Books Reviews

The Institute by Stephen King: A Back to the Basics Formula that Produces the Best King Novel in Years

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes. As this decade wraps up, another certainty can be added to the list: a new Stephen King novel for every calendar year. Every year since 2011, King has put out at least one novel to go with the scads of other projects he’s involved in. 2010 was the last year he didn’t, and that year gave us Full Dark, No Stars and a handful of anthologies. Though the only thing announced for publication in 2020 is another story collection, it wouldn’t be shocking to see a 55th novel in the works.

2019’s entry into the King canon is The Institute, and it bears some striking similarities to some of his early works. He’s back in the psychic teenager genre again, something first made famous with the publication of Carrie in 1974 and something he has revisited in varying degrees throughout his astounding career. The Institute is his most overt psychic thriller since FireStarter, and, based on the result, looks like something that was long overdue. The psychics are numerous in this one, and the stakes are higher than ever. The Institute harkens back to King’s younger days but showcases every last bit of the storytelling prowess he has developed over the years– it’s the perfect combination of vintage and contemporary, and the finished product is not only one of the best recent work’s of King’s career, but a thriller that quickly shoots to the top of any genre list in this oversaturated literary clime.

The Institute begins, like so many King works, with a drifter. Tim Jamieson is moving on, literally and figuratively, from his life in law enforcement. Details are sparse, but a mistake in his past life has Tim searching for the next stop, which he finds when he winds up working as a night knocker in a nondescript town in South Carolina. He lives the epitome of the simple life, but rest assured that it doesn’t stay that way for long.

Across the country in Minneapolis, a team of clandestine operatives snatch a child from the bed in which he sleeps, murder his parents, and transport him hundreds of miles to a secret facility in Maine–the titular Institute. The boy is 12-year-old Luke Ellis, a genius in every sense of the word. Instead of dual-enrolling in Emerson and MIT in the fall, Luke wakes up to find himself in a carbon copy of his bedroom, but his family is nowhere to be found. He’s the latest inhabitant of what is essentially a testing ground for children who have shown traces of physic abilities, telekinesis (TK) or telepathy (TP). While there, he meets other children with the same abilities but with varying levels of intensity, and all of them tell him the same thing: people in the Institute do not stay long. Eventually, when they’re done being lab rats, the kids are taken to the mysterious “back half.” No one is sure what goes on back there, only that no one ever makes it back.

As the Institute workers conduct their tests–which include a rather horrid game called “Shots for Dots” and increasingly long immersions into water tanks– Luke realizes that he has to do something before he winds up in back half himself. With help from surprising places and some quick thinking on his own, he sets in motion a chain of events that could change the scope of the world forever. The story comes full-circle and turns into a battle of David vs. Goliath–a corrupt, secretive entity vs. a 12-year-old and his few followers– with the fate of everything hanging in the balance.

Aside from what one might expect, the evil forces at work in The Institute are those the furthest removed from the supernatural abilities. King makes several comparisons between what goes on at the Institute and Hitler’s operation in Nazi Germany as he asks readers to ponder the age old question of how seemingly normal human beings can turn to hate-filled devils through a unified cause. Everyone working for The Institute believes they are doing right by the world–that their work is more important than the lives of the children whom they are destroying. In a country as rigidly divided as we are today, it’s a biting commentary on the dangers of blindly subscribing to a hive mindset. Institute workers may show flashes of concern for their “subjects” but with the exclusion of a singular character, all concern for human life is stifled in the face of the common goal.

Fans of King will notice most of his signature hallmarks–dozens of pop culture references from throughout his entire time as an author, callbacks to his own work like ‘Salem’s Lot and The Dark Tower, and several character parallels. Nicky Wilholm, an older, take-no-shit resident of the Institute is reminiscent of Nick Andros from The Stand in his leadership, and the Institute children might as well be the Losers Club 2.0. Add that to the overt psychic theme and the corruption of authority and the novel becomes a greatest hits album, of sorts.

For a novel that contains so much inherent conflict, The Institute takes its time before turning on the burners. The first third of the novel feels like a morphine drip as Luke discovers just enough to make his next move. The front half of the novel is largely a mystery until King decides that he’s teased enough. When the details begin to unravel, The Institute proves incredibly hard to put down. Any dull parts from the beginning become and afterthought as the plot moves with breakneck speed to the final, stunning conclusion that makes for one of the most exciting King endings of all time.

Though he’s been doing it for two times as long as the average college graduate has been alive, Stephen King shows yet again that he’s still got it. The Institute is terrifying in so many ways, making us just as scared of our next door neighbor as we are of things that go bump in the night, and it makes for an incredible reading experience and a terrific way to close out another decade of work.

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