Art that scares Stephen King | Daily News

Art that scares Stephen King

In his 61st novel, “The Institute,” children with supernatural abilities are taken from their parents and incarcerated. Sound familiar?

The author is about to turn 72 as he publishes his 61st novel, “The Institute,” about children who display supernatural abilities being forcibly rounded up for study by a shadowy organization that brutally discards them when their usefulness is exhausted. Those who think of King primarily for horror may be surprised by how much warmth there is in a book that sounds so coldblooded.

Stephen King wouldn’t still be in business if all he had to sell was fear.

Within every terrifying story about a shape-shifting killer clown, homicidal father in a haunted hotel or super flu that depopulates the planet, the relentlessly prolific writer has filled his pages with equally powerful supplies of strength, selflessness and even hope.

That may be why so many readers, many of whom discovered his books when they were kids themselves, have remained loyal over 45 years of storytelling.

The author is about to turn 72 as he publishes his 61st novel, “The Institute,” about children who display supernatural abilities being forcibly rounded up for study by a shadowy organization that brutally discards them when their usefulness is exhausted. Those who think of King primarily for horror may be surprised by how much warmth there is in a book that sounds so coldblooded.

The concept for the book dates back more than two decades, when King — who has depicted similar psychic characters as loners in books such as “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “Firestarter” and “The Dead Zone” — pictured an entire schoolhouse filled with such kids.

When he began writing the book in March 2017, he thought of it not as a horror story but as a resistance tale, with 12-year-old telekinetic genius Luke, teenage mind reader Kalisha and 10-year-old power-channeler Avery forming a rebellion inside their detention center.

“I wanted to write about how weak people can be strong,” King says, speaking by phone from his home in Bangor, Me. “We’re each on our own island, and at the same time sometimes we can yell to each other and get together, and there is that sense of community and empathy. I love that. I love that in stories.”

Community and empathy

“It never really works in a homily,” he adds. “It sounds saccharine sweet if you just say, ‘friends make things better,’ but when you tell a story, people understand. Everybody wants to have a friend because this is basically a lonely business, life.”

King acknowledges “The Institute” shares that theme with his 1986 epic “It,” which has sparked a resurgence of film and TV adaptations of his work after the blockbuster success of the 2017 movie version. A sequel, “It: Chapter Two,” which adapts the grown-up half of his novel, opens in theaters on Sept. 6. The plots of “It” and “The Institute” are completely different, but at the core of each story is something the author says matters more and more to him these days: not creating fear, but dispelling it.

“One of the challenges when you’ve been around as long as I have and you think you’ve explored all the corners of the room, you have to say to yourself, ‘What are the things that really concern me? What are the things that I care about?’” King says. “Well, I care about friendship. I care about a government that’s too big and that will try to do things where the ends justify the means. I care about defenseless people who try to find a way to defend themselves. All those things are in ‘The Institute.’”

Flight or fright

He can still pen gruesome and harrowing scenes, but King’s friends say they’ve noticed a change in his stories. “In general, a lot of Steve’s recent work has become more optimistic,” says Bev Vincent, the author of “The Stephen King Illustrated Companion” and co-editor, with King, on the short story anthology “Flight or Fright.”

He cites King books like last year’s “Elevation,” a comedic novella about a man who literally sheds the weight of the world and begins to drift away, and “Gwendy’s Button Box,” the collaboration King wrote with the Cemetery Dance publisher Richard Chizmar, about a contraption that delivers good fortune by inflicting misfortune elsewhere.

“They had happy endings. They had optimistic viewpoints about humanity, both individual people and groups of people, even when there were jerks in the mix,” Vincent says.

“Is he mellowing with his viewpoint of the world, or in the earlier books might that have always been there? Ultimately maybe there’s a positive outlook on humanity underlying it all.”These days King is less enamored of his bleakest stories, like “Pet Sematary.” When the directors of last spring’s remake were devising a closing shot for the film, he proposed an idea that spared the young character he killed off in the original novel. (They didn’t go for it.)

While he usually keeps a distance on adaptations of his work, he’s making an exception with 2006’s “Lisey’s Story” — an otherworldly love story about a woman putting together the pieces after her husband’s death — and writing every episode of the J.J. Abrams-produced Apple TV series that will star Julianne Moore. For the upcoming CBS All Access adaptation of his end-of-the-world saga “The Stand,” he has penned a new ending that sounds like a happily-ever-after for two survivors of Armageddon.

Otherworldly love

“Had it for years,” he says wistfully. “I always wanted to find out what happened to Stu and Frannie when they went back.”

Chizmar sees a lot of his friend and collaborator in the children of “The Institute.” “I think Steve’s a big kid,” he says. “You have adults with power, and kids who represent good and innocence, and they band together to take that power back. He’s a grandfather now, and he dedicated the book to his three grandsons, and I think he has a little bit of cynicism for the old guys, but hope for the youth.”For a while, King considered making the villains of “The Institute” the same group that hunted the pyrokinetic Charlie McGee in 1980’s “Firestarter.”

“I thought at first, ‘Well, O.K., I’ll make this The Shop. The Shop is locking these kids up,’” he says. “But then I thought, ‘No, I don’t really want it to be a government deal.’” Instead, he decided the antagonists should be privately funded zealots.

- New York Times

 


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