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The Institute


The Institute

While Stephen King’s latest novel is sure to be compared (at least offhandedly) to “Stranger Things,” it is best to remember that Netflix’s well-liked series actually riffs on ideas and tropes that King helped popularize with books like FIRESTARTER and CARRIE. With THE INSTITUTE, he has returned to some favorite character types --- namely smart and courageous children --- as well as reliable themes, as these kids also happen to be gifted in particular ways and up against some big, bad grown-ups.

In a quiet Minneapolis suburb, Herbert and Eileen Ellis are murdered in their bedroom. Their son, 12-year-old Luke, disappears from the scene. From all appearances, this is a terrible and senseless tragedy: a murder/kidnapping or perhaps patricide. And indeed, Luke, a child genius, has been abducted, wanted not for his intellect but for his powers of telekinesis, minimal as they may be.

" enjoyable and exciting page-turner just right for the transition from light summer reads to dark winter tales. There is action and violence here, but thoughtfulness as well."

Luke wakes up at the Institute, a creepy and isolated hospital-like building where a shadowy organization experiments on children with powers like Luke’s. Luke meets other kids who can move things, like wisecracking George and rebellious Nick, and those who can read minds, like brave and nurturing Kalisha and the sheltered and loving 10-year-old Avery. The cruel adults at the Institute seem to take pleasure in torturing Luke and his new friends, and their intentions in doing so are slowly revealed.

For their part, Luke and the others are hanging on to their places in the Front Half of the Institute because they know that once they are moved to the Back Half, things get even worse. Luke’s arrival, and then Avery’s, at the Institute shifts something for the children there. The bond that they form in this crisis leads them to attempt a bold plan for escape. Much is riding on Luke as he sneaks away from the Institute and makes his way to safety. A chance meeting with former police officer and current small town “night knocker,” Tim Jamieson, helps bring the plan to fruition. However, bringing down the Institute will not be easy or without danger and bloodshed, especially as the true nature of its work and scope comes to light.

THE INSTITUTE is not a horror novel nor is it a particularly scary read. It is, however, an enjoyable and exciting page-turner just right for the transition from light summer reads to dark winter tales. There is action and violence here, but thoughtfulness as well. Though King’s kid-slang is a bit dated and sometimes even awkward, the children themselves seem real and engaging, and Jamieson is a great foil to the villains. Luke and Avery, like Jamieson, give King the chance to explore some interesting ideas about choice, loyalty, sacrifice and purpose. The book is full of moral ambiguities that impact the thoughts and decisions of the characters, thus elevating an otherwise typical conspiracy-type thriller into a compelling and smart work. King also throws in some fun cultural references and sharp political ones that make the novel feel timely, even though the story itself could be set almost anytime at all.

It is hard not to recommend THE INSTITUTE, a novel that feels almost effortless for King and doesn’t require too much work on the part of the reader. That is not to say that there aren’t provocative aspects of the book as the plot is well-constructed and the narrative flows smoothly. King succeeds here in fleshing out some of the gray areas in the usual good-vs.-evil binary, all while crafting something entertaining.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 11, 2019

The Institute
by Stephen King

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982110589
  • ISBN-13: 9781982110581