“The Institute” by Stephen King

Genre:  Horror FictionThe Institute
Publisher:  Charles Scribner’s Sons
Pub. Date:  September 10, 2019

I haven’t read the great storyteller, Stephen King, in over twenty years. “It,” (the one where the preteens are against the evil clown) was the last book of his that I read until this one.  Still, I was a fan of his early work.  I enjoy his style of blending the “coming of age” genre with almost believable “horror.”  As a teen in 1974, I read “Carrie,” (who can forget that bloody prom dress) before it became a movie two years later.  His latest novel is similar to “Firestarter,” (the hunted little girl with telekinetic abilities) as well as to “It.”  In other words, it is a story of innocent preteens confronting evil. That is what caught my eye.  Writing about kids is vintage King.  One of my favorite stories by the author is “The Body.”  You may remember the film version, “Stand By Me.”  Set in early 1960, four 12-year-old boys, all from abusive families, tell their parents they will be camping out because they consider it to be a rite of passage. They really are searching for the rumored dead body of another boy.  The horror here is from their youthful imaginations and their living conditions at home. Few writers have King’s ability to create credible preteens. These four boys make corny off-color jokes about Goofy and Mickey, the sort of things that boys talk about before they discover girls. Probably, it is the coming of age part of his books that I enjoy so much.

“The Institute” is set in the present, located in, but where else, Maine, which is King’s home state and the location of most of his novels. The plot emulates “Firestarter,” and “It.” In this one there are no ghosts, devils, clowns, diabolical invaders or magical kingdoms.  The horror comes from the average people who run the place which is similar to “The Body.”  The actual institute may or may not be a secret government project.  Their purpose is to kidnap children with psychic powers and use them to dispatch of targets who are considered dangerous to human survival.  This makes the tale mostly believable.  Think “The Manchurian Candidate.”  They use the kids until they cease to exist.  As one of the kidnapped girls explains to the newbie kid, “The Institute, is like the roach motel.  You check in, but you don’t check out.”  She also tries to sooth the new boy’s fear by reprimanding the other boys who are ignoring him and playing basketball, “don’t you remember how weird it is to wake up here in what looks like your own room?” The author ensures, maybe one too many times, that these kids’ fates are similar to those children near certain US borders. Although I agree with his views on Trump, I am tired of finding the theme in my fiction.  Still, it is terrifying to read about the kids, who are hostages in the institute, who will eventually end up looking like a character from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  Plus, the woman in charge of the “school” is portrayed as a perfect Nurse Ratched.  She represents how one can desensitize themselves to torture allowing them to dehumanize the children. Basically, King is questioning the theory that the ends can justify the means.

So, once again King writes on the battles between good and evil, just like he did in “The Stand,” (where a super flu virus makes for an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tale).  Like many other King fans, “The Stand” is still my favorite.  Maybe this is because in 1978 it was a fresh story. In 2019, the author seems to be rewriting his most popular books. I say, So what?  This reviewer enjoyed the blast from the Stephen King past.   From reading the book’s blurb, I knew just what it was about the book that I was looking forward to reading: a coming of age story in the most severe of situations. I wasn’t looking for something fresh.  I wasn’t looking for a literary read.  I was looking for King going back to his roots.  And that is what I got.  Sometimes, “The Institute,” unlike “The Body,” has 12-year-old slang that is questionable.  Do kids say “necking” anymore? Would they really be able to sing Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart?”  If both are not true, I do not care, it worked in this story. Plus, I would have been disappointed if he left out his trademark musical references.

In between the terror, King teases us by poking fun at himself and how long he has been at his craft. There are a pair of seven-year-old girl twins at the Institute who are reminiscent of the twins from, “The Shining,” (You know the film. “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy”).  When one boy in the institute meets them for the first time he thinks that they are just like the twins “in some old horror movie” but he couldn’t remember the name of the film.  If you are looking for something new from the Lord of Darkness, this is not it.  If you go in knowing this, you will enjoy this creepy read about a boy who one day wakes up in a bedroom that looks just like his, but isn’t.

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“The Sentinel” by Jeffrey Konvitz

Genre:           Horror FictionThe Sentenal
Publisher:     Ballantine Books
Pub. Year:     1974

My Halloween book for 2018 was written in 1974 by Jeffrey Konvitz.  I read this book the year after I graduated high school (dating myself) and I remember it scaring the bejesus out of me.  I was wondering if it still could. It did, but with noticeable flaws.  As a teen in 1968, I read “Rosemary’s Baby.”  And in 1973, I read “The Exorcist.”  Both books better stand the test of time than this one did.  I can see what attracted me back then to the “Sentinel.”   As a native New Yorker, I enjoyed that the setting takes place in the Big Apple.   The teenage me would have found the protagonist, a beautiful-but-troubled fashion model to be a fascinating character simply because she was a model.

Here is a snapshot of the plot.  The heroine moves into an old brownstone building and befriends the other occupants who are bizarrely eccentric.  Sounds like “Rosemary’s Baby” right?  Wrong—I actually found these neighbors even spookier (possible spoiler) because the reader is not sure if they truly exist or are part of the model’s imagination.  The house is inhabited on the top floor by a reclusive blind Catholic priest, who may or may not be evil.   He spends his time sitting at his open window.  Yes, such a thought can still scare the Catholic schoolgirl in me.  Is our heroine crazy or is she in hell?  The book also has an unsolved murder in its plot.  This would be the deceased wife of our heroine’s boyfriend.  I can’t say anymore about him or it would be a spoiler.

So why didn’t this book stand the test of time?  First of all, as an adult, I was pissed off that her loving boyfriend uses his hands on her.   Plus, her abusive father is written as such an insane deviant, he is not a believable character. Not to mention that a lesbian couple are referred to as perverts.   Okay, there was no PC in the 1970s hopefully we have all grown since then.  But what bothered me most was how the story’s lewdness seems to have been written for shock value only and that seldom works.  Maybe I am being too critical.   Stephen King’s “Carrie,” which was published in 1973, also had a crazy religious fanatic parent who beats her daughter.  I guess I need to reread King’s first novel to see if it also feels dated.  Still, I feel that “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist” are superior to “Sentinel” because, like another King novel “The Stand,” they are basically fables about good vs. evil, which means we are talking about the Bible. According to the March 2007 “Time” edition “the Bible has done more to shape literature, history, entertainment, and culture than any book ever written. Its influence on world history is unparalleled, and shows no signs of abating.”  Now that is staying power. And let’s face it: when it comes to horror inspired by the bible nothing is more terrifying.

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“Ararat” by Christopher Golden

Pub. Date:  April 18, 2017

Publisher:   St. Martin’s Press

Ararat

This novel originally caught my eye because the famous mountain located in Eastern Turkey has long been known for the place named in the Book of Genesis where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the great flood (Genesis 8:4). As the product of a Catholic school, how could I resist a novel with all sorts of biblical suggestions?  However, the main characters in this eerie tale are of all religions with diverse backgrounds.  I knew from the blurb that I was going to be reading a horror story.  Early into the book’s chapters, I was delighted to learn that the novel is well written.  I would say this is a literary horror tale (if there is such a genre).

The premise of the novel is that after an earthquake, on the top of one of the mountain’s sides, there is now an opening showing “something.”  There is a race between scientists, historians, religious leaders, and filmmakers all rushing immediately to Turkey.   They all want to be the first to explore the opening that just might lead to the famous ark.   Our protagonists are an engaged couple (one a Jew and the other a Muslim) who take on the dangerous mountain climb with the intention of co-writing a documentary.  They already had a bestseller on another one of their adventures together.  From the start of their climb up the mountain, there are tensions among the multi-ethnic crew with their different beliefs.  When the explorers, with their guides, arrive at the opening in the mountain they do discover the remains of an ancient ship that may or may not be Noah’s Ark.  In this cave-like ship, they discover many skeletal remains of humans and animals, as well as an ancient tomb with writing that dates before Jesus Christ.  On this expedition, a Catholic priest argues that they need to open this tomb because it just may be the greatest connection to biblical history ever found.  The Father’s suggestion is a big mistake because inside the container lays a 5,000-year-old horned cadaver, and once released all hell literally breaks out.  Think of the novel “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty.  If you didn’t read the book, I am sure you saw the movie.  Around this point in the novel, the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.

The author does a wonderful job of making the reader feel as if the characters are the last people on earth, I could feel the cold and frostbitten body parts, see their teeth chattering, sense their claustrophobia and paranoia as they desperately try to rid themselves of the supernatural creature that they seemed to have awoken.   The atheists and the religious come together to help one another escape the cave inside the top of the mountain.   They make their descent during an out-of-control blizzard.  In a way, “Ararat” reminded me of the 1970s escape-disaster movies (“The Towering Inferno” or “The Poseidon Adventure”) where the protagonists try to save lives, subdue panic and escape a burning building or a ship’s watery grave knowing that only a few or possibly none will survive.

I started reading the book on a drive up to rural Vermont.  I decided to stop so I could finish when I arrived at my destination, which is a cabin on a mountain in what could be a scary environment.  I wanted to make the most of this tale.  To read it in the cabin at night, with the wind blowing, and the coyotes howling which I knew would enhance my goosebumps.   I enjoyed my goosebumps.  The author did what he intended: he scared the bejeezus out of me.    Yet, finishing the story, cuddled up under a blanket, in the pitch black darkness of a rural area while listening to the rain pound the cabin, I found myself disappointed with the ending.  Oh, I most certainly felt scared, but I expected more.  I felt that the ending became a familiar plot where a beast can assume the shape of its victims.   This is a story that has been told hundreds of times on cable TV shows aimed at an audience that cannot get enough of Zombie stories. I would have preferred an ending that relies less on monster movie gimmicks and more on reality-based, catechism-induced horrors.   However, the writing is so super in this book I have to recommend you give “Ararat” a spine-chilling try.  The author will give you a harrowing look at battling ancient evil forces and demand that the reader questions the existence of God, Michael the archangel (found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as the fallen angel, known as Lucifer.  Be prepared to be terrified.

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