16th October, 2019

Review: The Institute by Stephen King (Scribner)

I've been a fan of Stephen King ever since I picked up Pet Sematary at the tender age of 14. It was scary as hell and thrilling and a bit of a test of courage, but I ended up devouring all of his works that had already been published by the early 1990s. I then continued to follow his work whenever a new book came out. For a while (around the late nineties to late noughties) I had the feelings that his stories were deteriorating a little and that they had lost their spunk. In recent years, however, I feel that King has been delivering again and his latest novel, The Institute, is no exception. Here is how Goodreads describes the plot: 

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

Someone recently said that King is simply at his best when he is writing kids and that is definitely perceivable here. His descriptions of the Institute and what's happening behind closed doors are spot-on and brilliant, but it's really his characters that he brings to life and it is also them who make the story as amazing as it is. This is simply where his strength lies: characterisation and the depiction of the iniquitous sides of humanity.

The Institute is a story of good and evil and all things in-between. It's a tale of having to grow up fast and of the power of friendship.  The book also has many nods to other King titles: There are somewhat creepy, hand-holding twins who are reminiscent of the two sisters in The Shining.  We have a ton of extraordinary psychic abilities as in Firestarter and Carrie, and in a rather touching scene one of the kids says that they are all a bunch of losers (cf. It and The Body). This is something that I really loved about this novel as these tropes cater to a sense of nostalgia in King fans, yet without confusing readers who are not familiar with his other stories.

The Institute is not a horror shocker in its traditional sense. There are no eerie clowns that pull people into the sewers, no zombies hiding in basements and no sentient cars that are determined to kill everyone. Instead, this novel instils a more subtle kind of horror in its readers: It triggers your paranoia, makes you a bit claustrophobic and lets you question the motifs of the authorities. And even though it's a bit of a chunkster with over 500 pages, it's a very quick read because it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Highly recommend!

Rating: 5/5 stars

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