THE INSTITUTE Review by The Horror Hypothesis
“Luke guessed you could get used to anything, it was a horrible idea.” -Stephen King
“No one who fully grasped the Institute's work could regard it as monstrous” -Stephen King
Throughout his prolific career as an author, Stephen King has proven that he can deftly handle the horrors of institutionalization (RITA HAYWORTH AND THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) and the complicated social dynamics of children (IT, THE BODY). In his most recent novel, THE INSTITUTE, he blends the two together in order to send the reader down a rabbit hole of shadowy and sinister top-secret programs, psychic abilities, and moral philosophical dilemmas.
I really enjoyed my time with THE INSTITUTE. It wrapped me up in a quilt of familiar tropes and kept me warm as the weather (finally) grew cold in October. It wears the patterns of ENDER'S GAME, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, OLDBOY, AKIRA, and STRANGER THINGS, and it’s stitched together with dozens of “King-verse” easter eggs that long-time fans will appreciate.
Much like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, King uses setting to balance subtle horror with the overt. It’s terrifying enough that the children who inhabit THE INSTITUTE have been kidnapped and taken against their will, but they’re not kept in cages, they’re not housed in cells. No. When the children arrive in the “front half,” they spend their time in rooms that are purposefully designed to be identical (nearly) to the rooms they were taken from. They’re provided with cigarettes and alcohol to keep them docile. They walk down sterile halls that have corny, motivational posters that are inscribed with phrases like “Another Day in Paradise!” The allusions to Auschwitz are laid on, thick.
Besides its setting, the monsters in THE INSTITUTE are human. There’s a hodgepodge of ex-special ops orderlies, conniving doctors, mad scientists, and Mrs. Sigsby, who truly leaps off the page like Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. She is cruel, vile, and desperate to get results. Luke Ellis, the protagonist, is given a rundown on what’s in store for him early on in the novel, so there aren’t exactly any major surprises about what his experience is going to be like. King sets up the reader's expectations and builds a sense of dread early and often.
THE INSTITUTE's greatest strength is its structure. It foreshadows its endgame with biblical allegories (Samson and the Temple) and the first chapter which introduces characters that are important to its feverish climax. The first third establishes the setting and routine, the second third builds a dynamic between the children, and the final third sends Luke on a quest to attempt to take down THE INSTITUTE once and for all. I tore through the final 250 pages. It's a glorious roller coaster of emotional payoffs that work fabulously.
My gripes with the novel are fairly trivial: King really shows his age when writing dialogue between children and some of the character exchanges read as extremely dated - this is to be expected considering that King is 72 years old and honestly, I’d rather see him write antiquated dialogue that he’s comfortable with then veer into research on memes and Tik Tok. It’s charming, if not realistic. Furthermore, there’s a scene early on in the book it's revealed to Luke Ellis’s parents that he is a genius. Their reaction is shock and “how did we not know our son was this smart?” which is immediately followed by a dinner sequence where Luke speaks like he’s Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory. It’s odd.
THE INSTITUTE isn’t wholly original, but it’s King comfort food and in 2019, when so much of the real world is in disarray, it’s exactly the kind of comfort food I needed. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a well-crafted take on the “children with psychic powers” genre. It plays to the author's strengths, (King has long been the Olympic strongman of the Horror genre) even when its forced references to Call of Duty and Kanye West seem slightly strange.
4 out of 5 stars.
The Horror Hypothesis - Night Worms Bio
Donnie Hypothesis is an avid reader, writer, and collector of horror fiction. He runs the Bookstagram page, “The Horror Hypothesis,” which advocates for the Horror literature genre as a whole. He currently lives in Central Virginia where he spends most of his free time reading, making music, playing video games, and watching movies.
“The brain is a muscle that can move the world.”
I just finished THE INSTITUTE last night so it's very fresh in my mind. This is the first time, in a long time, that a brand new Stephen King novel showed up at my house and I didn't cast my current read to the side in favor of the King. There are two reasons for this.
1. The last few releases after 11/22/63 in 2011 have not been big winners for me. Some have been outright disappointments like THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS, SLEEPING BEAUTIES, and ELEVATION. These books have put a damper on my enthusiasm.
2. There are some mind-blowing horror books out there. I've read several books in 2019 that have 100% set new standards in horror. I've come to terms with the fact that King will always hold a special place in my heart as the Master of Horror- he has the most impressive back catalog and iconic best sellers. Some of which are still my favorite books of all time. But it's ridiculous to think that after all these years, (CARRIE was released in 1974) his newest book would hold the number one spot for me in 2019. It doesn't.
I'm very satisfied with THE INSTITUTE. It's a good book. I was thoroughly entertained the entire time. I love when King tells stories about kids--I think child protagonists are his wheelhouse; where he shines the brightest as a writer. This story about intelligent kids being abducted from their homes and taken to this facility in the middle of nowhere and subjected to a variety of tests-some borderline torturous-was the fastest way to get me emotionally invested. My heart can't say no to full-on engagement. My feelings were turned all the way up for most of this book--so it would be difficult for me to find any fault with a story that's gripped me that hard. I was able to sense that the set up was strikingly familiar to other stories I have loved before: Eleven's backstory from Stranger Things chiefly among them but also King's own FIRESTARTER. The Institue could easily be The Shop.
It's interesting to me that the beginning of this book zeroes in on this protag named, Tim. We get pages and pages of Tim as fate brings him to this small town where he earns favor at the local police department and ultimately is offered a job. I enjoyed reading about Tim. It was never dull or boring but after finishing the book, I wondered why King didn't put that same care and attention into the kids at the Institute.
More detailed backstories and character development for some of the key players like, Nicky, Kalisha, and Avery would have really amped up the risks and emotional engagement for readers. In turn, this would have made the climax more effective. I feel like I'm too easy of a sell when it comes to kids in peril so what little was given about the children in terms of character, was enough for me to get invested, but I did notice an emotional detachment as the story drew to its conclusion. I didn't feel that same crazy connection to the kids as I did in say, IT during those climactic scenes battling Pennywise. I think that has to do with a lack of going deeper with the children in the Institute and maybe King has lost his touch with dialog a bit. When we meet Luke and his parents early on, my brain couldn't settle on his age--he was too mature to be an authentic 12-year-old but then again, he was too dorky to be an authentic teenager as well. The character Avery was the same way. King had him acting like a 5-year-old child with bed wetting and a fear of the dark but also gave him big moments of maturity way past his age of 9. I finally just chalked all this up to the kids being extra brainy and prone to uncharacteristic behaviors but it did pull me out of the story a few times and some real connection was lost as a result. Also, with so much of the book dedicated to getting to know Tim in the beginning, why wasn't I in love with him when he's brought back into the story? Something was missing from this hero's journey and I can't put my finger on it.
It took me ten days to read this book. It is the biggest book I read this year, just over 500 pages but I wasn't devouring it. It wasn't "Unputdownable". I enjoyed it, yes. And I'll think of it fondly. But I didn't come away from it with any new favorites. I can't say that anyone from this book will join the ranks of favorite characters that live eternally in my reader's heart. Luke wasn't a kid from the Loser's Club. He wasn't a Sheemie. He wasn't a Danny Torrance. This was a good story but it wasn't great for this Constant Reader.
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