Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)
Luke Ellis is twelve years old when he is abducted from his bed while his parents are murdered in theirs. When he awakes, he finds himself in a room that is almost exactly like his bedroom at home, but it doesn’t take Luke long to find out that he is a guest at The Institute, a top secret installation in the woods of Northern Maine who kidnap children with special talents and use them for their own nefarious ends. While Luke is no less than a genius – already accepted at both Emerson and MIT – it’s one of his lesser talents that interests the people who run the Institute: his ability to move things with his mind. In the Institute’s so-called Front Half, Luke meets a group of children who, like him, have telekinesis or telepathy with varying degrees of strength and control. The purpose of Front Half is preparation – daily shots and strenuous tests designed to measure, and try to train, the not-quite latent powers, before the children are shipped off to Back Half, from whence they are never seen again. With the arrival of ten-year-old Avery Dixon, the powers-that-be discover that they may have found the most powerful telepath in the Institute’s seven-decade history. But with Luke’s intelligence and Avery’s seemingly unlimited abilities – and with the help of a member of staff who has finally found a conscience – the children see an attempt to escape…if they can only find someone in the outside world to believe the incredible story they have to tell.
There’s a frisson of excitement for Constant Reader upon reading the description of Stephen King’s latest novel, The Institute. This is not the first time King has dealt with secret organisations experimenting on children with special talents. Could this, we wonder, be The Shop, back in a new and more up-to-date incarnation? Is this new story likely to tie in with that of Charlie McGee, the young girl who could start fires with her mind? The answer to both questions is “No” and it’s difficult to decide whether we’re happy or not with that turn of events. Where The Shop was King’s thinly-veiled version of the CIA, we learn that The Institute is very much nothing to do with any government, and exists solely to make money from wealthy people who want to change the course of the future. It doesn’t take long for any disappointment at the lack of tie-in to King’s 1980 novel, Firestarter, to vapourise, as this latest tale sucks us in from early on – immersing us in this strange new place that might just be the last place that Luke Ellis will ever know – with all of the magic we have come to expect from the mind of Stephen King.
The Institute’s central character is twelve-year-old Luke, a child with an exceptional mind (applying to study at two colleges simultaneously at such a tender age) who is, nonetheless, your average twelve-year-old who likes to hang out with friends and do the things that normal twelve-year-old kids like to do.
Luke was a genius who had somehow not been distorted by his own outsized intellect; he had absolutely no compunctions about mounting his skateboard and riding his one-in-a-billion brain down a steep sidewalk, hellbent for election.
A twelve-year-old child is an interesting choice: how does a man in his early seventies get inside the head of a child of this age? While children often played key roles in King’s earlier books, for the most part his protagonists have aged along with the author. I suspect that much of King’s knowledge of the character – and the all-important pop culture references that he always uses to fix his stories firmly in place and time – come from the three young gentlemen to whom the book is dedicated: his grandsons. There is never any doubt, as we progress through the story, that we are in the presence of children here; how they act and interact, how they speak, the things they like and dislike, all combine to paint a picture that is instantly recognisable to anyone who spends any sort of time with children. From the quiet and likeable Luke, through straight and confident Kalisha and tough and protective Nicky, to ten-year-old Avery who has a hard time settling in, who misses his parents and who latches on to the older kids like a drowning man looking for something to keep him afloat. Each of these children has their own distinct personality and, as we get to know them and their idiosyncrasies, we form bonds with them that can often make The Institute a difficult and emotional read.
While the children and their predicament form the heart of the story, the adults fall into two distinct groups: those who work at the Institute, such as head honcho Mrs Sigsby and head of security, Mr Stackhouse, who are, without a shadow of a doubt – at least for the first three-quarters of the novel – the bad guys. And then there’s Tim Jamieson, who is currently living his life from one decision to the next, and the residents of DuPray, South Carolina, where Tim has temporarily set down roots and become the town’s night knocker; these people fall firmly into the good guy camp. But, as with the real world, things are not quite as black and white; while The Institute doesn’t present us with a big “good versus evil”, it does ask us to make some very difficult decisions as the story progresses, and as we learn more about the history of the Institute, and why it has not only existed, but in many ways thrived, undiscovered by the outside world for nigh on seventy years.
Many of the themes that King examines in The Institute will be familiar to Constant Reader as themes that crop up time and again in his stories and novels. It is, primarily, a story about the end of childhood and of the resilience and resourcefulness of the young. In many ways, it is more similar to King’s 1982 novella, “The Body” (the basis for Rob Reiner’s excellent film, Stand By Me) than to anything else he has written. It’s also a novel about friendship, and how it endures despite the stresses it often comes under. It’s impossible not to compare it to IT in this regard, and the underlying message of that earlier novel – that we are stronger together, much more than the sum of our parts – is one that we will take away from The Institute as well. King has examined the mind, and the strange phenomena of which it is sometimes capable – telepathy and telekinesis – in many of his earlier novels, while a pair of twins turn up at the Institute, adding this novel to the long list of works – going all the way back to The Shining – in which this phenomenon pops up.
There is little to tie The Institute to the wider Stephen King universe – in that universe these same children might have been employed as Breakers – but there are a handful of Easter eggs waiting for a sharp eye to pick them out, so that we can polish up our Number 1 Fan pin, and wear it with pride. Reading a new Stephen King novel is like slipping our feet into an old and comfortable pair of slippers, and The Institute is no exception. This is Stephen King doing what he does best – telling stories and examining the world around him – regardless of the genre he chooses. And this is a novel that’s harder than most to categorise. It’s not horror, though what these children endure at the hands of the cold and often cruel Institute staff is more horrific than any monster we might encounter; it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the other genres into which King has dabbled, but straddles the boundaries across most of them, a coming-of-age story that hits us where it hurts, because these children are coming-of-age much too young, their childhoods cut short by events they cannot control. And perhaps that’s the point: children in this modern world are often not given the chance to grow, and to enjoy their childhood; exposure to the Internet, to YouTube and various other social media platforms, sets unreasonable expectations so that today’s twelve-year-olds are much older, emotionally, than we were, back when children’s television was a limited commodity, and our ability to communicate was restricted to those other children who lived nearby. The Institute takes this idea to the very extreme and – maybe – gives us some hope that the kids are, in fact, alright.
Stephen King’s latest novel comes twenty years after his near-death experience, and the rumours that he might have been retiring, and show an author who still has much to say. His writing has evolved, as writing has a wont to do, but there’s still that deep and comforting sense at the bottom of it all that this is a Stephen King novel. No-one examines the dark side of the human psyche quite like him, and the Institute is a wonderful addition to his canon. Warm and touching in parts, horrific and action-packed in others, it’s an ode to the children and a reminder – as if we need it in these dark days – that the world is likely to be a much better place when they eventually take control. This is King at his finest and is a book that should be on everyone’s must-read list this year.