The Institute by Stephen King

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Move over the Losers Club, there’s another club in town and boy do they pack a punch, they’re called the TK TP club and they come from The Institute.

There is so much to discuss, so I’ve tried to keep this spoiler free…so enjoy!

King is the master of horror, there’s no getting away from that, he’s the benchmark, and has been the benchmark for all horror writers for many many years. We all know that he’s a prolific writer releasing two or three books a year, and we also know that to keep himself fresh and to keep inventing himself, maturing as a writer, stretching himself, he’s dabbled in other genres, science fiction with Tommyknockers / Dreamcatcher and then crime which I know many people groan about, but with his Bill Hodges Trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers & End of Watch) and The Outsider you’ve got to say he delivered some pretty good books and expanded his reach into a whole new genre, gaining many new fans along the way – but the magic of King is revealed when he combines genres, and sews in the darkness (horror) we all expect, and takes us hostage into his deftly crafted worlds and fully realised characters. And that’s what he does with The Institute.

For me, some of Stephen King’s best works are those that revolve around a younger protagonist, and he displays this masterfully in both the short story format and novel, either as Stephen King or Richard Bachman. It doesn’t matter who he writes as, because you know if kids are involved it’s going to be good – works such as IT, Carrie, Firestarter, The Long Walk, The Body, Children of the Corn, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Man in the Black Suit, Rage, Apt Pupil, and even Pet Sematary (I’ve also probably missed quite a few – but these are my favourites). I’ve loved all of these stories, and each holds a special place in my heart and spoke to me so deeply at the time of reading them, so when I discovered that King’s latest offering The Institute relied heavily on a young cast of characters, he held me captivated in the palm of his hand, and he didn’t disappoint, I devoured the 500+ page novel in a week, I could have read it sooner, such is the frenetic pace of the book, but I wanted to savour it – and I was mesmerised at his brilliance yet again.

The Institute is a hidden place in America, a place that exists but you wont find it on any map, because the powers that be, don’t want you to find it, they want to work in secrecy, off the radar so to speak. The Institute is populated by an ever increasing supply of children, it’s like a conveyor belt, hungry for young flesh, malleable and easily corrupted, children come and children go but they never escape. Until now!

The children arrive at The Institute under the cover of darkness, prised from their families by unspeakable acts of violence, taken from their bedrooms in the dead of night, and interned into the sleeping quarters of the Institute that look like their rooms, but are not quite the same. Whilst at the Institute they are under the dutiful and barbaric care of doctors, technicians, porters, cleaners and the hidden monsters that lurk in the unknown area of Back Half. The children that are being taken from their families, could have some very dark undertones, and King could be referencing the current issues happening at the American / Mexican boarder, where young children are being forcibly removed from families, imprisoned and even separated? (I could be reading too much into it, I could be or King could be getting political, unlike him I know, but it’s worth the comparison nevertheless)

The children of the Institute all share a common genetic marker, they are either TP (Telepathic) or TK (Telekinetic) and those in charge at the Institute want to harness these abilities, and create stronger children with special abilities, they do this by conducting a variety of tests, multiple injections and many other unsavoury acts to heighten the children’s abilities and reach of their dormant powers. It reminded me of a strange concoction of X-Men and Stranger Things – but completely original in its scope and direction that King takes us in. It’s a multifaceted story which is gripping and terrifying – and shows how the world makes monsters of men, women and children.

Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

King delivers a huge slice of horror with The Institute and it’s in my opinion one of his best books for some time. It’s horror, but not as we know it, there have been some comparisons to IT in the marketing of this (strange that IT chapter 2 has come out around the same time as these comparisons), so if you’re going into this thinking it’s going to be balls to the wall horror, let me just say it’s not like that, it’s a slow burning, broiling horror with an intellectual slant. It’s a whole new bag of brilliance. 

As I’ve mentioned previously about King’s dabbling in crime writing, I think that these outings (great as I believe they were) have only heightened King’s ability as a writer. There are scenes within The Institute that pull on all of this learning, allowing King to add subtle layers of depth to an already brilliant story. The investigation and subsequent shootout that follows with a local PD is some of the most thrilling, suspenseful and captivating writing I’ve read in years.  

One of the keys to King’s writing are his characters. Fully realised characters, that jump off the page, that you could be forgiven for believing were real, that you’d bump into them down the street, or double take at the checkout, believing that the person packing your shopping could be someone who’s escaped from King’s world. It’s a King book, and it’s a whopper, so there are going to be a shed-load of characters, but believe me, each one serves their part – this is a book that has many cogs turning all at once, but you’re never lost or unsure of what part they play in story playing out before you.

The only slight issue I have with The Institute is with the ending, with such guile, depth mastery that King displays; the ending to me, seemed to be too big for the book that housed it – it was more like a half time Super Bowl extravaganza (without the nipple slip). I enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, but it felt as if King thought ‘fuck it, go big or go home‘. When taking it all on board I feel it could have been toned down slightly and the same impact could have occurred, but I also know that King forewarns us of what is going to happen with his opening quote, he’s going for a Samson ending, and we all know how that worked out (the opening quote is about Samson from the bible) – so I can’t be mad at him, he laid his cards out early and was always going to go for the huge, climactic and symbolic ending, but for me it was a little overkill. But having said that, the final chapter that follows this carnage pulls it all back in line – and sets off a stark warning which hits the reader in the head like a swinging hatchet.

King’s most terrifying book in years – further cementing him as the godfather of horror!

The Institute is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available here.

Stephen King

Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes Sleeping Beauties (co-written with his son Owen King), the short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, the Bill Hodges trilogy End of WatchFinders Keepers, and Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel, and shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award). Many of King’s books have been turned into celebrated films, television series and streamed events including The Shawshank Redemption, Gerald’s Game and It. King is the recipient of the 2014 National Medal of Arts and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

(photo credit Shane Leonard – Hodder Website)

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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