Monstrous acts require monstrous rationalizations. Like, say, the fate of the world is at stake. For that, the most rational of all reasons, would you be willing to sacrifice a couple thousand children? Would you be willing to kidnap them; kill their parents; subject them to all manner of abusive tests, before grinding their minds to mush and disposing of them like so many used up lab rats?
Remember – this is the fate of the species we’re talking about.
Kill thousands for the sake of billions.
Such decisions have been made before. (See: Hiroshima and Nakasaki, 1945.) It’s really not so unusual in the history of war, and the measures we’ll convince ourselves to take in order to prevent it.
Just be sure you’re right about those rationalizations. Because, if you’re wrong, a very deep circle of hell awaits. Actually, if you’re complicit in such acts, you’re probably going to hell either way.
Stephen King is playing for very high stakes indeed these days. Somehow, at the age of 71, with his 61st novel, he’s operating at a professional peak. The Institute (Scribner) feels like an instant classic. Inevitable comparisons will be made to past works. Firestarter comes first to mind. In that 1980 work, it was The Shop, not The Institute – insidious programs full of soulless bureaucrats capable of anything. Psychic minors have been featured across the King canon – The Shining, Carrie, etc. – and so have brave kids uniting against evil adults – think The Losers Club in It.
However, here are two works not written by King that came to mind while reading his latest: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Schindler’s List.
When you encounter Mrs. Sigsby, the soul-dead zealot who runs the Institute, it’s as though Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched has come back to life. Sigsby is the heartless heart of the book. She rules her psych ward much as Ratched reigned over her charges in Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s even a little Randle McMurphy in the mix – the rebel who refuses to accept his conditions and inspires his fellow captives. In the Institute, it’s a telekinetic 14-year-old named Nicky Wilholm, who will resist the shots and all the tests, even if it means a beating.
Like Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest, Mrs. Sigsby comes by her sadism after being thoroughly desensitized after years of military service. However, in this case, the patients she rules over are children whose mental abilities are being weaponized, before effectively lobotomizing them. When their minds have been sapped dry, the kids in the Institute are sent to the back half of Back Half, referred to as Gorky Park by the staff. Mercy killings would feel more humane than sending them to that place. Picture the most squalid shooting gallery of drug addicts – and imagine they’re all minors.
As for Schindler’s List, references to concentration camps abound in King’s latest. The parallels he draws are not subtle. “They’re like Eichmann or Walter Raulff, the guy who came up with the idea of building mobile gas chambers,” King writes. And when it all went south, “Eichmann, Mengele, and Rauff had run, like the opportunistic cowards they were; their zealot fuehrer had stayed and committed suicide.”
Her staff might run, but you can be assured that Mrs. Sigsby will go down with the Institute.
This a novel of imprisonment and sadistic abuse, escape and revenge, humanity and the dark impulse to stamp it out in the name of something bigger. These are concepts that King grasps – and has grappled with – much more than, say, the current President of the United States. On his Twitter page, King revels in taking frequent shots at the Commander in Chief. In his latest novel, he’s more circumspect. While there are loads of allusions to our present culture (Um, kids in cages, taken from their parents? No need for fiction there…), by my count he mentions the name ‘Trump’ exactly once across these 557 pages.
As politicized as our country is, and as clear as King has been about where he stands, this is not a political novel. Indeed, the Institute is not even a government-run installation. It’s something much worse – a privately funded house of child abuse that operates with impunity. Writing that last line, I realize I just inadvertently described the horrors of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking operation – which appears to have operated in plain sight for decades.
I doubt Stephen King relishes being so prescient about the evils in our society, but few writers alive see the devils with more clarity.
The Institute is now available.
About Stephen King
Stephen King is an American author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction and fantasy novels. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television series, and comic books.