A comfort zone success
Review: The Institute by Stephen King
Reading a Stephen King book is like taking a gamble with a pair of loaded dice – you’re probably in for a good time, but things could still go very wrong. King is perhaps the best author to have never written a truly great line of dialogue, but few can rival his ability to spin a good horror yarn, and when he’s at the top of his game he can produce a towering genre classic. Thankfully, The Institute is one of the good ‘modern’ King books, one that plays to his strengths. Itfeels like Stephen King staying in his comfort zone – the plot shares a lot of similarities to his earlier Firestarter – but it’s all the better for it.
The story focuses on Luke Ellis, a genius child whose low-level telekinetic ability – which has never manifested as anything more extreme than a pizza pan tipping off a table when he gets emotional – has put him in the crosshairs of the titular Institute. Luke is abducted – along with several other children who show the promise of psychic ability – and forced through a series of humiliating, awful experiments. Luke and his fellow captives aren’t immediately clear on why this is happening – or what the children who are eventually sent into the ‘Back Half’ of the Institute must endure – but they soon realise that the guards, orderlies and overseers at the Institute have underestimated what they’re capable of, and a plan begins to hatch.
The Institute features some of King’s best characters in his recent run of books. The ‘child genius’ archetype is squarely within King’s wheelhouse, and Luke Ellis is one of his most likeable protagonists in a while, as he’s wisely never turned into a smart alec. The rest of the cast is similarly well fleshed-out, from the other kids – each with distinct, believable personalities – to the cruel, sadistic, desensitised staff that are holding them captive and performing the tests. As usual for King, much of the dialogue feels overly staged and theatrical, but it’s obvious that he has a very clear idea of who each character is.
Across 482 pages, King pulls a series of twists and turns that continued to surprise me and catch me off guard right up until the end. This is one of his more intricately-plotted stories in recent memory, and it even manages to conjure up a grand, satisfying ending. There are some definite speedbumps along the way – the book pays tribute to the real-life epidemic of missing children across America, and the spectre of Trump is evoked to remind us what sort of world we’re living in, but the realities of a secret facility and the massive conspiracy underpinning it still occasionally feel underexplained. Some of the later imagery is described vaguely, too, but for a book as full of abstract concepts as this one is, it’s mostly easy to follow. The emotions of the characters are given more weight than the specifics of what happens to them, which is smart.
This can be a grim read, especially since so much of it involves the suffering of children, and King never shies away from brutally harming or killing his characters. But ultimately, despite everything, The Institute is a hopeful book, with a focus on how communities and friends can pull together and work towards a common good in dark times. The book has clear values, but also makes it clear how and why the bad guys were willing to cross the lines they crossed – although, thankfully, the book makes no attempt to sympathise with anyone who would imprison innocent children. It’s hard not to draw a line between events in the book and the proliferation of detention centres across the US (and Australia), and it’s clear whose side the book is on.
For all its darkness, The Institute is also extremely entertaining. Short, sharp chapters make for a breezy read despite the length and subject matter, and King leaves enough threads dangling at any given point that you’re constantly looking forward to pay-offs (the lackadaisical prologue about a seemingly unrelated man who drifts into a small town and takes up a job as a night knocker with the local police will, you know, eventually become vitally important).
While it’s unlikely to crack anyone’s personal top ten for the author (whose prolific output continues at a startling pace), but The Institute sits comfortably in the ‘good’ stretch of King’s oeuvre and is up there with other recent hits like Revival and 11.22.63. Stephen King has spent his career writing about horror, but The Institute makes it clear that the author, now 72, has never lost faith in basic goodness and human endurance.
The Institute is now available in bookstores.
James O’Connor is a critic and journalist