Book Review of ‘The Institute’: King’s Kids Have the Power


As a Constant Reader of Stephen King’s since Carrie, one thing I’ve always valued is his ability to take an element of the fantastic (a girl’s massive telekenetic powers in that novel, or vampirism in ‘Salem’s Lot) and enmesh it so much in everyday life that a far-fetched story becomes quite real (a talent which didn’t much apply in the massive otherworldly fantasy saga of The Dark Tower, which is one reason I never warmed to it, even while reading the whole damn thing).

While trading on the could-be-possible though unlikely mental powers of Carrie, Firestarter and the like, The Institute also feels real. That’s one thing which makes the new novel from Scribner so compelling, despite its almost deranged conspiracy-theory bent.

But beyond that, King also sucks us in by making most of his many principal characters kids — not teens, but 12-year-olds on down. And those kids suffer. They suffer mightily. And heroically.

Such suffering makes The Institute, while an absorbing page-turner, sometimes horrifically harrowing. In our increasingly desensitizing pop culture, torturing adults is one thing. But torturing kids is another. If King had thrown in small dogs he might have had a reader revolt on his hands.

What he did hand us was a novel about an implausibly secret “institute,” which is a fancy name for a rural Maine house of horrors where kidnapped children are taken (often after their parents are murdered in the process) to have their psychic powers exploited, ostensibly in the service of humankind.

Like the cops in Philip K. Dick’s novel Minority Report and the film that followed, as well as in the recent concluding episodes of CBS’s Elementary, the idea is to detect future atrocities — in this case on a global scale — and stop them before they start.

In The Institute, this means drugging and using the gifted kids in hellish ways to get the job done remotely, by influencing events with their collective mental forces.

Told largely from the point of view of 12-year-old Luke, the tale can be tough to take for anyone beyond a psychopathic indifference to human feeling. Even so, we become so invested in these kids and their misfortunes that King carries us along like spectators of the proverbial train wreck they can’t avoid seeing (and scary train rides do arise in this tale).

What makes such a rough ride worth taking, of course, is the care with which King crafts his young characters. You get to know them — and care for them — suffering or not. King may be our greatest modern storyteller, but he also knows that stories aren’t driven so much by plots as by the people within them. These characters matter to us, and that’s what makes The Institute matter — what makes The Institute work.

In addition, the 561-pager (it’s always hard to believe King also writes short stories) has a reliably wild Big Finish — the kind for which he’s rightly known.

It’s bloody. It’s vivid. And it’s crazily eventful, taking the conflict to a new level of maximum overdrive.

In fact, amid all that noise and fury, our delicate sensibilities of compassion and caring for these poor kids can get shoveled under like blades of grass beneath The Shining’s snow plow.

There — you’ve done it, Stephen. You’ve desensitized me (at least momentarily).

To read, or not to read. That is the question. But if you, like me, are one of King’s Constant Readers, the answer lies in that familiar moniker which he fondly bestows when addressing us in his Author’s Notes.

Constant means constant. So scarf this one up. It’s well worth the rigorous ride.

— Bruce Westbrook





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