Stephen King
Stephen King

A Review of Stephen King’s “The Institute”

“The Institute” Book Cover Art
“The Institute” Book Cover Art

Stephen King doesn’t need anyone to review his books, as they’re practically critic-proof. Only the big newspapers and magazines, to the best of my knowledge, get cracks at his latest from the publisher — the rest of us peons have to go out and buy the books ourselves. And a review of The Institute might be a little suspect from me seeing as though the book did come out four months ago. (To wit, I asked for the book as a Christmas gift and, if you shall ask, you shall receive.) However, while I’m not sure I’d call Stephen King my favourite writer, I have read most of his books. I started with It when I was just 10 years old. I know that King doesn’t read his own press, but if he should stumble across this piece — and I doubt it even if he did read reviews considering that I believe that Google will probably bury this review under the piles of notices this book has already garnered — I’d have to say thank you to him. King really was my introduction to “adult” fiction, and also my introduction to what it must be like to be an adult. I really owe a lot to King — one of my first attempts at writing a short story as a child was a rip-off of his work, and, if not for that, then he instilled a love of reading in me that hasn’t abated.

So this review is more for me.

I can’t make up my mind if The Institute is in the upper echelon of King’s work, or is one of his worst books. It’s a great book because one of his weaknesses — his seeming inability to write a coherent and satisfying ending — is largely absent. This is a lean and mean novel that essentially fires on all cylinders. It might be a book that ranks up with The Tommyknockers, however, for being absolutely terrible, because child abuse is a central theme of the work. You literally get pages and pages of horrific things happening to the world’s most vulnerable part of the population, and, of course, King takes sadistic glee in recounting these horrible things. Reading The Institute is a little like watching a bad car wreck, only that children are the ones suffering indignities. Because of this, the novel is a very heavy book — and I’m not talking about the page count (some 500-plus pages). I know that King is the master of suspense, but is that suspense actually entertaining when you’re watching the bad things that usually happen to King characters to people who are minors? I’m not so sure.

The Institute is largely centred on the plight of one 12-year-old boy named Luke Ellis, who is terribly smart but also has mild telekinesis abilities. One night, Luke’s parents are brutally murdered at home and he is kidnapped, taken to a remote facility in northern Maine that may or may not be government-controlled. There, he is tested for his telekinesis abilities. If he behaves during testing, he’s given tokens that he can use in vending machines for treats such as wine coolers and cigarettes. If he lips off, the punishment is brutal. Eventually, like all residents of The Institute, Luke is to be taken from the Front Half part of the facility where he’s been treated like a guinea pig to its Back Half, where even more sinister things are afoot. And so the story goes from there.

I think King, in writing this book, is drawing parallels to the plight of migrant children being detained at the Mexican border in cages — and is kind of opining that big interests in the world, whether they are governmental or not, are conspiring nowadays to abuse children. The novel also asks a very important question in that, and this is a bit of a spoiler (so cover your eyes if you want to read this book), if you could change the outcome of the world for the better, but it involved the torture of human beings, children or otherwise, would you do it? There are, of course, no hard and fast answers to this question, because that involves being able to predict an outcome before it comes to pass. So King is, in a way, mining similar territory to The Dead Zone here (and a little bit of Firestarter as well), and, of course, because this book stars children, It can be invoked as well. However, The Institute feels like a wholly original work. It feels like something new for King to be able to write.

The thing is, do you want to read a book about children getting immersed in water tanks to the point where they nearly drown? Do you want to read a book where children are essentially Tazered for misbehaving? That’s kind of the rub, and I’ll have to admit that the first half of The Institute was a tough read for me. (There is hope in the second half that maybe things might get better.) I read this book in dribs and drabs for the most part simply because the content was so unsettling, and I felt that maybe King had pushed the button a little too far this time in making a secret society so brutal and ruthless. After all, children — whether they’re gifted with secret powers or not — have no way of defending themselves from the savagery of adults. (Especially if those adults are all former military officers and such.) How much you might enjoy The Institute depends on how much violence against kids you can stomach. This is a book that I thought could be edited down somewhat — we don’t have to have violence escalate over time as the children come nearer and nearer to going to the Back Half to make the point. Having Luke’s parents murdered is bad enough. We don’t need a Stephen King to make things worse.

Still, I respect and admire King for the influence he has had over my life, literary or otherwise. I’ve been with him now for a good 35 years, and I’m glad to see that he can still punch my buttons. There is no other writer out there like him, and, when he’s on the top of his game (and it can be argued that he is here), he’s a dazzling author who commands your attention. He may never win the Pulitzer or Nobel Prizes for Literature, but he’s been overlooked in that regard because he is as much of the chronicler of ordinary people in extraordinary settings, particularly in small towns, as much as you would expect from someone like, say, Alice Munro. (I don’t know if that’s a bad example, but there it is.) I’m glad I’ve largely stuck with King, even on his off books, because he usually has something very interesting to say in his works. Whether or not I’ll come to fully appreciate The Institute is another question, because I have to wrap my head around child violence as entertainment, but I suppose I’m glad to have asked for it as a Christmas gift and something I didn’t pay for on my own coin. King is still with me. And that’s something to be thankful for, even if I think the subject matter of this book was a little unnecessary.

Stephen King’s The Institute was published by Scribner on September 10, 2019.

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Get in touch: zacharyhoule@rogers.com

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.