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.

Perelandra by C S Lewis

In the second book of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the protagonist from the first, Dr Elwin Ransom, is taken to a different planet in our solar system, the one we know as Venus — Perelandra to the rest of the solar system. This time, he’s not taken for evil ends, but sent for good, his mission having been given him by the eldila (the angels of Lewis’s cosmos). Perelandra, it turns out, is a young world, just about to enter its Adam-and-Eve stage. An ocean planet, where all but one of the lands are ever-moving carpets of matted reeds that flex over the waves, it has two humanoid inhabitants, the Green Lady and her King, who are to found a new race. Shortly after Ransom arrives, another visitor from Earth turns up, Ransom’s old enemy Professor Weston, only he may not be Weston, except in body. He seems possessed by some sort of demonic entity, who has come here to persuade the Green Lady to do the one thing Maleldil (God) has forbidden: to sleep on the single, unmoving Fixed Land of this world. (She’s allowed to visit it, just not spend the night there. And if that sounds like an arbitrary rule, that’s the point.) Ransom, then, finds himself witness to what may be a replay of the Biblical Fall, with a young and innocent Green Lady being persuaded by the wiles of the Tempter, Weston (or the Un-Man, as Ransom comes to call him, once his evil and inhuman nature becomes undeniable), into a disobedience that will have catastrophic consequences for generations to come.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

Two things struck me when I first read this book more than twenty years ago. The first was how similar it was to a book I had recently discovered and become obsessed with, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. Lewis first read Lindsay’s novel somewhere between December 1935 and the end of 1938. (Perelandra was published in 1943.) The thing that leapt out at me was that at the end of both books the main character is given a vision of the cosmic order, a vision described in abstract terms (in Arcturus, we get “tiny green corpuscles” vying with “whirls of white light”; in Perelandra, there’s “minute corpuscles of momentary brightness” and “ribbons or serpents of light”) all accompanied by a sort of explanatory music (a clash of conflicting rhythms in Arcturus, the music of the Great Dance in Perelandra). After spotting this it became obvious to me that, for most of the book, Perelandra wasn’t just replaying the story of the Biblical Fall, but the “Barey” chapter of Arcturus, in which two characters (effectively the Devil and God of Lindsay’s world) argue for the soul of the protagonist — just as, in Perelandra, Ransom and Weston, as mouthpieces for Lewis’s God and Devil, argue for control of the Green Lady’s conscience. Eventually, in Lindsay’s novel, the trio of characters, finding themselves passing through an increasingly watery landscape, get onto a floating island and drift out to sea — which could be the origins of Lewis’s entire Perelandran environment. There are a lot of other minor similarities between the two books, but those are the most striking.

The other thing I thought on my first read was how disappointing it was that, rather than out-arguing the Un-Man, Ransom eventually decides the only way he’s going to win this battle is with a fist-fight. I felt, at the time, that this was a failure on Lewis’s part — any writer’s part, and particularly a Christian apologist’s part — to give up on words and say it can only be solved by violence. I still felt the same on this recent re-read, but to a lesser extent, once I remembered this book was published in 1943, and is lightly sprinkled with references to the Second World War and the sacrifices so many young men were making at that moment in the name of defending their countries. Perhaps Lewis was making a point that sometimes only aggression will work with an enemy so wily and evil.

Paperback. Cover art by Bernard Symancyk

And one of the best things about the novel, from a purely imaginative standpoint, is how evil the Un-Man is. He rips the spines out of frogs for pleasure. When Ransom is trying to sleep, the Un-Man says, “Ransom… Ransom…”, and when Ransom says, “What?”, the Un-Man says, “Nothing.” Then goes on saying, “Ransom… Ransom…” It’s petty schoolboy stuff, but combined with a death-like grin and a sense that, behind those dead eyes, there’s something fundamentally inhuman, or perhaps just unfeeling, it really feels evil — in the same way Stephen King does evil, in characters like Randall Flagg in The Stand. (I did wonder why Ransom didn’t show the Green Lady all those frogs the Un-Man had been ripping up, as that would surely have convinced her of his inherent evil.)

But Lewis goes one better than King in representing the human roots of evil. In my review of Mr Mercedes, I said that King’s villain Brady Hartsfield was given a bunch of second-hand nihilisms as a justification for his evil. Here, Lewis presents us with a much more convincing glimpse of the sort of despair that perhaps led to Weston’s becoming the Un-Man. I think Lewis is saying that Weston has actually died and descended into Hell for a brief time before being plucked out and brought to Perelandra. As a result, his soul was admixed with something else — the Un-Man — and it’s that which mostly does the talking. Weston, however, has retained enough of his humanity to feel despair at the thought of returning to a state of Godless damnation. What makes Weston’s despair so convincing is that it’s not a bunch of statements like Brady Hartsfield’s “Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage,” and so on, but something confusing, unresolved, and nonsensical, something without any sort of centre or ultimate meaning. It sounds badly thought-out, and this makes its despair all the more convincing as a thing that Weston is feeling, not merely justifying:

“Picture the universe as an infinite glove with this very thin crust on the outside. But remember its thickness is a thickness of time. It’s about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it… When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He’s not in the globe — He’s outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken. He doesn’t follow us in… He may be there in what you call “Life”, or He may not. What difference does it make? We’re not going to be there for long!”

Set against this is Ransom’s realisation that he is the only person who can act against the Un-Man. The scene where Ransom realises he’s been waiting for a counter-miracle to defeat the Un-Man and isn’t going to get one, so it’s up to him, made me wonder if this wasn’t a glimpse of Lewis’s own inner moment that led him to become a Christian apologist. (I’m sure Lewis will have written about this, but I haven’t read any of his autobiographical non-fiction.)

Cover by Kinuko Y Craft

I’m left with mixed feelings about Perelandra. As an imaginative writer, Lewis can be superb — he creates a very interesting fantastic world, and makes it convincing as a fresh, vivid new creation. And his depiction of the Un-Man’s evil is perhaps the best thing in the book. But the one thing that always leaves me feeling Lewis is cheating me as a reader is that his good characters seem to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. They may struggle to do what’s right, but they have a sense, even in unfamiliar situations, of what is right — and it always turns out to be right. (For instance, when Ransom first finds Perelandran fruit and eats one and is tempted to eat another, but somehow knows he shouldn’t.)

A Voyage to Arcturus, on the other hand, is about how hard it is to really know what’s right and wrong, and how hard-won such knowledge often is — and that, on the way, you find yourself doing things that are very wrong, even shameful, things you regret, as learning experiences. And as this is a fundamental part of human experience, it needs to be a fundamental part of fiction — particularly if that fiction is, as Lewis’s books are, about doing right in the face of wrong. And yes, the fact that it was written during the Second World War complicates things, but that complication, I think, should be the point. There often is no simple right or wrong in a war: it’s one massive wrong, brought about to counter a worse wrong. That eternal compromise — that inherent Fall — is perhaps an essential part of the human experience, and I can’t help feeling that the strengths in Lewis’s writing makes his failure in this regard come across as a sort of dishonesty, a fudging of the rules. I can’t help feeling, reading a book like this, that Lewis, as a thinker, is better than this, and could be capable of producing something of greater complexity, if only he weren’t so intent on conveying a particular conclusion. It’s the struggle that ought to be the subject of a book like this, not the particular prize at the end of it.

Carrie by Stephen King

First edition cover

In books I’ve covered on Mewsings before (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Chocky, H M Hoover’s Morrow books), telepathy is associated with childhood, and with reaching out to make a deeper emotional connection than is possible in these books’ often repressive environments. Telekinesis, on the other hand, seems more associated with adolescence (along with poltergeist phenomenon) and the release of long-withheld inner rage, the prime example being Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (published 1974).

The book has a sort of Cinderella-gone-wrong plot. Carrie White is bullied at school by a whole class-full of (morally) ugly sisters, then bullied at home by her wicked un-stepmother of a mother, a woman whose highly judgemental “peculiar religious views” have effectively turned Carrie’s home life into an endless series of sermons on sin:

“Momma was the minister, Carrie the congregation. Services lasted from two to three hours.”

Mrs White refers to her God’s “kind, vengeful hand”, though you have to wonder what God she’s really worshipping when, at one point, she says:

“We know thou bring’st the Eye That Watcheth, the hideous three-lobbed eye…”

If “lobbed” (from a recent paperback edition) is a misprint for “lobed”, then she may actually be invoking the entity that comes for Robert Blake at the end of Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark”, whose last words are “the three-lobed burning eye…”

Carrie showed signs of telekinesis in childhood — when she was a baby, her mother found her levitating a toy over her crib, and there was a (perhaps Haunting of Hill House-inspired) rain of stones on the White house after the child dared to speak to an older girl sunbathing in a neighbouring garden — but things really kick off when Carrie has her first menstrual period in the showers after a school sports lesson and the other girls mock her mercilessly while she, never having been prepared for this by her mother, thinks she’s dying.

One of the girls, Sue Snell, quickly regrets tormenting Carrie, and tries to make up for it by acting as Carrie’s unelected fairy godmother. She convinces her boyfriend, Tommy (they’re both “Popular” with a capital P), to take Carrie to the school prom. Meanwhile, the ugliest of the ugly sisters, Christine Hargensen, is banned from attending the prom after she walks out of a week’s worth of detentions given to her for what was done to Carrie. In revenge, Christine decides she’s going to humiliate Carrie even more, and sees her going to the ball as the perfect opportunity.

Carrie started out as a short story (which King abandoned, until his wife rescued the typescript from the bin and got him to continue), and feels quite light in plot. The text is peppered with newspaper reports, extracts from articles and books, and snippets from the “White Commission Report” held in the aftermath of Carrie’s unleashed rage, which adds a sort of commentary to the events of the plot, and also serves to bulk up the narrative. And the unleashing of Carrie’s rage is a lot lengthier and more destructive than I was expecting, having only seen Brian De Palma’s 1976 film before this read of the book. In the film, Carrie rains destruction on the prom dance hall; in the book, she pretty much destroys the town, spreading fires, bursting fire hydrants, and exploding at least one gas station (which reminded me of a similar scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, a film which also seems to me to be about the bursting out of repressed emotion).

Blood runs throughout the novel. “Blood was always at the root of it, and only blood could expiate it,” Mrs White muses at one point, and she links blood with sexual passion, and so with the “sins” of adolescence, and of being a woman. But “blood” can also mean family, and anger, and the blood that rises to your cheeks when you’re humiliated.

It’s part of the novel’s tragedy that, after a lifetime of constant disparagement and bullying, Carrie doesn’t snap till she’s first been shown a little kindness. It’s not just the fact she’s drenched in pig’s blood in front of the whole school, but the contrast it underlines with the glimpse she gets beforehand of how it might feel to be normal, accepted, even loved.

After Carrie herself, the novel’s most interesting character is Sue Snell, who finds herself taking part in tormenting Carrie even though she knows she shouldn’t, and who is the only “ugly sister” to really try to make up for it. The best and most unexpected part of the novel, for me, occurs near the end, when Sue finds the now terminally-wounded Carrie lying amidst the ruins of a formerly quiet American town. Carrie has, till now, shown a modicum of telepathic ability, but here she finally gets to use it in the same way as Wyndham’s Chrysalids kids and Hoover’s Children of Morrow. Sue allows the dying Carrie into the deepest parts of her mind, in an attempt to convince her she really was trying to be kind, not cruel, in getting Tommy to take her to the prom. Sue feels Carrie uncovering her basest emotions — more than she herself was aware of — but also, most poignantly, remains mentally linked to her as Carrie’s mind fades into a dying babble, and then into death itself, in a far more affecting end than De Palma’s hand-from-the-grave jump:

“The mixture of image and emotion was staggering, indescribable. Blood. Sadness. Fear.”

King gets his equivalent of the “it’s not over yet” ending, too, with hints of another girl, elsewhere in America, growing up with the same ability. Will she be made into a monster like Carrie, by the cruelty of those who are supposed to love her?

It’s quite a good, if light, read, unrelenting in its portrayal of just how destructive (in the emotional as much as the telekinetic sense) and inescapable are the effects of a lifetime of judgement, and psychological and physical abuse, on a child. Although, by the end of it, Carrie has done monstrous things, she’s not the novel’s real monster. That role is played by almost everyone else in the book who doesn’t give her the kindness and understanding she needs, or if they do, do it too late.