After more than 60 books, novellas and countless short stories, one might wonder if Stephen King still has that je-ne-sais-quoi when it comes to telling an enthralling story.
Yes, he still has it.
Stephen King is frequently pigeon-holed as a horror writer – but most aficionados would know this is a miscategorisation. King’s work crosses genres and his true strength lies not in solely horrifying his reader but in telling a story about the ordinary in an extraordinary way.
King’s characters are fleshed out, genuine, raw and real such as Mike Noonan from Bag of Bones or Jack Torrance from The Shining. The situations are often out of the ordinary but the protagonists are grounded in realism. And this is the case with this new supernatural novel: The Institute where children are born with telekinetic and telepathic abilities, however readers shouldn’t expect X-Men level of powers in this tale.
To start off the story, Tim Jamieson, a small-town cop turned Night knocker (a glorified security guard) takes in the town of DuPray. Tim comes with a past that has driven him to be in this middle of nowhere town in America. DuPray is a character in itself and King paints his setting with care to make us see this “town out of a country ballad.” Readers quickly learn of Tim’s past and might wonder what will be in-store later on as all the cards are seemingly on the table.
This is where things get turned upside down as we switch to the real protagonist: Luke Ellis. A child prodigy who gets swept up in a secret facility called The Institute. Luke has to face some harsh truths and frightening moments at the hands of his captors, involving beatings, torture and psychological torment. King’s sharp and insightful writing keeps us hooked by balancing the horrific ordeals with first-time kisses and forging of friendships. Despite the despicable actions perpetuated on the children, it is a page-turner.
Years in the industry has not dampened King’s enthusiasm to tell a contemporary story. He does not shy away from making political commentary in his work either and readers will find references to Trump in this new outing. The political elements are sometimes subtle, such as an official portrait of the President making an appearance on the wall of the local sheriff’s office. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, King clarified that he did not set out to make a political allegory with The Institute as he had begun writing this pre-Trump. But most importantly, he says, “I don’t want to impose my worldview on people.”
Whichever political views readers may have, these references are few and far between and surely enough, King brings you back into Luke’s world. King’s trademark is that he can make readers feel for the characters, even the despicable ones. The antagonists in this story have a past and reasons for doing what they’re doing. Some readers might even agree with the antagonists and thus creating conversations over this novel.
Now, will this book be remembered as fondly and deeply as some of his classics? It is a continuation of what King has done but it does not bring something new and fresh to his body of work. One of his latest novels, Mr. Mercedes, was different for King and it divided quite a few of his fans but it also brought in some readers who otherwise wouldn’t have been interested in reading his work. The Institute is King back to writing what is familiar with a more ‘Young Adult’ focus, which he has done recently in Finders Keepers or even previously in It. The Institute is a slow-burn that turns into a locomotive with an adrenaline-fuelled climax and offers discussion on how as a society we value human life and what we’re willing to sacrifice for the greater good. But what it does not offer is a stab-to-the-heart story that King is beloved for.
The Institute is a novel that offers entertainment and a cast of people with depth. King can write children like no one else as in his stories they never feel like they are older than what they’re meant to be. Luke Ellis is a prodigy but also immature and King manages to keep that balance intact throughout the story. This creates a bond between reader and character which makes the events in the plot more horrific than they would’ve been without that connection. Even though it deals with the supernatural in the form of telekinesis and telepathy, it is grounded in realism. King takes his time setting up the pieces on his chess board and it can seem to drag on in the first third of the novel but there is a pay-off in the last act. King loves the build up like Quentin Tarantino and much like the filmmaker, the pay-off is often explosive.
This story will most likely not bring in many new fans as it is a standard Stephen King affair. But it will more than likely satisfy the larger-than-life King fanbase who had been divided recently upon his new releases.
Stephen King. The Institute. New York: Scribner, 2019.
Raphael Farmer is an Australian author who writes gay fiction. He is a 2019 Hot Desk Fellow at the Centre for Stories and his story Island Boy was published in their anthology Wave After Wave.
This review was provided in collaboration with the Centre for Stories in Perth. (https://centreforstories.com/)