Stephen King’s Imprisoned Kids Mirror the Horror at the Border

By Nathan S. Webster
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Stephen King’s short stories tended toward a grim denouement.  The shock endings of the stories in Night Shift—often a single line of hanging-thread suspense implying what’s about to happen—first captured my teenage interest. Those stories rarely gave clean escapes, just a reminder that it’s a bad, bad world.

King’s full-length novels resolve with more firmness. His new release, The Institute, wraps up all plots after 550 pages, a tidy resolution for the investment.

It is no spoiler to summarize The Institute as the story of children of many genders and races who possess low-level telepathic abilities getting kidnapped by government-like forces, detained at secret camps, and abused by guards and staff who see them as lab rats more than humans. King presents a male and female mix of villains who have compromised their morality in an “ends justify the means” scenario.

The narrative is akin to ’70s conspiracy movies like Soylent Green, Capricorn One, or Logan’s Run. Those films featured hidden agendas uncovered by moral heroes, and while real world connections were present, they weren’t quite the point. “Soylent Green is people!” was no literal call to action except maybe as an (ignored) allegory to avoid junk food.  

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The Trump era makes similar thrillers seem quaint, with today’s schemes in plain sight. The Institute’s villains exploit the youthful heroes from behind layers of secrecy—but its real-life twin of modern-day border detention camps, full of real-life children, exists with no attempt at cover-ups. 

King used children as lead characters right from the start. Just 26 when he wrote 1974’s Carrie, the cruel dialogue and scenes of bullying capture a true-life portrayal of any era’s high school days. The book’s annihilation of the school’s prom is a revenge fantasy lastingly—relatably—horrible because King puts to words every bullied kid’s fever dream of burning their tormentors down to the ground.

In 1977’s Rage, written as Richard Bachman, King presents a sympathetic school shooter. He started writing it at 18; a teenager’s repressed frustration is clear in its wrath against systems and expectations. Rage’s first-person narrator even convinces his classmate hostages to attack one supposedly-popular peer.

Those books succeed by using the visceral anguish of children in moral and mortal peril, underdogs gone rabid. Tormented Carrie destroys her town; Charlie Decker kills two teachers. Only a writer living in raw youth could effectively empathize with each character’s deep streak of darkness.

Moral nuances faded as King aged, his child characters becoming clearer innocents. His books often put kids under existential threat: Salem’s Lot, Cujo, The Shining, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, and of course IT. Sometimes the kids come out okay, sometimes not.

The Institute puts plainly heroic kids in a fight for survival. Adult allies appear, but the children grow up fast, and protect each other. They turn hard-hearted, earning over-the-top payback if they can:

“Zap-sticks hurt!” Luke shouted at her. Glass shards rattled across the floor. “Being half-drowned hurts! And having your mind ripped open?” He jammed his thumb against the bullet wound again. “Having your mind destroyed? That hurts most of all!”

The book’s main character of 12-year-old Luke has a precocious nature explained by making him a pre-teen super-genius, planning to simultaneously attend MIT and Emerson College. After his kidnapping, Luke meets other screenplay-ready kids, Kalisha, Avery, Nick, and more.

The story’s momentum comes from melodramatic sections ending with cliffhanger lines of grave import:

“She leaned forward, looking directly into the lens. Directly at him. ‘And that might mean the end of the world.’”

Or: “'Send him in. But this better be good.’ It wasn’t. It was bad. Very.”

Melodrama kind of cheats, artificially building tension like a movie where the audience sees the bad guy behind a door; the camera tells you to get excited for what’s next.

Compare The Institute with an unhinged vision from Rage: “He threw her on the bed beside me and I saw that she was dead, and that’s when I woke up screaming. With an erection.”

Or, Carrie’s understated doom: “The door slammed and the key turned. She was alone with Momma’s angry God.”

Rage and Carrie are a faucet’s ceaseless drip that makes you finally tear the pipes from the wall—the existential threat of a mind teetering on the edge.

King wisely took Rage out of print. Insecure children seeking validation for violent thoughts should not take its dark path. The Institute will never find equal notoriety. It will sell many copies and moderately entertain thousands of readers, but there are better options for melodramatic escapism.

Drama becomes melodrama when one has an idea of the dangerous brink, without feeling the vertigo from the precipice. King conceived Carrie and Rage barely removed from high school’s dystopia; that environment’s primal drama comes alive in the headlong urgency of King’s writing, the terror of characters spinning out of control amid systems that demand compliance.

In 2019, King’s unstoppable creativity faces no restriction but mortality; his children are successful, his descendants secure; he is the system. The vision of The Institute’s cruelty can’t come from his own reality and it shows. “That might mean the end of the world” is dialogue that can be un-ironically written only by someone with no existential concern except the end of the world.

This is no argument that The Institute is a bad story, and certainly not that King is a bad writer. Society had that debate, and King sold 350 million books. It is not a criticism to say that King in 2019 doesn’t write with the instinctive edge he felt in 1974.

The Institute is a good idea of a threat—the book’s front-piece dramatically cites that 800,000 kids go missing each year, thousands never found. Maybe dark agencies planned schemes from hidden lairs. But Firestarter had already explored The Institute’s warmed-over enemy. Rogue soldiers? Kids in a lab? It feels unnecessary.

Ultimately, a tepid review of a King book is like saying Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch album was a weak substitute for Born to Run. Yeah, and?  

I still read The Institute cover to cover, as I’ve read all King’s books and stories. Granted, I felt no sense of “leave the lights on”dread, like from Pet Sematery in my youth. I never felt enraptured in anyone’s lives and fates, as I did with the survivors of The Stand.

A career that spans 60-plus books will have ups and down. I loved Revival, with its nihilistic, Lovecraftian ending, felt moved by the poignant humanity of 11/22/63. So what if I finished unimpressed with The Institute’s derivative premise and one-dimensional characters? I finished.

A book fails only if it inspires nothing to share, if I forgot I ever read it. I’ve done that with King—I couldn’t tell you the plot of Duma Key, even as Christine still feels like I read it yesterday.

The Institute inspired me by how my mind went outside the story. As I read, I felt lifted from the narrative at many points:

Such as: Kalisha raised her voice. Are you there? Are you listening? I hope you are, because I hate you and I want you to know it! I HATE YOU!”

Or: “His ears were ringing from the open-handed slap… Luke staggered back a step and stared at the big man with wide, stunned eyes… Tony’s grin was gone. “Want another? Happy to oblige. You kids who think you own the world. Man oh man.”

In full context, these moments aren’t especially horrible. Angry kids scream in frustration, abusive staff doles out low-yield physical punishment, all part of the Institute’s dehumanization of children, who it needs to be compliant but healthy. The government knows best.

What took me out of moments like those and others is knowing that it’s not theoretical to imagine kids in places where oversight is minimal, and staff apathy has led to mistreatment or death.

Our government behaves like this, according to Human Rights Watch, examining modern-day border detention facilities: “The detained children we spoke with told us about an infant as young as six-months old being cared for by an unrelated teenager because the baby’s mother was in the hospital.”

Or, as reported by ABC News: “Dolly Lucio Sevier described the McAllen, Texas facility as including ‘extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care… It just felt lawless,’ she said. ‘I can't imagine my child being there and not being broken.’”

The Institute would not have felt as bound to our real world if it had appeared five years ago. Border detention facilities existed then, but without the unleashed malice of 2019. The book’s connection to our present day now feels starkly obvious.

I am not saying to read The Institute only through this real-world lens. Rather, if you read without today’s real world clear in mind, than you will get, at best, mediocre escapism. You will elude reality for the time it takes to read 550 pages. You will cheer for plucky children on the wrong side of cliché, as they face high odds and self-sacrifice. Then you will put the book down and go about your day.

Take away the children’s superpowers, and I hope the worst tortures, and The Institute becomes a type of non-fiction. A reminder that real kids don’t get flu shots despite bacteria-filled close quarters; teenagers care for infants; parents have disappeared and may never be seen again. Maybe staff members do their best, or not. Without transparency, we’re left with theories of how staff might behave, when their highest leaders paint detainees as animals. The Institute is that fictional guess about authority that thinks, “We know best.”

In 2019, The Institute becomes an indispensable window into the low-rent sadism of these real-life facilities. What else would they sound like, except kids screaming: Are you there? Are you listening? I hope you are, because I hate you and I want you to know it! I HATE YOU!”

To ask if King wrote The Institute as a deliberate metaphor for these camps, he answered that when speaking with The New York Times’ Anthony Breznican: “That [comparison] was creepy to me because it was really like what I was writing about. But I don’t want you to say that was in my mind when I wrote the book… I’m not a person who wants to write allegory like Animal Farm or 1984.”

He also told Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene, “I don’t want to force my worldview on people.”

King has never exploited ripped-from-the-headlines plots; real life has followed him, not the other way around. He knows his role ends with publication. No author can demand that readers see their book a certain way. What is the point of reading, if the author flat-out tells you how to feel?

I didn’t write it, so I can be blunt. You should read The Institute, but as education, not entertainment.

King presents fictional kids torn from their parents, mistreated by government agents who say that each abuse is the way it needs to be. Some villains are even decorated war heroes, and King lets them justify their actions within the narrative: “You may not like it, but you see it… The world is still here. That’s not a statistic, that’s a fact,” one person spouts in a moustache-twirley rant. “Seventy years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs, the world is still here.”

The character’s justification is like any desperate rationalization for doing wrong. No reader could take his side. It would feel immoral.

If you cheer for King’s fake kids against that enemy, why would you accept real ones struggling in a similar situation?

Absorb The Institute’s images of pain felt by those with no easy hope. Turn pages to feel unease become shame, for actions done on our behalf. The Institute’s clean finale concludes fictional plot lines but lingers like King’s short stories reveal dirty horrors beyond the last words. See past each page, and from The Institute find the right kind of rage.

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