Reading Stephen King in Maine

Notes on summer, horror, and late-career King.

My family spent two weeks in mid-coast Maine last month and I managed to accomplish something that was routine in my teenage summers: I read a pretty good Stephen King novel in the author’s native state.

Relatively few of King’s novels are set among the summer people who throng Vacationland every year, and most of his imaginary Maine towns are deeper inland than the coastline where most of my mother’s family lives, and we out-of-staters visit. But the coast in summer still has its own Kingian vibe, and not only because you can always turn left or right off Route 1 and find yourself down a peninsula whose small towns resemble Castle Rock or Salem’s Lot (though usually, now, with better coffee), or up in the country at a state fair that seems to spring up from the deep woods like Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

The appeal of horror fiction rests on the sense that modern civilization and secular normality are much thinner things than they seem in the bustle of a big American city, in the glow of the iPhone or the TV, in the boredom of everyday suburban commute. And the Maine coast in summer is a thin place, of a sort: It’s a long bustling stretch of Bobo prosperity, a string of restaurants and art galleries and bookstores and antique stores and coffee shops running from Kittery to Bar Harbor, that’s really just the narrowest of threads separating two kinds of wilder territory — the deep country that runs north to King’s Bangor and then all the way to Canada, and the wildness of the Atlantic Ocean south and east. (Now with more sharks!) So you don’t even have to pull off the main arteries and and go looking for something overtly creepy, some abandoned cemetery buried in the fir trees, to feel the weight of darker things pressing against the summer idyll: On one side the hungry ocean, on the other the waiting woods.

Likewise with the weather: In August especially, Maine sells a form of summer that’s extremely summer-y — bright sun, high blue sky, strong greens everywhere — and yet with the edge of autumn always creeping in, in the cool nights and the fogs and the evergreens, whispering to the summer people what horror and fantasy whisper to modernity itself: Your world is thin and weak and fated, it won’t last.

So there’s no better place to read the bard of Bangor — but unfortunately for most of my middle-aged attempts to conjure a Proust’s-Madeleine moment with his novels, and fling myself back to my impressionable, Stand-reading youth, they don’t quite make King novels like they used to. Instead King’s own arc and career track with the longer of arc of American decadence, and more specifically the rise and then the stagnation of the Baby Boomers: The great flare of creativity giving way to repetition, imitation, recursion, in which rather than being imitated by lesser talents the master has been imitating himself.

That’s the through-the-lens-of-my-book way to look at King, at least. Another, somewhat darker take would be that his writing just never fully recovered from his own battle with drugs and alcohol — that the work required to save his life, when his family pulled back into sobriety in the late ‘80s, seemed to also close certain doors or shut down certain transmissions, such that his books were never quite the same.

Or maybe the reality is just that there was no way for a popular writer to sustain the ridiculous run that King started with, when what I think of as his “S” books — Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Pet Sematery and Different Seasons — were all published in just nine short years, along with The Dead Zone and his terrific collaboration with Peter Straub, The Talisman. (You could extend the timespan slightly to include It, but I re-read it when the movies came out and I’m afraid it doesn’t hold up quite as well.) In this reading the drugs and alcohol were mostly incidental to a decline that would have happened anyway; maybe the addiction slowed things down or sped them up slightly, but mostly the man just told the best stories he had to tell in the first ten years, and you can’t blame anyone except the muses for the glory days passing by.

Whatever theory you prefer, though, the fact remains that in the thirty years since a newly-sober King unburied George Stark and then banished him to the netherworld in The Dark Half, he has been insanely prolific, impressively experimental, and never as good as in those early days. His books are always readable: I don’t think I’ve ever picked up a King novel and failed to finish it relatively quickly. But most of his reinventions — the hard-boiled noir experiments, the more self-consciously “literary” efforts, the horror-detective-story hybrids — have been forgettable and some have been a little worse than that. The sequels to earlier greatness (Black House and Doctor Sleep) have likewise disappointed, and about his Dark Tower fantasy saga, begun tersely in his glory days and finished in a prolix style, the less said the better.

Interestingly the post-1990 King books I’ve most enjoyed are generally set outside his New England comfort zone: Desperation in the desert, Duma Key in South Florida, 11/22/63 in 1960s Dallas. This isn’t a universal rule: The Outsider, set in Oklahoma, is a recent going-through-the-motions exercise. But it’s still enough of a pattern to make a kind of creative-refreshment case, with a change of scenery as a useful jolt for novelists who are otherwise running out of novelties.

There’s some of that sense of geographic refreshment in the novel I just read, 2019’s The Institute, which is partially set in a secret facility in Maine’s north woods but also includes a crucial sojourn in small-town South Carolina. Mostly, though, The Institute is a treasure chest of familiar King tropes and gimmicks, an even more overt pastiche than usual: The psychic-prevents-nuclear-war plot from The Dead Zone, the telekenesis from Carrie and Firestarter, the gang-of-kids-against-the-devil narrative from It, the evil Deep State from The Stand, and more. And if this recycling prevents it from reaching the heights of late-’70s King, the book still an extremely well-executed self-pastiche, and probably the best thing he’s written (at least that I’ve read, I’ve missed a few) in the last ten years.

It’s definitely a book that makes the case for his continued productivity, and against some kind of Billy Joel-style retirement from new work (which obviously wouldn’t work in King’s case anyway, given how clearly the man lives to write). The fact that he can still produce a summer read as entertaining as The Institute after all these years … well, good for him, and good for me, to the point that I feel a little ungrateful even spilling out all this criticism of his later work.

Still I do have one SPOILER ALERT complaint about SPOILER ALERT the novel’s ending, which I think SPOILER ALERT pulls the book somewhat lower within the upper tier of later King.

Seriously: If you like King and haven’t read The Institute you should, so go buy it and read it and then come back and read my gripe.

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Okay, so the book’s conceit is that for the last sixty-odd years some kind of international deep state conspiracy — the same kind that puts the microchips in your vaccines, presumably — has been kidnapping kids who display any kind of telekinetic or telepathic talent, experimenting on them for a little while, and then wringing them out and destroying them for some kind of mysterious purpose that’s high-minded enough to convince the ex-military types and scientists running the whole cruel show that they’re heroes, not just Nazis.

At the end of The Institute, the hero/genius kid who brings the whole thing down learns that mysterious purpose: The deep state has a (separate) team of psychics who can pick out key political figures who, like Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone, are likely to play some key role in instigating a nuclear war, and once they’ve been identified the kids’ powers are put to use to remove them, “accidentally,” from the world of the living. So the idea is that the real reason we haven’t destroyed ourselves in the seventy-five years since Hiroshima isn’t the balance of terror or the cultural fear of nuclear destruction or a series of lucky breaks. No, it’s that the world’s shadow government has a bunch of kids who have telekinetically assassinated every single potential Jack D. Ripper before he could get his mitts on the nuclear codes. That the kids turn into vegetables in the process is worth it, from a cold utilitarian calculus, because of how many times they’ve saved millions of human beings from dying under an atomic blast.

After this revelation there then follows a debate about whether the deep state is actually doing its calculations right, whether the psychics are seeing definite futures or hypothetical ones, whether psychic power decays the further out it’s looking … which is all fine and interesting, effective in its moral-supernatural ambiguities, but not what bothers me.

No, the actual problem with the big revelation is that over the course of the book we’ve seen that the deep state forces have uber-competent strike teams of trained kidnappers and assassins who regularly steal normal middle-class American kids from their homes and terminate their parents without anyone connecting the dots … plus a vast network of spies and informers who help track potential kidnappees and also track the protagonist when he escapes … plus some kind of tacit backing from the actual government of the United States … plus enough confidence in their cover-up capacities to shoot up a police station and assume that they can get away scot-free. And honestly, if you have that level ready-to-go, Men in Black-type power, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to take the list of potential nuclear warmongers your psychics are supplying and just, you know, go deal with them yourselves, through more old-fashioned means? Why would you layer on the whole telekinetic-kid aspect of the operation, with all the kidnapping and murdering and misery that it requires, all the requisite management of pre-teens (God help you), all the myriad ways that long-distance televiolence can presumably go wrong?

Yes, okay some people are harder to assassinate than others, but the people the kids take out in the course of The Institute include a megachurch pastor, a rising-star congressman and a foreign warlord. Is it really easier to deal with this kind of group via a team of twelve-year-olds running an insanely challenging long-distance psycho-manipulation of reality, as opposed to just going with a drone strike on the warlord and, I dunno, some kind of ruthless reputational attack on the U.S. figures before you escalate to assassination? (I realize that I’m casting the whole Matt Gaetz sex scandal in a new light here.) Admittedly the U.S. government specializes in overcomplicated boondoggles, and presumably the world’s shadow government does too. But King isn’t (I think) writing a parable about pure bureaucratic folly; he means for his deep state to be wicked and misguided but not stupid. And if you presented a ruthless and intelligent global elite with convincing proof that a specific group of people were likely to plunge the world into nuclear winter unless they could somehow be removed, I really think they could come up with a less complicated plan than “kidnap every telekinetic kid in the developed world and put them to work as long-distance assassins.”

That’s why as a reader I was expecting the revelation to involve some kind of balance of terror in its own right, where either a foreign enemy or an alien race or even supernatural force was being kept at bay by the kids’ efforts, and what was being accomplished was really something that only the kids could do — Ender’s Game meets Omelas.

But instead it’s like if Omelas ran on the suffering of children for no obvious reason, when you could ensure the survival of its utopia more easily through sordid but normal intelligence-agency machinations instead.

So that’s my gripe. Thanks for listening. Hopefully I’ll have a book report on Billy Summers after next year’s Maine vacation.