Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Institute

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

12/19: The Institute by Stephen King

The blurb: Deep in the woods of Maine, there is a dark state facility where kids, abducted from across the United States, are incarcerated. In the Institute they are subjected to a series of tests and procedures meant to combine their exceptional gifts - telepathy, telekinesis - for concentrated effect.

Luke Ellis is the latest recruit. He's just a regular 12-year-old, except he's not just smart, he's super-smart. And he has another gift which the Institute wants to use...

Far away in a small town in South Carolina, former cop Tim Jamieson has taken a job working for the local sheriff. He's basically just walking the beat. But he's about to take on the biggest case of his career.

Back in the Institute's downtrodden playground and corridors where posters advertise 'just another day in paradise', Luke, his friend Kalisha and the other kids are in no doubt that they are prisoners, not guests. And there is no hope of escape.

But great events can turn on small hinges and Luke is about to team up with a new, even younger recruit, Avery Dixon, whose ability to read minds is off the scale. While the Institute may want to harness their powers for covert ends, the combined intelligence of Luke and Avery is beyond anything that even those who run the experiments - even the infamous Mrs Sigsby - suspect.

Thrilling, suspenseful, heartbreaking, THE INSTITUTE is a stunning novel of childhood betrayed and hope regained.

The review: long-time readers of this blog will probably know that I am a Stephen King fan, and that I have devoured just about everything he's published. Which, famously, is quite a lot. So naturally I picked up The Institute as soon as it came out, and whistled through it in fairly short order. What can I tell you about it that the blurb doesn't? Well, if you already like King, you'll like, perhaps even love it. For this is almost a King archetype or, maybe more accurately, some kind of greatest hits tribute act, for so many recurrent King themes are revisited. There's the principled but troubled male lead Tim, trying to escape something dark in his past (see also Johnny in The Dead Zone, Danny in Doctor Sleep, Jack in The Shining, Gard in The Tommyknockers, and Thad in The Dark Half for starters, and that's without the short stories). Similarly, there's the preternaturally bright, gifted child hero Luke (see also Jake in the Dark Tower series, Danny in The Shining and Charlie in Firestarter, to name but three). And of course, there's the plucky "band of brothers" grouping that assembles to save the day (see also The Body, The Mist, The Stand, IT, The Dark Tower ... you get the idea). Most importantly, there's the underlying sense of a wrong being righted, an injustice being set straight, a theme that recurs so often in King's body of work that I'm not even going to start listing examples.

And then there's the plot: an unknown agency, presumed governmental, harvests children with telekinetic and/or telepathic powers, enhances those powers through horrible experiments, and uses the kids as a psychic weapon, ostensibly to ensure world peace. Luke is taken... Tim is the white-hat who helps him puts things straight. I can't say much more than that, for fear of spoilers. But this might already be enough for Constant Readers to conceive of The Institute as a spiritual and thematic, if not direct, successor to Firestarter... and they'd be right.

So what if you're not already a fan of Stephen King? Well, this is unlikely to win you over. It's not King by numbers (see the first half of the Nineties for that) but it is very typical King. For me, that's a good, sometimes great thing: the man is a storyteller, almost without equal in contemporary mainstream fiction. And he shifts POV better than almost anyone.

The bottom line: if you're a King fan, or love a good yarn, well told, buckle up - you'll enjoy this. Just don't expect anything too different...

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. I've seen mixed reviews of this and have held off so far, though I will get round to it eventually. I'm still stinging from The Outsider which had an excellent first half, but then succumbed to King-by-numbers until the wheels fell off spectacularly towards the end.

    1. The wheels don't fall off this, though there's no denying the ending is not as strong as the first two acts.

      It's better than The Outsider anyway. Speaking of which, there's another Holly Gibney book coming from King imminently.