Stephen King takes over 550 pages to relate the story of the mysterious Institute and its merciless dealings with kidnapped children. Given that page count, it shouldn’t be too surprising that King spends the first forty pages setting up his tale with a seemingly unrelated story of a man adrift in his life. Tim Jamieson, an out-of-work cop, takes a hefty payout to give up his seat on an overfull flight, and ends up making his rambling way from Tampa, Florida to the small town of DuPray, South Carolina, where the local sheriff gives him a job as a night knocker, an unarmed beat cop who patrols DuPray during the night. But — as King informs us not once, but twice — great events turn on small hinges.
That same summer, Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old Minneapolis boy with genius-level intelligence, loving parents, and a very mild talent for making pie pans and other lightweight items rattle and move in moments of strong emotion, is kidnapped from his home by a SWAT team that murders Luke’s parents as part of the operation. When Luke awakes from his drugged sleep, he’s in a bedroom that, spookily, almost mirrors his own (there’s no window, for one thing). But outside of the bedroom, he finds he’s in an institutional building in rural Maine that’s nothing like his home, with other kidnapped children and some adult caretakers.
A black girl, Kalisha, introduces Luke to his new life. All of the children and teenagers at the Institute have some degree of talent with either telepathy or telekinesis, and the doctors and staff forcibly work them over to try to enhance their supernatural gifts and to bring out the more-desired telepathy in children like Luke who have only displayed telekinetic power. Luke and a handful of other children are in the part of the Institute called the Front Half. After a few weeks, children “graduate” to the Back Half … and none of them knows for certain what happens to them there, or why they are there. But what’s clear is that no child has ever escaped from the Institute.
The Institute (2019) is a horror story of the human heart. The children who have the supernatural powers are entirely sympathetic; it’s the adults surrounding them who are horror figures, particularly the cruel head of the Institute, Mrs. Sigsby, who is of the Nurse Ratched school. She’s assisted by doctors, technicians and orderlies who punish and torment the children in pursuit of their secret goals. The tortures they inflict on their young charges can make for difficult reading. King weaves in allusions to Nazi concentration camps and digs at individuals who, in their fanatic pursuit of a goal, lose their moral compass. If you’re thinking that might also be applied to the current political climate in the U.S., King certainly wouldn’t disagree.
King is a talented storyteller, and though The Institute is a fairly hefty book it moves with a sense of urgency. But even if one accepts (at least for purposes of reading this novel) the existence of telepathy and telekinetics, the plot’s logic breaks down when the Institute’s true goal is finally revealed. The justification for the entire secret scheme of those in charge of the Institute, combined with some cost-benefit analysis when considering the cost in lives and the other potential methods of reaching their goals, really strained my ability to suspend disbelief. That issue is briefly raised and dismissed in a few short paragraphs, but I wasn’t convinced. If you’re not too inclined to find logical plot holes and poke at them, The Institute is a compelling science fiction read with a solid mix of action, suspense and horror.