The Institute by Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner | Release Date: September 10, 2019 | Pages: 576
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was in my early-teens, before I could drive. I started with IT under the auspices of go big or go home, and I haven’t looked back since. In fact, I devoured all that I could, gobbling up one book after the next, moving onto The Stand immediately afterwards and then joining the Stephen King fan club. I still have the skeleton key chain with the jeweled eyes somewhere around the house. It’s a relationship that’s lasted for, at least and by my best estimation, 25 years. I’ve only known and cared for my parents longer than I have Stephen King, but I’ll be damned if I don’t hold him in as high a regard. Sitting down with his books is like regarding a familiar loved one for me. And while I do consider myself a Constant Reader, I must admit there have been some lapses on my part. I missed a good chunk of his novels and short story collections between 2013 through 2016, but was drawn back by Sleeping Beauties, admittedly an unfortunate novel to return to after some time away. The Outsider, thankfully, more than made up for that particular misstep, though, and The Institute shows King in top form once again.
He credits his grandchildren with providing him inspiration for this story, and he’s left them, and his readers, one hell of a tome. King brings his A-game here, infusing his words with heart, humor, and a grim darkness that has inadvertently capitalized on real-world horrors. When he was writing The Institute, Trump’s concentration camps along the Mexican border had yet to become a last stop in the life of a number of young children seeking better lives prior to being ripped away from their parents and stuffed into overcrowded cages and left to suffer a host of miseries before their deaths. Reading this book in the wake of the Trump regime’s atrocities, it’s impossible to not draw comparisons, especially when one character pointedly wonders what kind of monsters would put children in a facility like The Institute.
Luke is a gifted twelve-year-old, blessed with an intellect well beyond his years and brimming with an insatiable curiosity. His brain is on overdrive, and he has another gift as a result. Luke can move objects with his mind, usually inadvertently and during times of emotional upheaval. He gets excited and slides a pizza pan off a table without even touching it, for instance. It’s his telekinetic gifts that make him a target for The Institute, though. In a late-night raid on his home, his parents are murdered and Luke is abducted. He wakes up in a room very similar to his own, but outside his bedroom door is a prison-like structure where other children, some telekinetic like him, others telepathic, have been abducted and imprisoned. Each day, they are given injections, experimented on, and tortured in order to enhance their unnatural talents. If they live long enough, they are moved to the Back Half, a secret part of the facility that’s known only through rumor and innuendo, but one thing is certain. The kids that are moved there are never seen or heard from again.
Although children are the primary focus of The Institute, King doesn’t shy away from the harsh treatment of them at the hands of their merciless abductors. When I first read IT as a teen, I could easily see myself as a member of The Losers Clubs. Reading The Institute as a parent of two young boys, there were times I felt more like a helpless, and at times hapless, bystander. Although there’s plenty of sequences involving children in jeopardy, some of which carry plenty of impact through a less is more approach, King shies away from a Jack Ketchum level of brutality. You won’t mistake The Institute for something like The Girl Next Door, but there are still a number of horrifying moments where you want to reach into the pages and save these children, and maybe give the Institute’s guards a much needed beating (or worse). I didn’t find the kids of The Institute to be as effortlessly relateable as I did Bill Denbrough’s gang, but King most definitely got my empathetic alarms blaring red alert here, loudly and long into the night.
King taps into a particular darkness here, but it’s one that’s levied by hope, a staple of most of this author’s works and the thing that make his best narratives so damn compelling. Yes, this is a horror book, and its nastiness is all the more gut-churning for how awfully human it is, but there is a sweetness at its core that you cannot help but root for. King gives you a little bit of sugar to quell the bitter taste the men and women of The Institute leave in your mouth. Luke and his small circle of friends and comrades-in-arms are easy to root for, and you get to know each of them pretty well as the story builds towards an exciting and devastating climax. I do have one small caveat about King’s presentation of these kids, though, and it comes in his initial writing of Luke, whose dialogue between his parents is awfully awkward, and during an SAT exam where he jokes with another student about staying at a Holiday Inn. It’s a lame and dated bit of humor that had me rolling eyes that were otherwise glued to the page thereafter. These small complaints are literally the only issue I had with this book, and they make up such an insignificant amount of this title’s 576 pages that they’re enormously easy to gloss over.
The Institute was an absolute pleasure to read, with moments of heartbreak nicely balanced with fist-pumping action sequences and deft sweetness. King shows, again, why he’s the king of horror, and my absolute all-time favorite writer.