King’s ‘The Institute’ brings a dose of uncanny terror to school

Sunday, October 20, 2019 - 4:45pm

NOSELL

Associated Press

The idea of “gifted and talented” programs is nothing new: In fact, I would expect many of the people interested in this article were a part of one in the past. It’s a good way to group students with exceptional promise together, and also a perfect opportunity to infuse school with a sense of bizarre competitive edge early on. It’s this idea of gifted children, especially those who might be more gifted than the average child, that serves as the bedrock of Stephen King’s newest novel “The Institute,” an entertaining and wholeheartedly disturbing take on what happens when institutions take advantage of bright youngsters.

Looking at the title, it’s easy to make connections between the novel and several other stories of gifted children, most notably Charles Xavier’s school for mutants in the X-Men franchise. But King, as the master of thrillers he is, takes a slower, more deliberate approach to the premise, building suspense and terror with an expert hand. In fact, the book is so slow in the beginning that it’s not clear what the plot will actually be for the first forty pages or so, one of its only faults. For any other author, most readers wouldn’t have the stamina to continue through a slog of exposition like that of King’s description of protagonist Tim Jamieson. Despite this, the first few chapters of the novel are just interesting enough to maintain intrigue, expecting something to happen at every turn. The slow burn is typical of many King novels, but holds a special prescience in this narrative. In this way, King’s reputation as a writer precedes even the content of “The Institute,” but it’s a trust that is earned quickly as the novel revs up.

Jamieson, a cop with a broken past, finds himself inexplicably thrown into the rinky-dink goings-on of a small South Carolina town called DuPray. Every character the reader is introduced to seems like a stereotype, from the lovable sheriff to the town’s resident conspiracy nut. But somehow, in true King style, not even these tropes seem contrived. In the setting of DuPray, anything could happen and you’d brush it off as small-town antics. Although not clear at the beginning, this environment’s characteristics lend themselves to larger happenings, the close net of townspeople supporting each other through it all. This attention to detail is what makes a reader start to realize the brilliance of King’s work, and the fact that even he, the master of an entire genre, can improve with each book. Not many writers could spend so much time on a seemingly run-down Southern town and have it pay off, but he is always twelve steps ahead.

Although the beginning of “The Institute” is dedicated to DuPray, the vast majority of the novel is centered around its other protagonist, twelve-year-old genius Luke Ellis. Ellis is considering going to college before he even goes through puberty, and his unassuming but loving parents are all on board. They meet with the principal, figure out the money, and hesitantly wait to push their son, both brilliant and grounded in atypical fashion for a child prodigy, out into the big scary world. That is, until Luke is suddenly kidnapped and shipped under cover of night to the book’s eponymous Institute. This happens as quickly in King’s writing as it must have felt for the characters themselves, one day hemming and hawing over the cost of college tuition and the next in a completely different world. The Institute isn’t a place for young geniuses to go and be supported into their adult genius lives; no, it’s much more sinister than that. 

Despite Ellis’s status as one of the smartest preteens in existence, this is not the reason he’s taken from our world into that of the Institute. Instead, it's the fact that he is slightly telekinetic, TK, as the other kids at the compound put it, that make him a perfect target for the forces behind his kidnapping. Though the premise may seem like that of a cheesy young-adult novel, King manages to make their predicament urgent, and the situations the children find themselves navigating very, very adult. Inside the Institute, children both telekinetic and telepathic are put through a rigorous battery of tests and tortures, all under the guise of military service. They live in rooms that are perfect replicas of theirs at home, except without windows. They are served gourmet meals in a posh cafeteria, but the vending machines offer cigarettes and tiny minibar alcohol in addition to their usual wares. The children are given shots and plunged into ice-cold tanks. Clearly, this isn’t a normal school for gifted children. But it isn’t a prison, either ― the real dread of the novel is the reader’s inability to tell where it falls in the middle. 

Children between the ages of eight and 15 roam the concrete halls, being used for an unknown purpose to further an unknown cause. King’s portrayal of the Institute is subtle, but that subtlety is what makes it even more terrifying. There are clear antagonists, but their intentions are fuzzy, the morals of what they are doing hard to discern. All the reader knows is that the kids shouldn’t be there, with a low hum of suspense coloring every move they make. 

The novel is hefty, as King’s books typically are, but it plugs along at a pace that makes its density nearly effortless to navigate. You can tell that “The Institute” is one of over 50 books in King’s catalog, because it seems like it was written by someone with nearly infinite wisdom and insight into his own ideas. Every question that needs to be answered is answered, eventually. Though it’s the questions that King chooses not to tie up that make the novel so intriguing. Reading the book’s nearly 600 pages seems like walking down a carefully laid path, with every stone in the perfect position to lead you to the next one. Nothing is revealed too early, or brought up too late. 

It would be a travesty to reveal the deeper intricacies of the novel, and what actually happens at the Institute near the end to an unassuming reader. The magic of King’s writing is in a slow but riveting unfurling of a complex plot, with every page in the hundreds offered bringing something important and necessary to the work as a whole. The writer plays with his audience’s expectations and assumptions masterfully, as one would anticipate from such a prolific author. Half the fun ― and the terror, in this case ― is not knowing where he will take the story next. “The Institute” works within these parameters flawlessly, leaving the reader with questions that don’t only relate to the book’s plot itself, but to the world around them, too.