Released: September 10, 2019
In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”
In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.
As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.
There is something about reading the first few chapters of a Stephen King book that invokes a feeling of “Aaaand, we’re back.” The Institute is no exception.
In this one we meet Tim, a policeman with a history who decides to take a bit of a detour, and Luke, a boy with unnatural intelligence, and supernatural abilities. And, to keep this review spoiler-free, that’s about as much as I want to say about the plot.
I really liked this book, but other than the sentence “it was great”, which by itself doesn’t make for that much of a book-review, it’s a little hard to put my finger on exactly why. It could be that this book, despite being relatively short, manages to be a lot of things at the same time – all of which I found to be interesting and well done. At the centre of the story there are children interacting with each other under very unnatural circumstances, the conceit for which is a conspiracy-story, which then starts interacting with a Grisham-like small-town sheriff/community situation that we’re introduced to in the start of the book. All wrapped into a story about supernatural abilities. The combination of all these elements works very well, the tone is just what it needs to be at any given time, and it all feels completely effortless.
It’s not a perfect book though. Supernaturality aside, there are some places where I had to suspend my disbelief a little more than I’d have liked to, and, a little unusually for Stephen King, some places where my annoyance at the characters not doing what seemed like the obvious thing distracted me from the story. Though, in the end it didn’t really matter much. The Institute is still a very solid, enjoyable read, and contributes to just lowering my jaw at the overall authorship of Stephen King.
Even without taking the sheer volume of books he writes into account, I do find Stephen King’s writing to be remarkable, and when I consider the rate at which he keeps churning out books, it becomes incredible. What gets me the most is that I’d never really thought of myself as a fan of the “real world with a touch of the supernatural” genre, yet here we are. Time and again Stephen King manages to make a book thrilling in a “this could actually happen”-way, while somehow managing not to spoil my enjoyment of what feels real by including supernatural events. Or, as he puts it in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, he’s “making the impossible plausible.” This point holds for several of his books, but all the more for this one, as the plot revolves around the existence of the supernatural. With The Institute it just works for me.
Fortunately I have many more King books to read, and probably many more that have yet to be released. The Institute isn’t a book that I’ll go around thinking about for a long time. It’s not a book that challenged me or made me think about things in a different light. It’s not a book that informed me, or that had much of a message to convey. It is, however, a really entertaining piece of fiction, and a joy to read. It’s what I expect from Stephen King, and it is what he keeps giving me. And I will keep wanting to receive it.