From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It—publishing just as the second part of It, the movie, lands in theaters.
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.
When it comes to crafting stories about kids in creepy peril, Stephen King is… well… king.
The Institute doesn’t start the way you think it will — no mention of main character Luke or the Institute itself for about 50 pages. Instead, we meet Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop from Florida who sets out hitchhiking without a whole lot of purpose and winds up in a small town in South Carolina, where he joins the local sheriff’s department as a night knocker, sort of an unarmed watchman position. Eventually, Tim feels like he’s possibly, finally found a home and a new meaning for his life in this little town.
And that’s the last we see of Tim for a few hundred pages.
The main focus of the story is introduced when we meet Luke, a brilliant 12-year-old about to start MIT, whose incredible mental abilities come with a side of very mild telekinetic power. It’s his telekinetics, rather than his brain power, that make him a target for the Institute and land him in this isolated facility in Maine. The children at the Institute are put through a barrage of shots and sinister tests, all designed to enhance their TP (telepathy) and (TK) telekinesis. During their free time, the kids can hang out, basically keep whatever hours they choose, and do whatever they want, including drinking and smoking. In fact, drinking and smoking are encouraged, since the kids earn vending machine tokens through good behavior, and an addiction is a marvelous motivation to keep earning those tokens.
The purpose of the Institute is slowly revealed, but long before we learn why they’re doing what they’re doing, we know enough to know it’s bad. The treatment of the kids is horrific. They’re subjected to physical and emotional torture and abuse, and there’s very little concern about whether the kids are actually healthy, so long as their TP and TK abilities are honed and developed.
I’m not going to go too far into plot here — as with most Stephen King books, it’s best to just read it and put the pieces together as you go along.
So is The Institute a must-read? Well, for King fans, absolutely. It’s not skin-crawling horror like his recent book The Outsider, but it is still chilling and disturbing and creepy. That said, the book is a bit long, and takes a while to really get going. It took me two false starts before I really got into it, hitting stumbling blocks with the sudden transition from a story about an adult in South Carolina to the main story about the kidnapped children. Ultimately, it comes together and the story really works, but I think there are places where the action could have moved forward a little more quickly.
If you enjoy King’s writing, you’ll enjoy The Institute. As for me, as I always love when Stephen King references himself (and with over 60 novels in print, he has a lot of source material to choose from!). Here’s one example from The Institute that made me happy:
Back in the main corridor — what Luke now understood to be the residents’ wing — the little girls, Gerda and Greta, were standing and watching with wide, frightened eyes. They were holding hands and clutching dolls as identical as they were. They reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie.
Title: The Institute
Author: Stephen King
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 561 pages