In a career that spans over five decades, Stephen King has been terrifying his readers. He has created some of the most nefarious characters in literature, from the demonic clown of It to the psychotic nurse in Misery. He has been described by many as the “King of Horror”, but to his most loyal readers (Constant Readers) that name is a gross misconception. The Institute, his 61st and most recent novel, is filled with traditional “King” tropes (small town, kids with psychic abilities, shady government), but it’s his brilliance as a storyteller that is most apparent.
The novel opens with Tim Jameison, an ex-cop forced to resign because of an off-duty incident, hitchhiking his way up north to New York, impassively taking odd jobs along the way. His wandering eventually leads him to the rural town of DuPray, North Carolina, where he becomes the town’s “night knocker”, patrolling the streets and alleys for any wrongdoing.
Throughout his career, King has used his idyllic view of the “small-town life” to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia, warmth, and longing (Salem’s Lot, It, Needful Things). He delivers once again as DuPray is home to a diverse group of colorful characters, like Orphan Annie, a homeless, conspiracy theory zealot, and Norbert Hollister, the old-time motel manager.
For 75 pages, King makes the reader nice and cozy in DuPray, but then (almost abruptly) takes us to Minnesota, where we meet our main protagonist, Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old genius with mild telekinetic abilities. He is kidnapped and taken to a remote complex, known simply as “The Institute”, where kids with varying telekinetic or telepathic abilities are continuously tested on by unscrupulous government officials. He meets fellow prisoners Kalisha, Nick, George, Isis, and Avery, and forms a strong bond with them (another King favorite).
The story is fast-paced, emotionally charged, and brilliantly structured. King writes some of his most gut-wrenching scenes in years (immersion tank), while still being able to sprinkle his sense of humor throughout. The ending (though sluggish at times) really worked for me and provided a moment of catharsis. A lot of times, fans feel King’s endings fall flat. But excluding the final scene added at the end (which felt like an eternity), the true finale was near perfect.
The Institute is also another candidate for being misconstrued as another scary tale, filed neatly away with King’s other books. But what’s most impressive with King’s writing here (and with his previous works) is his strong grasp of the human psyche. The characters that emerge are rife with complexity, idiosyncrasies, and perhaps the most poignant, naturalism. What makes his stories effective is having these ordinary characters placed in extraordinary circumstances.
King, at the ripe age of 72, continues to create worlds so intoxicating and immersive. Even stories that I didn’t particularly enjoy (Firestarter, Eyes of the Dragon), I found myself enjoying the less-than-thrilling ride because of his ability to tell a story. The Institute at its most basic level is an extremely familiar story, almost a modern take on Firestarter. But I couldn’t put the book down. I got lost in his world and became consumed by the characters, which is the true skill that King possesses.
As I read, I became deeply sympathetic towards Luke and the alienation he felt in school. I became envious of the poise and control Tim had during tumultuous situations. I wish I lived in a town where after my 9-5 shift, I can stroll into the local bar and the barkeep (who knows my name) has my drink waiting on a coaster. This is what life is all about, and King proves once again, he still gets it.