It’s officially Halloween season, which means I’ve been diving deep into the horror canon–this spooky season, I found myself drawn to two different novels about gifted children and the adults experimenting on them: Josh Malerman’s Inspection and Stephen King’s The Institute.
Inspection follows a basic premise: there are twenty-six boys, so-called “alphabet boys” named for the letters A through Z, who live in a tower in the middle of the woods. Under the watchful eye of their D.A.D. and their other teachers and minders, these young, brilliant boys–all the same age, all on the cusp of puberty–have grown up in their isolated tower, studying accelerated, carefully curated topics. By the age of twelve, the boys are completing collegiate-level physics and mathematics, though their curriculum is devoid of history, theology, art, or literature. In fact, every book that they boys have ever read is by the same author, and his writing is always relevant to the boys’s growth, challenges, and is carefully devoid of many things–like far away cities, or cars, or most importantly, women.
You see, D.A.D. and his cohorts are running a little experiment. What happens to young men, in the absence of “distractions” (women)? Raised from birth without any mention of or interaction with females, the Alphabet Boys are carefully monitored for every moment of their young lives. To ensure that they haven’t been exposed or threaten to ruin the experiment, the boys face an Inspection each morning to check for mysterious, malicious illnesses like rots and vees, to ensure that they haven’t been Spoiled Rotten. If Spoiled, a boy is sent to The Corner–a place none of the boys fully understand, but know it’s a place from which there is no return.
J admires his D.A.D. and yearns for his approval… but one morning, after seeing a mysterious figure outside of his tower room window, he begins to question things. Small things at first–catching D.A.D. in a lie–but then huge, world-shaking revelations. That’s when K arrives–who is not a boy, who is in fact a young girl (a so-called “Letter Girl”) from an identical tower in the same forest, and is ready to tear it all down.
There are lots of things to love about Malerman’s writing–chief among his strengths are his outstanding premises. In Bird Box, it’s the haunting conjuration of a blindfolded woman trying to bring her children to safety from a monster they literally cannot see. In Unbury Carol, it’s the horror of a woman who sometimes falls into death-like fugue states being buried alive by her indebted and conniving husband. In Inspection, Malerman focuses on twisted adults performing a generational experiment on fifty-two children to prove that sex and the entanglements of relationships between boys and girls is the cause of ruinous untapped intellectual potential.
On the face of it, this is an absolutely ludicrous premise. It assumes a wholly binary cis heterosexual world, in which there are Boys and Girls and they would never ever “be distracted” by members of their same gender. Then again, the entire point of Inspection is that these adults–particularly D.A.D. and M.O.M.–are depraved zealots who have devoted their fortunes to run a lifetime experiment on human subjects. One can’t help but wonder at the holes in their experiment, though–surely children studying science, particularly biology, would have some questions once they start to learn about sexual reproduction of plants and animals and the concepts of gametes and zygotes. Or, the huge gaps in knowledge and formative understanding with the lack of subjects like, oh, history. These complaints said, I did love the way the adults approached providing literature to their children–hiring two writers to live at the respective towers, writing new stories deemed appropriate for the children, month after month, year after year. It is a book that is one of the catalysts for Inspection–one author, driven to the brink of madness because of the choices he has made, decides to write a different book and sneak it to the Alphabet Boys.
If you can get over the knee-jerk reaction to how categorically reductive and foolish the premise is, the actual journey in Inspection is pretty good–it’s a story about growing up, the realization that authority figures are not infallible, or right, or even good. It’s a story of two brilliant young protagonists coming into their own and fighting for the things that they only have begun to realize they’ve missed. AND, Inspection has a bloody great climax and ending. The writing style is a little indulgent, but overall a fun read.
The new tome (576 pages) from Stephen King, The Institute is a story that also follows incredible children put under the power of some truly messed-up experimenting adults. The novel opens with an epigraph stating that according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, roughly 800,000 children are reported missing in the United States alone–most are found, but thousands are not. It is on this tantalizing statistic that King spins a story of a governmental conspiracy–one vast and deep and old, involving men in black stealing kids from their beds. Not just any kids, mind you, but those with special gifts. TPs and TKs, kids with telepathy and telekinesis respectively, are of primary interest to the Institute for reasons unknown to readers or the kids in question.
In true King fashion, The Institute has a delectably terrifying premise, standout protagonists, and horrifically memorable villains. This time around the heroes are kids–in particular, one incredibly smart kid named Luke, who happens to be a genius with two colleges on the hook even though he’s barely in middle school. Among his many talents, Luke also is well-adjusted–meaning he has friends his age, understands how social interactions work, and loves his parents very much. And, Luke has another gift: he can move things with his mind. We’re not talking Carrie or Eleven style full-on telekinesis–it’s akin to a parlor trick. Sometimes cutlery rattles when he’s upset. There isn’t much to it, until his parents are killed in their beds and Luke is whisked away to the eponymous Institute. Here, he meets other kids like him–the beautiful and cool-headed Kalisha, charismatically angry teenager Nick, funny guy George, and the more reserved Iris–and gradually discovers the horror of his situation. Luke and the others are in the Front Half of the Institute, where they are subjected to tests and injections, made to watch and see unsettling dots, and are given tokens for good behavior (they can purchase things like cigarettes and nips of booze and bubble gum and candy and soda with said tokens). They go to bed and wake up and do their tests and one day, they graduate from the Front Half and are sent to the Back Half.
No one ever comes back from Back Half.
The other kids have all been around for longer than Luke, and one by one he sees them taken away. Carefully, Luke thinks and plans and uses his one asset to his advantage–for while he may not be as talented a TK or TP as the others, adults have been underestimating him for his entire life. Together with the help of fellow inmate, the impressively powerful ten-year-old telepath named Avery Dixon, Luke will find a way to bring the Institute to its knees and save his friends.
Found families and friendships, fighting against evil is a classic horror archetype for good reason–it’s awesome. When the found family comprises a group of ragtag misfit kids, a (probably telepathic) former cop, and a soft-hearted woman at the end of her life, it becomes an even more powerful kind of family. Or, since we’re talking King, ka-tet. THIS is what I loved so much about The Institute–the sense of family, of kindred spirits, finding their way to each other despite all of the other monstrous danger in the world. And monstrous the Institute is–as we learn more about the Director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her various lackeys, it’s easy to understand how such a place might exist. For the saving of the greater good, sacrifices must be made, right? (Honestly, the entire thing reminded me a bit of Cabin in the Woods and the need for ritual teenage sacrifice to sate slumbering angry gods.) A zealot who believes, truly, that they are doing the right thing and damn the cost is a dangerous adversary–Luke and his family have their work cut out for them in this novel.
As with pretty much any Stephen King book, The Institute is immensely readable–though I will say it doesn’t quite hit the level of Good vs Evil that, say, It or The Stand do. And, while I loved Luke and Avery and Sha and Nick so so much, I wanted more of a showdown at the end–more fireworks (a pun you’ll pardon, after you’ve read the book). In Malerman’s Inspection the boys’ world ends in blood and vengeance; in The Testament, it’s a little more sanitized, a little more like Dreamcatcher or Stranger Things where one kid’s immense talent causes a paranormal seismic event that kills the bad guys. That’s not a bad thing, really… I just wanted a little bit more.
Still, all things said? The Institute is certainly worth a read, and I absolutely recommend it.
Inspection – 6, Good
The Institute – 7, Very Good