The Institute by Stephen King

The book cover shows a boy in sideways silhouette in the back of a train caboose; he is seated on a bed with pillows and there is a desk with a lamp and a chair next to him. The small room contains a window with a cloudy bright sky, surreal because it is facing forward towards the next train car. The caboose is on a train track and is surrounded by a darkened landscape and skyscape depicting either dawn or dusk.

By Gabriela P.

Until recently, if someone mentioned Stephen King around me, all I pictured were the usual horror staples: clowns, spiders, dark hallways, mysteriously red and sticky substances. Of course my familiarity with King’s work was about the same as the average media consumer – starting and ending with the Hollywood blockbusters like It and The Shining. As a reader who prefers historical fiction over horror, I never ventured into his dizzyingly enormous body of work.

It was not until my recent read of King’s 2019 novel The Institute that I realized I may have been missing out on his ever-developing literary skills. The Institute delivers on a terrifying antagonist, but rather than supernatural, the bad guys in this story are all-too human. In the “Institute,” inmates with telekinetic abilities are kidnapped, imprisoned, and tormented with unexplained experiments. The inmates are children. The story primarily revolves around Luke Ellis, a 12-year old with extraordinary genius, as he wakes up in the Institute and attempts to navigate the sadistic staff and build peculiar friendships. As he and his newfound friends and allies learn more about where they are, readers come to understand that those working for the Institute believe they serve a higher good, and that there exists a place for cruelty with a purpose. The staff members in charge of the children would show up to work, run their terrifying tests, stop for coffee in their breakrooms, chat and flirt, then head home each night. Even as Ellis and his fellow captives live their days bouncing between mysterious injections and surreally normal basketball games, the real horror is apparent in the quiet complacency towards child abuse as a necessary evil, and at its worse no more than daily routine.

How could children survive in a place designed to strip them of dignity and humanity? Could they even survive? The Institute weaves together a story of unimaginable scale with the most authentically human characters: policemen, innkeepers, custodians. And yes, there is a 12-year old genius and kids who can read minds, but their abilities are the least important things about them. Their moments of anger, sadness, courage, and joy are their characters’ truly grounding elements.

While definitely a tough read, it surprised me how much I enjoyed this novel. Ruthless and brutal, but at times captivatingly heart-warming. If you’re interested in making a foray into the Stephen King sphere, The Institute is a great book to pick up and get absorbed into.

The Institute is available from HCLS in a variety of formats: regular print, large print, as an audiobook on CD, and as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Gabriela is a customer service specialist at the Miller Branch. She loves long walks, reading with her dog, and a good cup of coffee.