I did something this year that I haven’t done since I was in high school: read two Stephen King novels back to back. First up was The Institute, followed by The Outsider. I suppose we could throw Elevation into the mix, too, since I read that earlier this year, but all I really have to say about that one is that it appears to be deeply underappreciated by a number of reviewers. It’s a magical little book that holds a unique place among King’s output, and its dedication to Richard Matheson—which King extends into the text itself by giving his protagonist the same first and last name as the protagonist from Matheson’s The Shrinking Man—is beyond appropriate.
So, The Institute. What we have here is essentially a YA novel with a very dark and menacing edge. I think a strong argument could be made that the writing in The Outsider is better than in The Institute, but there’s something special about King’s exploration of a facility hidden away in the woods of Maine where children with telepathic and telekinetic capabilities are forced to expand those abilities, and put them to a very specific purpose. I remember an early review that claimed the book has the “kid power of IT.” That’s kind of right. The book itself is nothing like IT, but the resolution of the plot is very much in the hands of the child characters, even to a greater extent than is the case in IT, since the members of the Losers Club from that novel aren’t able to get the job done as kids and have to return to face the monster again as adults. In The Institute, they have one shot, and they make the most of it. Boy, do they!
The Outsider, by contrast, is very much a novel for and about grown-ups. The trouble they stir, the bad decisions they sometimes make, their too-often unspoken reliance on one another, the narrowness of their beliefs. It fizzles a little in the third act, but not enough to be a huge concern. By the time the end game rolls around, you’ve had such a good time with the narrative that, if you’re at all like me, you’ll forgive a lot. This is an attitude that serves the Stephen King fan well in many cases (again, see IT). Aside from Pet Sematary, Misery, and 11/22/63 (maybe even Elevation and Gerald's Game), I don’t know that I’ve ever been one-hundred-percent satisfied with one of his endings. But that’s a little off topic. The Outsider is a fine book of otherworldly dread. And none of this nitpicking about endings prevents King from being one of my favorite authors.
The Outsider is also practically a fourth book in the Bill Hodges cycle, as it turns out. Had I known this going in, I might have made an effort to get the first three books read once and for all before leaping into The Outsider. But I’ll tell you what, I’m really looking forward to devouring them after meeting Holly Gibney in The Outsider. What a fantastic character. I started reading Mr. Mercedes about a year ago, to be honest, and really dug it. But sometimes I simply put a book aside for a while, completely without relation to its quality. I can’t wait to get back to it. (It’s also my New Year’s resolution to do less of this kind of setting aside of perfectly good books.)
At this point you might be asking yourself, So how about the ending of The Institute? King does commit one of the same sins as in The Outsider, truth be told, by having a villainous character connect a good number of the dots for us through some eleventh-hour speechifying. In The Institute however, there is a pre-ending that is likely to divide people even more than this. It’s either going to knock your socks off or induce a giant face-palm. Me? I looked up from an initial face-palm to see that I’d lost both socks and a shoe.
It’s always very comforting to spend time with Stephen King’s prose, like snuggling under an afghan crocheted especially for you by a kindly old loved one. In this regard, King is impervious to criticism. In fact, whatever it is that spells success for the human animal, he was pretty clearly given an extra dose of it at birth. He does what he loves, is well compensated for it, and is able to deliver the goods over and over again. It’s the best kind of predictability. And his fans seem to follow him anywhere, a luxury that many writers have found themselves lacking, the hard way. If he wants to write a realistic suspense tale, we show up. If he decides to publish a science fiction novel, there we are. Hell, he can even write an epic fantasy series if he wants. We will plunk our coins down on the counter. Then there are the countless film and television adaptations, and aren’t they another expression of admiration from a world that can’t seem to get enough of the King’s wares?
Although I might have welcomed slightly more satisfying endings from both The Institute and The Outsider, I wouldn’t take back the time I spent with either book. Give me a better way to express my fondness for Stephen King’s writing and I’ll use it. All I can really add is that at seventy-two years of age, he’d have every right to start showing signs of decline as a writer. That he has not is testament to his prodigious abilities, but also to the veracity of his judgment in what and when he chooses to publish. I, for one, hope he doesn’t retire as long as he’s still writing books as good as The Outsider and The Institute.