Author Stephen King is an institution. He’s been working for five decades, writing 61 novels, a number of short story and novella collections, memoirs, and screenplays (a total of 85 published books to date with more on the way). Whilst not all films based on his books have been successful (the massively disappointing The Dark Tower for example), some have been unqualified hits, the recent adaptations of his mega-tome IT have grossed over $1billion and the 2017 film is the highest-grossing horror film of all time. The recently released It: Chapter Two (reviewed here) is already number three on that list, and The Shawshank Redemption (based on his story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption from his book Different Seasons) occupies the coveted Number 1 spot on the IMDB list of the top 250 films of all time.
Although primarily known as a horror writer, King has written in many different genres: supernatural thrillers (Fire Starter, The Dead Zone), Epic Fantasy (The Dark Tower Series), Detective stories (Mr Mercedes), coming-of-age stories (The Body – which was adapted into the 1986 film Stand By Me), and straight forward suspense (Gerald’s Game). He often focuses on certain themes such as grief which he explored in Pet Sematary, Lisey’s Story and Duma Key.
Now in his 72nd year, he is experiencing a bit of a resurgence, although he never really went away.
His most recent book, The Institute, was released on September 10th 2019. It tells the story of the kidnapping of a young boy, Luke Ellis, who, after his parent’s murder, is held in a mysterious building known simply as the Institute. His room in the Institute is superficially made up to look like his room at home, but is in fact just one room of many in an old building which could once have been mistaken for a hospital, or possibly a prison. The reason he, and the other residents, have been taken is because they have small levels of supernatural power. Some of the children are able to read minds (telepathy), others can move objects with only their thoughts (telekinesis). Luke’s power is certainly not exceptional but his intellect is; not that the doctors and janitors of the Institute care. The children are there to be experimented upon, and their power extracted and weaponised for nefarious reasons.
The children – Luke, Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon (the youngest but most powerful of them) – are mostly resigned to their fates. They currently live in an area known as Front-Half, but they all know that soon, like countless children before them, they will be transferred to the mysterious Back-Half and will never be seen again.
Any follower of Stephen King on Twitter knows that he is very vocal about politics and this story does seem to have disturbing parallels with stories of children being incarcerated on the US/Mexican border but this is likely just a coincidence as The Institute was already written (at least in a draft form) before these news stories broke. Politics does permeate the book however, with references to Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton as well as a snide remark aimed at Donald Trump.
Much has been written in the last few years about the Stephen King Universe. Throughout his books there are references to characters and situations he has previously written about and The Institute is no exception. Some are very obvious – the book in many respects can be seen as a sequel to both Fire Starter and The Dead Zone (and possibly The Shining and its sequel Doctor Sleep), some less so (one character mentions the town of Salem’s Lot) and others are so subtle that they are easily missed (one line refers to people pretending to be janitors – a reference to John Rainbird in Fire Starter).
To say that The Institute isn’t top-tier Stephen King does it a disservice. It might not be as good as Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot or The Stand (my personal favourite King book) but it’s still fine entertainment. Many of his books in the last ten years have been fantastic: 11/22/63, the Mr Mercedes Trilogy, The Outsider and Doctor Sleep are all top-quality thrillers that rely on great characters in fantastical situations.
Great characterisations are King’s speciality and there are plenty in The Institute. Just as I loved spending time with Bill Hodges and Holly Gibny in Mr Mercedes, or Jake Epping in 11/22/63, I was happy to hang out with the kids here, despite the grimness of their situation. They spoke like real children, they acted like real children and, even as Luke plots his revenge against the Institue’s director Mrs Sigsby and the rest of the evil bureaucrats, he does so with a convincing mix of exceptional intellect combined with a naïve (although never childish) understanding of the world.
We really feel for these kids throughout and really want them to exact their revenge and survive. And this makes the heart pulsing finale all the more intense. One odd note however; King has long been an advocate of gun control and yet takes a delirious delight in one scene in which almost the entire population of a small southern US town comes out in the dead of night wielding an assortment of firearms.
What is really scary about The Institute however is the bland bureaucracy in which it all takes place. The bad guys are just going about their business and they see the children not as individuals, but mere tools. The building seems run down and utilitarian, the paint is peeling, the dust is gathering and the computers are outdated. It’s as if Nazism took over not by far-right, extremist wet dreams, but because of budget cuts and office-space nihilism.
As the nights are drawing in and getting colder, and as the Halloween season approaches, there is no better form of entertainment than curling up on the sofa and joining the children of The Institute as they face the most unbearable situation and, hopefully, prevail. This may not be top tier King but even good King, which this certainly is, is more than worthy of your investment of time.
Film’89 Verdict: 8/10
The Institute is available in Hardcover now and is published by Hodder & Stoughton.