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The Institute Is a Return to Classic King

I am a huge Stephen King fan. I especially love his classic novels, such as Carrie and Misery, and novellas like The Body, the short which spawned the heart-wrenching movie, Stand by Me. So, when I learned that King had released a novel that was a bit more like these titles, I was intrigued.

The Institute from Stephen King.
First edition United States cover art.

2019’s The Institute is billed as a science fiction/horror novel. Like many of King’s works, there are really two parts to this book that end up converging in a powerful and explosive way. The beginning follows would-be drifter, Tim Jamieson, who leaves his unfulfilling job and takes to the road in search of something new. By chance, he gives up his seat on a plane bound for New York City and ends up in a small South Carolina town where a series of events leads him to accept a job working for the local sheriff.

Around the same time in Minneapolis, Minnesota, intruders break into 12-year-old Luke Ellis’s home, kill his parents, and kidnap him. He later wakes up in The Institute, a facility located in the deep woods of Maine (you knew we were going to get to Maine somehow or it wouldn’t be a Stephen King novel), in a room that is an exact replica of his own back in Minnesota. We soon find out that there are many more children like Luke in The Institute, and they are all there because of their special talents—telekinesis (known as TKs in The Institute) and telepathy (known as TPs). In order to maximize their abilities, the children are put through a series of unpleasant experiments that sometimes have disastrous and intensely painful effects. Once the experiments have been deemed successful (or sometimes found to be fruitless), the children “graduate” into the Back Half of The Institute and are never seen or heard from again. The truth is, it is even worse than never being heard from again—these children become captive in their own bodies, trapped inside their minds in some type of wasteland left behind by these invasive experiments. Word spreads like wildfire among the children in the Front Half that graduation is to be avoided at all costs and they all work together to try to resist the experiments as desperately as possible.

German cover variant of The Institute.
German cover variant for King’s The Institute.

As in many of King’s books, there is a light at the end of the tunnel in The Institute. That light comes in the form of a cleaning lady named, Maureen, who befriends Luke. Maureen has gotten herself into a financial quagmire due to a gambling-addicted husband and is being manipulated by those who run The Institute into spying on the children and reporting back to the administration. But, as many of King’s heroes are want to do, Maureen overcomes her fear of the administration and helps Luke to escape his captors.

This is where the two stories converge in a complicated and meaningful way. I have to be honest, I was wondering how King was going to bring these characters together as the “front half” and the “back half” of the book, if you will, seemed to be traveling in many different directions. By chance, Luke jumps a train and ends up heading to the same South Carolina town in which Tim Jamieson is now putting down roots. Upon his arrival, a hotel owner on The Institute’s payroll as a snitch, reports back to them that the escapee is in town. The Institute apparently has these snitches all over the world and their main job is to spot these children with special abilities, report back to the administration, and basically sell these kids out to be kidnapped and their parents murdered like some type of twisted and murderous Big Brother. When the hotel owner reports that Luke is in town, The Institute’s henchmen are dispatched to retrieve the boy which ends in a dramatic shootout between them, Tim, and several police officers.

In the meantime, the children in the Back Half are able to pull themselves together enough to stage a revolution to overtake The Institute and ensure that those involved are never able to pull off their hideous experiments or “disappear” any more children ever again.

I’ll leave the plot synopsis there as I don’t want to ruin anything for those interested in reading the book—and you should read it. I haven’t always been a fan of King’s later works even though I adore him as an author. I thought he went completely off the rails with Cell (what was that anyway?!) and was lukewarm on some of his short story collections. But this book is a return to what, in my opinion, is his most-loved form—the rise of the underdog. While reading, I was reminded of beloved characters like Carrie’s Carrie White and Firestarter’s Charlie McGee. The novel even conjured images of the friends in The Body in the way that the kids not only protected and supported each other but banded together to stand up to those “in charge” proving themselves to be worthy adversaries and survivors.

Stephen King's Carrie book cover.
The kids in The Institute have a lot in common with Carrie White.

If you’re looking for the famous horror of King’s novels, you won’t necessarily find it here. This book isn’t classically frightening like some of his other efforts, such as It or The Shining. It is very much a work of science fiction, although the treatment of the children and the casual taking of lives by those involved in The Institute are horrific in their own rights. And King writes in such a way that even though you want to believe this is a far-fetched premise, your mind questions whether this could possibly happen (or may be happening) in real life. For me, that is the beauty of his writing; it often makes you question reality and truly immerses you inside the story.

Obviously, I’m a Stephen King fangirl. I can’t hide that and wouldn’t even bother. But, as I said, I am partial to his earlier works and this outing did not disappoint. This is King true to form, and I wholeheartedly embrace that and only hope we get more of this type of work in the future.

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Audrie Bretl Roelf

Written by Audrie Bretl Roelf

Audrie Bretl Roelf is a full-time communicator and a lover of all things pop culture. She holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Augustana College and a master's degree in Strategic Communications from the University of Iowa.

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