Book review: ‘The Institute’ by Stephen King

(no spoilers)

This turned out to be my book-equivalent-woman-equivalent of a wet dream. I’m a full-on Stephen King fan-girl, and I have a slightly obsessive relationship with the TV series Stranger Things – and ‘The Institute’ is a Halloween mixed punch delight of King’s distinct and digestible writing style, and a storyline where kids with special powers rise up against the injustice of the adults around them. It’s the ending I wished I’d seen for ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead, if only to satisfy my bubbling rage and resentment for their captors. 

The two main covers for the book. I have the one on the right – which do you prefer?

The theme for ‘The Institute’ seems to be that great events turn on small axes. The first chapter follows Tim as he acts on a gut feeling and disembarks a plane to travel to DuPray, South Carolina, and get a job as a night knocker. Little does he know that far away, child-genius Luke has been kidnapped from his home, his parents murdered and transported to the super-secret Institute in Maine. Both don’t meet until the climax of the book, but we’re aware from the start that’s where they’re both headed. For decades, children showing TP (telepathic) or TK (telekinetic) abilities have been stolen from their homes and transported to the Institute Facility, and subjected to tests and experiments to increase their powers. 

The idea of orphan kids triumphing over evil adults in a well-worn trope, but King manages to refresh this genre and spice it up not only with ‘magical powers’ but also with shootouts, explosions, friendships and immense bravery. It’s a fair beast of a novel at 576 pages, but at no point do you feel like you’re reading ‘filler’. Every chapter and paragraph is honed to either enhance the dimension, or to hint to a future event. 

I found the first chapter a little hard to absorb (Tim’s a good cop in a small town, very similar to a lot of other King novels and it had me worried that King’s novels were starting to resemble each other too closely and that his individual style had now revealed itself as more of a cookie cutter guide. Luckily, once we revisit Tim hundreds of pages later, we have the unlikely result of the Institute to mould his character and make him unique. 

I also spotted the odd word which was so associated with King’s other characters, i.e. “cockamamie” being wholly the realm of Annie Wilkes in Misery, in my opinion, that it took me out of the book. But once I’d made my peace with that, I quickly got immersed and couldn’t put it down. King is the master of suspense – and this novel takes that to a new level. I realised I was clenching my jaw so much reading it, I had to pop in a mouth guard. 

The other issue which prevented me giving 5 stars was that the kids spoke like adults. Not simply in the way that 12 year old Helen is introduced by saying “Just tell me one thing. Who do I have to blow to get out of here?” but in the level of world-view, wit and language skills shown by each character. We expect this from Luke, who is a bonafide genius, but it is also shown by 10 year old Avery and self-proclaimed ordinary students like Nicky and Kalisha. For context – Eleven in Season 1 of Stranger Things was 12. That’s how teeny they are!

Of course, I understand that under the conditions, these kids have to grow up fast – but coupled with the offer of alcohol and cigarettes in exchange for tokens, we find pre-teens interacting with each other like fully-grown adults. 

King leaves no detail unturned – every main character’s emotions explored, each ‘possibility’ for escape or change examined and discarded (again, something Misery was particularly good at), a few red herrings in terms of helpful adults, and as always, some unexpectedly poetic lines: “It would keep on until there was nowhere to hide, and then it would squash her against the back of her own skull like a fly on a wall. Then she’d be done. As Helen at least.”

This is now one of my favorite King novels ever. It could be studied as the perfect example of a plot-driven novel – we get only what we need to know, when we need to know it. Until then, King focuses on painting the environment in the reader’s mind, so that we can keep up with our imagination once shit really hits the fan. Give it a read.

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