“The Institute” by Stephen King

Genre:  Horror FictionThe Institute
Publisher:  Charles Scribner’s Sons
Pub. Date:  September 10, 2019

I haven’t read the great storyteller, Stephen King, in over twenty years. “It,” (the one where the preteens are against the evil clown) was the last book of his that I read until this one.  Still, I was a fan of his early work.  I enjoy his style of blending the “coming of age” genre with almost believable “horror.”  As a teen in 1974, I read “Carrie,” (who can forget that bloody prom dress) before it became a movie two years later.  His latest novel is similar to “Firestarter,” (the hunted little girl with telekinetic abilities) as well as to “It.”  In other words, it is a story of innocent preteens confronting evil. That is what caught my eye.  Writing about kids is vintage King.  One of my favorite stories by the author is “The Body.”  You may remember the film version, “Stand By Me.”  Set in early 1960, four 12-year-old boys, all from abusive families, tell their parents they will be camping out because they consider it to be a rite of passage. They really are searching for the rumored dead body of another boy.  The horror here is from their youthful imaginations and their living conditions at home. Few writers have King’s ability to create credible preteens. These four boys make corny off-color jokes about Goofy and Mickey, the sort of things that boys talk about before they discover girls. Probably, it is the coming of age part of his books that I enjoy so much.

“The Institute” is set in the present, located in, but where else, Maine, which is King’s home state and the location of most of his novels. The plot emulates “Firestarter,” and “It.” In this one there are no ghosts, devils, clowns, diabolical invaders or magical kingdoms.  The horror comes from the average people who run the place which is similar to “The Body.”  The actual institute may or may not be a secret government project.  Their purpose is to kidnap children with psychic powers and use them to dispatch of targets who are considered dangerous to human survival.  This makes the tale mostly believable.  Think “The Manchurian Candidate.”  They use the kids until they cease to exist.  As one of the kidnapped girls explains to the newbie kid, “The Institute, is like the roach motel.  You check in, but you don’t check out.”  She also tries to sooth the new boy’s fear by reprimanding the other boys who are ignoring him and playing basketball, “don’t you remember how weird it is to wake up here in what looks like your own room?” The author ensures, maybe one too many times, that these kids’ fates are similar to those children near certain US borders. Although I agree with his views on Trump, I am tired of finding the theme in my fiction.  Still, it is terrifying to read about the kids, who are hostages in the institute, who will eventually end up looking like a character from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  Plus, the woman in charge of the “school” is portrayed as a perfect Nurse Ratched.  She represents how one can desensitize themselves to torture allowing them to dehumanize the children. Basically, King is questioning the theory that the ends can justify the means.

So, once again King writes on the battles between good and evil, just like he did in “The Stand,” (where a super flu virus makes for an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tale).  Like many other King fans, “The Stand” is still my favorite.  Maybe this is because in 1978 it was a fresh story. In 2019, the author seems to be rewriting his most popular books. I say, So what?  This reviewer enjoyed the blast from the Stephen King past.   From reading the book’s blurb, I knew just what it was about the book that I was looking forward to reading: a coming of age story in the most severe of situations. I wasn’t looking for something fresh.  I wasn’t looking for a literary read.  I was looking for King going back to his roots.  And that is what I got.  Sometimes, “The Institute,” unlike “The Body,” has 12-year-old slang that is questionable.  Do kids say “necking” anymore? Would they really be able to sing Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart?”  If both are not true, I do not care, it worked in this story. Plus, I would have been disappointed if he left out his trademark musical references.

In between the terror, King teases us by poking fun at himself and how long he has been at his craft. There are a pair of seven-year-old girl twins at the Institute who are reminiscent of the twins from, “The Shining,” (You know the film. “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy”).  When one boy in the institute meets them for the first time he thinks that they are just like the twins “in some old horror movie” but he couldn’t remember the name of the film.  If you are looking for something new from the Lord of Darkness, this is not it.  If you go in knowing this, you will enjoy this creepy read about a boy who one day wakes up in a bedroom that looks just like his, but isn’t.

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4 thoughts on ““The Institute” by Stephen King

  1. I haven’t read any of King’s novels either. For a long time I thought he only wrote horror, and was surprised to find out that The Green Mile movie was adapted from his novel! Perhaps I should start with that. 😊

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