Kids with psychic abilities are kidnapped and taken to the Institute, where they’re put through a series of demeaning and abusive medical procedures in “Front Half” before being taken to “Back Half”, where their abilities are put to use. They’re told that, once they’ve served their term, they’ll have their memories of the Institute wiped and be set free, but none of the kids are buying that. There’s rumours of a back half to Back Half, where the burn-outs are kept. And after that, well, the Institute has its own cremation facilities.
My first reaction on reading about The Institute was, “Ah, Stephen King does Stranger Things,” because of the psychic-kids-in-an-institute idea, though of course Stranger Things is the Duffer Brothers doing Stephen King, so really it came down to Stephen King doing Stephen King. Kids with psychic powers have been there in his fiction from the start (Carrie), and Firestarter was a key influence on both the character of Stranger Things’ Eleven, and Hawkins Labs where she’s held, but I wonder if watching the show sparked King off with a need to revisit the idea. (According to an article in the New York Times, he began writing the novel in March 2017, so that would have been between Stranger Things’ seasons 1 and 2.)
But the Institute is no Hawkins Labs, and its kids are nothing like Eleven. Most of the children have no conscious control of their powers, and even those that do, know how weak they are — the best of them can, by really concentrating hard, just about hold back the midges that hang around the rundown Institute playground, or get a vague telepathic sense when someone’s lying. So it’s a mystery why anyone would go to such an effort to kidnap a bunch of children with “psychic abilities that wouldn’t even pass an America’s Got Talent audition”.
The Institute itself is hardly hi-tech. It’s tired and rundown, and mostly just going through the motions. It’s not interested in scientific discovery. (One doctor’s allowed to experiment on the less promising subjects, but it’s strictly a side project.) The main purpose is to get the kids through a well-worn process — give them the necessary jabs, put them through the standard tests — and most of the staff have long since ceased to regard their charges’ humanity as anything but a nuisance. Most are casually cruel; the few who aren’t are outright nasty.
There’s a weird air about the Institute of belonging to another age. The snacks in the vending machines (which kids can purchase with tokens they’re given for good behaviour) include sweets from decades past (candy cigarettes, for instance), though I wasn’t able to pick up on all of King’s hints about this as, to me, all American snacks sound made up. The TVs in Back Half, meanwhile, show “only prehistoric sitcoms like Bewitched and Happy Days”. I was wondering if this was going to be a plot point, or even a joke about Stranger Things’ retro appeal, but in the end I think it was just King connecting these kids’ experience to his own childhood.
The main character we follow in The Institute is Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old prodigy who has minor, unconscious telekinetic abilities. He’s super clever, but the Institute doesn’t care about that. To them, he’s just another kid to be put through the grinder — to be processed, but also humiliated, controlled and broken along the way. One thing that really came through in the first half of the novel is how powerless these children are in a world where the adults don’t give a damn about them. Luke’s first task is to fight as hard as he can not to be institutionalised — not to give in to that sense of powerlessness and simply accept the situation, but also not to pointlessly rebel for the sake of it, which just ends in pain.
I haven’t read much criticism of King’s work taken as a whole, so it was only when I was halfway into the book that I realised how often the theme of incarceration, and escape at great odds, occurs in his work (in, for instance, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, Misery, and Gerald’s Game, as well as being an early rite of passage for a number of characters in The Stand). All of these stories are about characters fighting unfair and often life-threatening imprisonment with a combination of cleverness and patient determination, and King seems to have a particular penchant for that sweet feeling of pure, abstract freedom which follows.
As the book goes on, there are growing hints that the Institute is doing what it does out of a genuine belief in a greater good, and not just the standard thought-stopper of “national security”. It made me feel the novel was heading towards an outright moral argument — could any ends ever justify such means? — but it never did, not in such abstract terms, anyway. Which is a pity, because I think it’s good to have even such basic moral arguments aired every so often. (Virtually every review and interview I’ve read about The Institute brings up the incarceration and separation of children from their families on the U.S.-Mexican border that started in 2018, so it’s not as if the novel needs to evoke the horrors of the past to find any relevance.)
The Institute is the best King novel I’ve read in a while. It may be in part thanks to its having only a very light touch of the supernatural — meaning King couldn’t indulge in the sort of over-the-top horrorshow pyrotechnics that have put me off reading him in the past (Duma Key, for instance) — but also thanks to some very tight plotting, with a large chunk of the novel switching between three very suspenseful situations all playing out at the same time. It made The Institute into a real page-turner.