Every October I like to get in a spooky mood, and generally share a lot of Halloween-themed media with you all. I talk about all manner of creepy stories, in film, comics, and literature. And, one of my tried and true sources of creepy novels is of course, the master of the genre, Stephen King. Which, is handy, because even at 72 Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers of all time, and is still churning out seemingly a novel a year. At least. And, most of them are still incredibly solid! I’ve talked about King quite a bit here on the site, because he’s one of my favorite authors and there’s always another King book to discuss. It’s generally a good bet that I’m going to get a good story from King, and when in doubt for a spooky story it’s always great to turn to him. So, imagine my surprise when I started reading King’s latest novel, the Institute, only to learn that it wasn’t horror at all. I generally go into King’s novels completely blind, not even really reading the plot summaries on the back, just trusting the guy that he’s going to tell a good story, so it wasn’t until I was actually reading the book that I realized it was one of his less spooky stories. It’s still very disturbing, and one of my favorite recent books of his, but it doesn’t quite fit with the October theme too well. Which, isn’t really that big a deal, because it’s still a hell of a book.
The novel follows Luke Ellis, a twelve-year old boy living in Minneapolis, and a certifiable genius. Luke is getting ready to head to college, attending two colleges simultaneously to get as many degrees as possible, and all seems right in his life. But, one night his life is changed forever when a cover military group infiltrate his home, kill his parents, and abduct him. Luke wakes up in a facsimile of his own bedroom, but quickly realizes that he’s been brought to a mysterious government facility. He meets several other young people who are also being kept in this place, known only as the Institute, such as Kalisha, Nick, George, and Iris, and is informed that he’s been brought here because of a special gift. Not his intelligence. Luke has a very low-level form of telekinesis, and apparently the Institute has been abducting children showing signs of telekinesis and telepathy for decades, bringing them to a closed off campus where they are experimented upon and seemingly trained to become child soldiers. The cruel workers of the facility torment them and experiment on them, attempting to enhance and control their abilities, before ominously bringing them to another facility. Luke attempts to figure the place out, keeping his staggering intellect hidden from the people running the place, especially the director, Mrs. Sigsby. But, when Luke meets a young boy named Avery Dixon, possibly the most powerful telepath ever brought to the Institute, he begins hatching a plan. After befriending one of the workers in the Institute, Luke and Avery concoct a plan to escape. And, after a death-defying flight, Luke is able to escape the Institute, wounded, and eventually reaching a south-bound train, boarding it and hoping for the best.
The people behind the Institute don’t realize that Luke has escaped at first, largely because of their own complacency but also because of the ingenuity of Luke’s plan, and when they finally do realize that he’s gone, things get intense. Mrs. Sigsby and her second-in-command, Stackhouse, decide that there’s no way that Luke can tell anyone about the Institute, or their important work will all get exposed. Because the Institute is all about keeping peace in the world. Or, at least that’s what they tell themselves. They find these kids, train them, and then weaponize them, turning them into psychic bombs that kill people they believe are threatening the status quo of the world, a process that eventually kills the children, but not before turning them into brain-dead husks. So, the Institute sends out people to find Luke, who ends up in South Carolina in the hands of a police officer named Tim Jamieson. He and his colleagues are hesitant of Luke and his story at first, but he managed to smuggle out enough evidence that it becomes irrefutable. Which is when Luke is located, and a group of Institute killers arrive to destroy Luke and anyone he might have told. They end up surviving thanks to some local weirdos, and Luke convinces Jamieson to accompany him back to the Institute to take it down once and for all. Which, corresponds with a coup being handled by Avery, getting all the other kids to work in conjunction with kids trapped in similar Institutes all around the world, using their psychic energy to literally tear the Institute apart, right before Luke and Mrs. Sigsby’s eyes. And, with the Institute destroyed, and the surviving children places back in their families, Luke decides to go back to his old life, but with Jamieson acting as a parental figure.
It seems like when this book was first announced, people were saying that it was going to be Stephen King’s answer of the X-Men. Like I said earlier, I didn’t really know what this book was about at all, so I didn’t know that going in, and I’m kind of glad, because I don’t really think that that’s what this was at all. Yeah, I guess it’ s about a school for gifted youngsters, but it’s mainly a tale about warfare, conspiracy, and the lengths that people will go to if they think what they’re doing is right. Which, actually ends up feeling plenty horrific enough to be featured here in October. Because this is a book where children are taken from their parents by a shadowy government agency, forced to kill people, and in the process are themselves killed, all because of a perceived benefit to war. They explain that there are even rarer people who have developed a sort of precognition power, giving the Institute their targets, but there’s no way that they know what they’re doing is actually working, because they’re changing the future. They’re killing innocent people and children, all because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t care about these kids, and they think of them as little more that weapons, which ends up being their downfall because they didn’t respect Luke’s intellect, only caring about his killing capabilities. Because people so used to being the victors in battles, to get the upper hand in the never-ending game of global supremacy, they couldn’t care less if a bunch of kids die. It’s acceptable casualties. Which, is horrifying, and exactly something that feels like it would happen in the world we live in today. Stephen King brings this very strange world to life, cementing it in enough reality that you just feel uncomfortable the entire time, giving you the realization that if there were actually psychic children in the world they’d probably be used exactly like this by the governments of the world, just another weapon to try and establish control. And, if that’s not scary, I don’t know what is.
The Institute was written by Stephen King and published by Scribner, 2019.
Categories: Page Turners