The Institute

It's been a very long time since I last bought a Stephen King novel this close following its release date. So long ago that I can't quite remember when. But I do recall that I was still a teenager. So yes, it's been a while.

But the rave reviews regarding The Institute really intrigued me and so did the cover blurb. I mean, readers claimed that even the ending was good! Hence, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to give King's latest a shot ASAP. And while it may not be as compelling a read as 11/22/63 turned out to be, this is definitely one of the best post-accident King titles.

Here's the blurb:

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.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

Now, children with supernatural powers subjected to cruel experiments by a covert government organization are nothing special and have become a speculative fiction trope. There's no way to make this truly original and Stephen King did not attempt to reinvent the wheel. In the end, the execution and not the familiar premise would make or break this novel. And I'm glad to report that The Institute makes for compulsive reading.

Stephen King usually excels at characterization and it's this aspect which elevates this work to another level. Few authors can write children and teenagers as well as King. The kid power may not surpass that of the classic It, yet the cast of The Institute is nevertheless memorable. Luke makes for a great protagonist and King fleshed him out perfectly. Character development regarding Kalisha, Avery, and the others was also excellent. A good chunk of The Institute is seen through the eyes of Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop who accepted to give up his seat on a flight from Tampa to NYC because it somehow felt like the right thing to do. Great things turn on small hinges, or so it seems, and Tim will end up in the small town of DuPray, South Carolina, where he'll become a night knocker to earn a living before continuing to move north toward New York City. Little does he know that his life will soon change forever. We also get the perspectives of Mrs. Sigsby and other "villains" from the Institute, which adds another dimension to the plot.

The odd experiments and the violent punishments the children are subjected to occasionally make for difficult scenes. And yet, those sequences pack a powerful emotional punch that make you feel for those kids even more. Their plight makes The Institute impossible to put down. Still, for all the darkness and disturbing segments, there are several poignant moments that pull on the heartstrings and bring some light into this somewhat bleak and oppressive tale.

In typical Stephen King fashion, it takes a while for the various parts that comprise the plot to come together. Tim is a decidedly interesting character, but I kept wondering why I was reading about an ex-cop working the night shift in a dead end town in the middle of nowhere. Though good, that portion of the tale seemed incongruous with the rest of the story. But when everything finally comes together and the proverbial shit hits the fan across the different plotlines, King takes us through a fantastic endgame.

Weighing in at 561 pages, The Institute is a big novel. I was expecting some slow-moving parts here and there, but the book is a veritable page-turner. There is not a dull moment between its covers and I went through The Institute in just a few sittings.

King is renowned for his discordant and/or inferior endings that don't live up to the expectations generated by their buildups. Well, I'm pleased to report that it's not the case with The Institute. This one has a worthy ending that doesn't cheapen the rest of the book.

Highly recommended.

The final verdict: 8.5/10

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