Let me admit something up front – I was initially a bit nervous to take on this review. How do you review a Stephen King novel when you’ve been a devoted “Constant Reader” (to borrow King’s term) for most of your life? The task was daunting, but I ultimately decided that my desire to read his latest novel, The Institute, as soon as possible was stronger than my fear of reviewing King’s work. If you’re on this site, you’ve likely encountered something written by Stephen King, whether it be a bestselling novel, short story collection, screenplay, viral tweet, or virtually any other written medium. I could list the awards he’s written, but I think it’s more valuable that I just say this: Stephen King is a horror legend and a vital figure of horror fiction.
The Institute largely follows the story of Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old genius who also happens to have some meagre telekinetic abilities, is violently kidnapped from his home and taken to the titular Institute. There he meets other children, some of whom are like him and have telekinetic abilities, while others possess telepathic powers. As all of these child prisoners are endowed with minute amounts of these skills, with the notable exception of Avery Dixon, who possesses a great deal of telepathic abilities, they can’t figure out exactly why they were selected to be there. The group of adults who run the Institute claim that they were carefully chosen in order to serve humankind and prevent the world from ending. Luke and his fellow inmates undergo various tests and treatments which are often painful and never explained while residing in the Institute’s “Front Half.” They are also able to obtain “tokens” for good behaviour which, in turn allows them to purchase items like candy, chips, and soda, as well as cigarettes and alcohol. The inevitable threat of being eventually sent to the Institute’s sinister “Back Half” looms over the children, but Luke doesn’t plan to wait around and find out what mysterious horrors await anyone who graduates from Front Half. However, in order to escape and overcome the very likely chance that he will fail, Luke can’t do it alone.
Like most of King’s other works, The Institute is a true page-turner, particularly the final hundred pages or so. The end of each chapter made me feel like I needed to read a little more, just to find out what happened next. My desperate need to binge my way through this novel was almost a problem, as I repeatedly put aside other important responsibilities and plans in order to keep reading. I’d like to formally issue an apology to all of the friends I avoided during my time at The Institute. It was hard to escape, but I’m back… at least for now.
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There were a number of familiar King elements throughout The Institute that are sure to delight other Constant Readers. Perhaps the most obvious is the collection of children with telekinetic and telepathic powers who feature as most of the novel’s lead characters. Luke and his crew of kidnapped misfits are reminiscent of It’s Losers’ Club, Charlie McGee from Firestarter, Danny Torrence of The Shining, and Doctor Sleep’s Abra Stone. These children must face a great evil long before they are old enough to even fully understand how cruel the world can be; their supernatural abilities not only give the children strength, but these powers are also what makes them hunted, kidnapped, and tortured by the Institute’s staff. Although these children must face the terrors of the Institute and supposedly bear the responsibility of protecting the world because of their telepathic and telekinetic (or, to use The Institute’s lingo, “TP” and “TK”) powers, they also experience the very mundane realities of growing up: they lash out in childish frustration, goof around in the cafeteria, and develop friendships as well as heartaches on the Institute’s bug-infested playground. While I initially found Luke to be pretty aggravating at the start of the novel (at one point he tells his mother to “Calm down, mamacita”), I eventually grew to like him as his confidence and self-satisfaction are put to the test by Mrs. Sigsby and the other adults of the Institute who don’t seem to care about his above-average intelligence.
A second ingredient common to Stephen King’s oeuvre present in The Institute is small town America. There’s a second story-line that runs parallel to the Luke’s for most of the novel. It features Tim Jamieson, a former Sarasota policeman and current night watcher of DuPray, South Carolina, a small southern town that, in the words of Sheriff John Ashworth: “isn’t the most interesting place on earth, or even in South Cah’lina.” In his official role of night walker, Tim walks the streets of DuPray at night, allowing him to meet a number of the townsfolk, including Orphan Annie, a homeless woman and conspiracy theorist; Drummer Denton, a deeply depressed barber; and Addie Goolsby, an elderly widow who sits out on her porch at night. There’s always something comforting to be found in King’s ability to paint the homespun characters recognisable to anyone who has ever spent any time in Smalltown, USA.
Of course, while Stephen King delivers on humble comforts, he also gives his readers plenty of scares. Throughout The Institute, King repeatedly draws parallels between the various medical texts which the Institute inflicts on its child inmates to the experiments performed in Nazi Germany by monsters such as Josef Mengele. In one particularly terrifying scene, Luke is “hooked up to an IV that Priscilla said would relax him a little. What it did was knock him cold. When he awoke, shivering and naked, his abdomen, right leg, and right side had been bandaged.” Luke never learns exactly what sort of surgery he had received in this moment. During their stay in the Institute’s Front Half, the children are given countless shots, held underwater to the point of drowning, and are mocked while forcibly getting their temperature taken anally. Most survive these treatments, but some die horribly as an immediate result.
Beyond these more physical terrors, The Institute also delivers on existential dread. The Institute’s supposed purpose is to prevent the world from ending. King fleshes out the Institute’s claim that humanity is doomed through repeated glimpses of horrors to our contemporary world. An event described early in the novel pulls from present fears regarding America’s current crisis with mass shooters, while, near the end, we hear of a religious leader whose connection with a US president’s administration will lead to nuclear war. The inner logic of The Institute repeatedly informs the reader that humanity and the world at large is currently hanging on by a thread, and the fact that we all still exist is a miracle provided by the Institute. Along with these larger existential threats which humanity currently faces, King also manages to include a few digs at President Trump. I won’t share them all here, as I don’t want to take away the pleasure of coming across these expertly peppered-in insults from you, but here’s one of my favourites: A librarian Tim meets in Florida early in the novel claims that the Southeastern Library Association has no funding because “Trump and his cronies took it all back. They understand culture no more than a donkey understands algebra.” I was thankful that King incorporated these moments of levity into the novel, as I may have otherwise found this a stressful read due to his use of current real-world fears.
The aspect of The Institute that most eased my anxiety, however, was its sizable portion of hope in the face of terror and evil, a vital component of the Stephen King brand. Luke quickly discovers that he can’t fight the Institute alone, as his intelligence is only part of the required equation. Each of his friends, as well as Tim, provide an important skill or tool to defeating this evil. The children Luke encounters at the Institute don’t initially realise their power, but are able to find it together.
The many threats currently facing America and the world at large (mass shootings, white supremacy, climate change, neoliberalism, etc.) can often feel overwhelming. The Institute’s simple yet compelling message of community and love overcoming apparently unstoppable forces of destruction and hate was a very welcome respite.