When each new Stephen King novel starts to read like the literary equivalent of a greatest hits album, I can’t help wondering if we are seeing the fulfilment of a prophecy King’s detractors have been touting for years: that he is in the declining arc of his career, and that the future for fans contains no new masterpieces, only bonus tracks.
The Institute does not begin as it means to go on. Tim Jamieson is a disgraced cop en route to New York on the promise of work as a security guard. Running mainly on intuition – “great events turn on small hinges” – Tim surrenders his seat on the plane to a government official and begins hitching his way north instead, ending up in a nowhere town that exists mainly to serve its associated rail depot. Here he gets a job making night patrols and begins to gain the trust of the local sheriff.
The town of DuPray will be familiar territory for King’s Constant Readers, as he calls us: a neighbourly place, small enough for everyone to know everyone’s business yet large enough for sinister interlopers to hide between the cracks. This is a setting King excels at creating – think Needful Things, think Bag of Bones even – and most readers will settle down for the ride, waiting for whatever curveball he is gearing up to throw them. What they will not be expecting is for Jamieson to vanish. There are almost 300 pages to wait before he is seen again, when DuPray – the town’s name is no accident – becomes the backdrop for the denouement of another story entirely.
The bulk of the novel’s action takes place in the titular Institute, a top-secret facility run by shady operatives whose task is to protect humanity’s future by predicting vectors of conflict before they materialise. So far, so Philip K Dick. In a somewhat predictable twist, the Institute is using children to dispatch its targets: underage conscripts hand-picked from birth for their psychic powers and forced to become part of a process that leads inexorably to the decay and eventual death of their human selves.
King is more than a little enamoured of the “special child” trope. The young hero of The Institute, Luke Ellis, is the latest in a long line ranging from Carrie White in King’s 1974 debut through Danny Torrance in The Shining and Charlie McGee in Firestarter all the way to Duddits in the once-read-best-forgotten Dreamcatcher from 2001. Closest cousins to Luke are Seth Garin and David Carver from King’s 1996 “mirror novels”, The Regulators and Desperation respectively. Seth is autistic and telepathic; David believes he has raised a friend from the dead through the power of prayer. Luke embodies both powers.
Like a substantial tranche of horror fiction, much of King’s output is concerned with the battle between good and evil. Where he departs from the template most substantially is in his repeating expositions on the nature of faith – not in God or a god necessarily, but in the imaginative and spiritual power of the god-shaped hole. When the Institute’s evil director insists that its work must continue no matter the cost in individual lives, Jamieson counters that peace and freedom bought with the suffering of innocent children is no freedom at all. Dostoevsky King is not, but he clearly has no scruples about repurposing Ivan’s seminal argument with Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. As TS Eliot said, good writers borrow, great writers steal, and King is big enough and bold enough to steal from the best.
It has often been argued that his paramount talent as a writer is for storytelling. Such a claim is borne out by his wider cultural influence, the Netflix series Stranger Things being just one recent example. What is mentioned less often is the engine of his storytelling, the compelling and tactile quality of the writing itself. His immaculate sense of place, his flawless ear for dialogue, that intangible literary quality we refer to as voice – these are the reasons we return to King, and in King it is the voice that persists, even when the stories themselves are so much bunkum.
How far The Institute will satisfy you as a reader will depend on what draws you to King’s fiction in the first place. If you enjoy boss battles and grandiose conspiracies, the allure of cosmic forces moving beneath the surface of sleepy reality, then this novel may be for you. If, like me, what you enjoy most in King is his obsession with minor detail and irrelevant backstory, his gift for portraying the lives of ordinary people, his sly asides to the reader and loving literary references, you are likely to find this book – in spite of its 500 pages – too cursory, too interested in the wrong things. The Institute is already being billed as IT for the Trump age, but speaking as one who prefers those works often thought of as misfires (Hearts in Atlantis, From a Buick 8, even – yes – The Tommyknockers) it feels too writing-by-numbers for that, insufficiently distinctive. Extreme facility with words can be the writer’s enemy. One is never in doubt that King could write about anything. It is just a shame he writes so much of it, and – too frequently these days – to such small ends.
• Nina Allan’s The Dollmaker is published by Riverrun. The Institute is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.