The Institute by Stephen King

557 pp/Scribner/Published September 10, 2019

Tim Jamieson , a Southern cop who was forced to resign is on a plane to New York when his plans change. A twelve year old boy is taken in the middle of the night by a mysterious team of armed figures.

Their stories will run parallel until the point of convergence when the secret institute is exposed to the light of justice in a small Southern backwater called DuPray.

The story displays Mr. King’s take on our current situation regarding police work, detaining kids, and separating families.

Taken to its extreme outer limits this narrative creates tension; a system detached from morality claims new victims daily.

The statement that precedes the title page reads:

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, roughly 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. Most are found. Thousands are not.

Luke Ellis is like any other American kid. He skateboards, listens to rock music, and dreams about his first kiss.

Like all the other kids in the King universe he has powers yet to be realized. Luke is a prodigy. He attends the Broderick School For Gifted Children.

The monsters in this novel are human. King’s ‘constant readers’ (what he calls his devoted readers) will enjoy the connections to past novels like Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, and IT.

Let’s be clear. This particular novel is somewhere in the King Universe. We are never quite sure where but we do know why.

How we treat children is the focus of this story. Mr. King has dedicated it to his grandsons.

Luke’s parents are working class people who wonder how they could have raised a kid with such an advanced aptitude.

In fact their focus is directed solely upon their son’s need for academic advancement. His ability to move objects with his mind goes unnoticed.

An unknown organization monitors gifted children. When they decide the time is right they kidnap the children.

For Luke it is when he is accepted by both M.I.T. and Emerson College in Boston that he is ripe for the taking.

Although Luke’s gifts are mostly in his intellect, the mild telekinetic talent he displays are what the bad guys want to extract.

In the Ellis home in Minneapolis, Minnesota the mysterious ‘Ruby’ Team conducts a black ops mission. The home’s alarm is silenced. The parents are murdered. Luke wakes to see a blonde woman. He is put out by a non descript spray. He wakes in the state of Maine in a place called ‘The Institute’.

The room is a replica of his bedroom except now there is no window. The outside has vanished. He is a subject of a study that is unknown to the American people.

I enjoyed reading this story. Always difficult to place a new book by Mr. King among the many now classic stories in his canon. It’s situated in a twilight zone of the state’s design. Perhaps the best story involving a group of kids since Pennywise terrorized the kids of Derry.

This book takes a lot of time building but the climax is worthwhile. It’s filled with suspense and varying degrees of horror. The children are subjected to torture and violent punishments if they fail to comply with institute protocol.

Luke’s first encounter with staff, Gladys and Tony, results in him being slapped hard in the face. He must comply. Being raised to comply with adult authority makes it difficult to fight back.

King has always been adept at bringing to life the psychology of his characters. Here we get a masterful stroke of character study in Luke, Kalisha, Nick, George, and Avery.

This can be read as allegorical. A tale that heeds strong caution regarding our country’s morally crippled bureaucracy—the facility that houses the children is described as poorly maintained.

The cameras are dusty, the playground is adequate, and walls are cinderblock. There are propaganda posters on the walls that read like Orwell in the 1950s— “Just Another Day In Paradise” and “Choose To Be Happy”.

Despite a crumbling infrastructure advanced tech is used against citizens. All of the personnel carry ‘zap-sticks’ to keep the children in line. The guards routinely beat them too.

There are systemic markers of class. Luke’s intake paperwork is marked pink. Despite his mild telekinetic power the institute places him at the low end of their scale of importance. Yet they took him and killed his parents anyway.

The other kids are either telepathic (they read minds) or telekinetic (they move objects). Luke meets Kalisha, a girl who has spent a month as a test subject. She gives the newbie a tour.

She explains to Luke that when extracted from home the chicken pox virus hit. This has kept her in this first stage of detention longer than other kids. Out of quarantine she meets Luke.

Vending machines contain cigarettes and small bottles of wine coolers. Tokens are the only accepted form of payment. Candy is available too.

Observing this strange environment Luke comments how stupid it is that kids who rebel fall victim to the addiction of drinking and/or smoking. He see through this potential trap.

The coins have inverted triangles on both sides. They receive different amounts of tokens earned by good behaviour. Like test animals they are poked and prodded. In good time we find out to what end they serve.

Luke is introduced to other kids. George, Iris, and Nick were taken from other states like Texas, Montana and Utah. They play together; take meals in a large cafeteria with good food; learn about each other’s abilities. And the brutal treatments they undergo including an immersion tank.

In time he will learn that his parents, like all the others taken in the middle of the night have been murdered. And this secret place is just that, unknown to the outside.

They inform him about the head director, Mrs. Sigsby, described as “Queen Bitch”, a steely gray figure in the mold of Nurse Ratchett in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. She is cold. Purely an instrument of the state.

I think constant readers have to decide for themselves how they will react to this tale. There are many scenes of kids being themselves. Adult cruelty is on full display as well. There are a lot of grays too. Unlike previous novels, the so called good guys do not always win.

The strength of this book is the way in which it gets underneath the skin of what we think of as real to expose what may actually be going on in plain sight. This is the power of a master storyteller with 60 novels under his belt.

Mrs. Sigsby briefs Luke on his reality. He is a conscript. A soldier of sorts who serves his country. The begin their stay in the “Front Half” where they are tested. Their abilities are documented.

Then after a time are sent to “Back Half”. After about an average time of six weeks they are returned home. Their memories of the institute will be erased. Despite this promise of return, Luke does not trust them.

The other kids in Front Half, along with Kalisha are the tough, good-looking Nicky Wilholm, athletic George Illes, with new arrivals Helen and Avery Dixon who is all but ten years of age, must figure out what to do before it’s too late.

Kalisha explained on his first day that when kids are sent to Back Half they never return. What happens there is a mystery. All they do know is that this place is not in a town; only coordinates on a map. There are several underground levels accessible only by electronic key cards.

The kids wonder if this place was set up by the government. It is a compound surrounded by forest. There is another building visible in the outer corridors. That is the Back Half.

Maureen Alverson becomes a confidante to Luke and his new friends. She is one of the caretakers who wants out of the institute too. Secrets are revealed.

Shots for dots. The kids are injected to stimulate their powers. They are expected to see colored dots and hear a humming sound when this occurs. If they resist in any way punishment is administered.

As more kids arrive, Luke becomes surrogate parent to them. Some of the newbies are too sensitive for the shots. There are seizures; death. There is an attempt to hunger strike. Mrs. Sigsby is always watching.

Putting down the attempt at a revolt she states children are not killed here. In time they are returned; memories expunged. She directs her gaze at Luke.

The Stephen King canon forms a multi-verse of narratives that intersect with each other. For example, Pennywise, Annie Wilkes, and Jack Torrance are connected in “The Dark Tower” series through dimensional travel.

This book does connect to this multi-verse decades in the making. When Luke Ellis leaves the institute he crosses through the town of Jerusalem Lot. This is where King’s second novel, “Salem’s Lot”, took place. The black cars that took Luke in the middle of the night are sourced to this town.

Luke’s predicament is dire. The adults are at work they consider so important the disappearance of these kids does not register with them. The slow pace of DuPray in South Carolina is similar to the slow pace of the institute.

Tim Jamieson takes the job of Door Knocker. He literally knocks on doors in town during the small hours to make sure all is well. The caretakers of the institute do not even take this small measure of security. Their lassez-faire approach will be there undoing.

If you enjoy a satisfying mystery with good suspense sprinkled with doses of psychological terror this is for you. Not a bad place to start if you are new to Stephen King.

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