is set in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, and has a female upper-class lead. But there are moments of similarity, including a bird attack on school children, and a visit to a neighbouring farm where the farmer is found pecked to death. Both end without any solution or explanation. I’d say, though, that the roots of du Maurier’s story are more evident, in the way it draws so many parallels with the then still-recent Second World War. Her story is full of scenes of the family huddled round a wireless set, tuning in for news from the authorities, or blocking out the windows just as they’d have blacked them out during the war. As the bird attacks increase, the family bed down together in the kitchen, just as they might have in an air-raid shelter, and the wife says, “Won’t America do something? … They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?” The main character thinks about the birds as he would an enemy army (“A lull in battle. Forces regrouping.”). At the end, as the attacks continue and the authorities struggle to do anything, it’s as though the state of how things were in the Second World War has somehow seeped out from the human world to become the natural order.

None of these are short stories — du Maurier preferred novella length, it seems — meaning that even when she’s working at an idea another weird-fiction writer might turn into a quick twist story, she explores it at greater depth. An example of this is “The Apple Tree” (also from The Birds and Others), about a man who can’t help being a little relieved at the death of his eternally hard-done-by wife, but who starts to notice a resemblance between a stunted tree in his garden and his late wife’s slouched posture, after which he suspects she’s using the tree to haunt him. It’s an idea that’s been used before (Lovecraft’s “The Tree”, for instance), but writing it at length, du Maurier really brings out the relentlessly stifling nature of the marriage, and the desperate futility of the husband’s attempts to find some joy in life now he’s no longer burdened by such a negative spouse. The supernatural element is just the icing on the cake — the final twist to a man who’s already haunted in a purely psychological sense.

Difficult marriages feature in a lot of du Maurier’s tales, and her own was, it seems, troubled at times. There were affairs on both sides (in Daphne’s case, with both men and women), and the couple seems to have been happier living apart — he in London, where he worked after his military career (he became Treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh), she in Cornwall. When her husband had a nervous breakdown, Daphne, learning he’d been having an affair, decided to do her best to save the marriage, but soon found the loss of creative solitude brought her to the edge of her own breakdown. Writing her next collection, The Breaking Point (1959), was her means of recovery.

Two of its stories stand out, for me. In “The Blue Lenses”, a woman who’s had an operation to implant new lenses into her eyes wakes to find she sees everyone with animals’ heads in place of their own, and seemingly the more she cares for them, the worse the head. (Her husband has a vulture’s.) It’s an unconventional idea for a horror story, at first absurd, but du Maurier quickly builds up the sense of inescapable isolation as her protagonist finds herself unable to hide her horror at what she sees. “The Pool”, meanwhile, is about a girl spending the school holidays with her brother at their grandparents’ house, for whose extensive garden she has an almost mystical reverence. She sneaks out at night to perform made-up rituals to bind herself, once more, to the garden, and to the strange world she can access through a pool in a thicket of trees. It reminded me of Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, which is also about a girl drunk on her own mix of nature-mysticism and fairy lore. But du Maurier brings in an element Machen, I think, never would, as this heady mix of fantasy and weirdness is linked to the girl’s first period. (I wonder how transgressive this was for a book published in 1959? Other stories in the same volume deal with pederasty, incest, madness, and the disposal of a dead baby — all of which, I can’t help feeling, must have felt incredibly shocking at the time.)

Penguin paperback cover, art by Dave and Sue Holmes

For me, du Maurier’s most satisfying single collection is Don’t Look Now and Other Stories (which came out in 1971, initially as Not After Midnight). It’s a collection dominated by recent deaths and troubled mourning, with three of its five stories being about people dealing with grief.

“Don’t Look Now” has a disturbing circularity to its plot. Its main character has unacknowledged clairvoyant powers, and his own death only occurs because he has a vision of what happens as a result of that death. If he hadn’t seen it — if he’d not looked now — he wouldn’t have died. It’s quite a subtly-balanced tale, and I have to admit it’s one I don’t think (though I may be the only person who thinks this) works as well in Nicolas Roeg’s film, which brings even more ambiguities to a story that’s rich enough in them already. Writing of du Maurier in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Gary Crawford says “All du Maurier’s tales are symbolic and elegant, but they are less terrifying than simply strange, almost in the manner of Robert Aickman.” I don’t think du Maurier is often as outright surreal as Aickman, but “Don’t Look Now” may be her at her most dreamlike.

(And there’s a scene in the 1940 film of Rebecca, where the sinister Mrs Danvers urges the new Mrs de Winter to fondle her predecessor’s clothes, which seems straight out of Aickman’s “Ravissante” — only, of course, preceding it by nearly three decades.)

Still from Hitchcock's Rebecca

For a writer I most closely associate with Rebecca and the black & white Hitchcock/Selznick film based on it, “The Breakthrough” (which is copyrighted 1966, though I haven’t been able to find if it appeared before its inclusion in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories) feels very modern — or 1970s-modern, anyway. An electrical engineer is sent to help with an experimental government project to develop the use of sound as a weapon, but whose leader has co-opted the project to investigate what he calls “Force Six” — essentially, the sixth sense, and its possibility of providing “the explanation of telepathy, precognition, and all the so-called psychic mysteries.” This project leader, James MacLean, also believes that “Force Six” is released as pure energy when we die. Unconcerned with the idea of “souls”, MacLean believes that by trapping and using that energy, “We shall have the answer at last to the intolerable futility of death.”

This mix of secret research, up-to-date electronic gadgetry, and psychic phenomena recalls Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) and the episode of The Omega Factor (1979) which was also about the military use of sound. (And I can’t help wondering if it was one of these that inspired Kate Bush’s “Experiment IV” (1986), also about the military use of sound.) It’s a satisfying tale, and the BBC2 adaptation (which you can watch on YouTube), is a good take on it.

Daphne du Maurier’s short story/novella output is quite varied, ranging from crime to satire to some outright strangeness (as with “The Lordly Ones” from The Breaking Point in which — I can’t be sure — a boy runs away from his indifferent parents and is briefly adopted by some ponies). My favourite non-fantastic story of hers is, I think, “The Way of the Cross” (from Don’t Look Now and Other Stories), in which a mismatched bunch of pilgrims visit Jerusalem and suffer their own betrayals, redemptions and resurrections in the space of a hectic twenty four hours. But overall my favourites are, of course, the weird ones, and generally those that have been adapted: “The Birds”, “Don’t Look Now”, “The Breakthrough”, and, among the un-adapted, “The Pool” and “The Blue Lenses”. I think a good single-volume collection could be made from her weird fiction, but perhaps they’re better left where they are, as the strangeness of her strange tales seems all the stranger for being couched amongst her other, more normal — though never mundane — stories.