TWELVE-year-old Luke Ellis is smart. Not just smart for his age but ‘child-prodigy’ smart. But it’s not for his intelligence that he’s kidnapped from his home in the middle of the night, his parents murdered, and sees him wake up in an exact but windowless copy of his own bedroom in a secret facility deep in the woods of Maine. The Institute is a shadowy organisation that kidnaps exceptional children, gifted with the potential for telekinesis and telepathy, and subjects them to a barrage of tests meant to enhance their abilities in order to use them for concentrated effect.
Tim Jamieson is a man on hiatus. Forced to retire from his job as a Florida police officer, he finds himself passing up the offer of work in New York to wander, eventually winding up inthe small North Carolina town of DuPray, where he joins the tiny police force. Little does he know that he’s about to stumble upon the biggest case of his career.
Thousands of miles apart, unaware the other even exists, what will bring them together?
Avery Dixon, a new, even younger recruit whose telepathic ability is off the charts. Avery’s ability, combined with Luke’s intelligence, provides hope of escape. As long as those who run the experiments continue to underestimate them.
Horror master Stephen King’s latest novel taps into the current trend, a la Stranger Things, for government conspiracies and super-powered children (though arguably King got there first, having been writing about both since the 1970s). But although The Institute contains psychic children, it eschews many of the other supernatural elements of his other works in favour of making both the evil and the monsters in this story solely human in nature.
The tests the children are subjected to are often uncomfortable and degrading, sometimes dangerous, and seem to have no rhyme or reason. After a while – after fulfilling some mysterious criteria – they graduate to what is euphemistically known as the “back half” of the Institute, a place from which children never reappear. The adults maintain that they’ve merely gone back home to their families, but the children, and the audience, know this for the fiction it is.
What makes this both particularly effective, and even more chilling, is that the villains – the adults who run the Institute – genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing and the children are making a necessary sacrifice (as a lot of them, those who aren’t scientists, come from military backgrounds, the notion of “sacrifice” recurs quite a bit). The children’s powers are used for covert operations to remove people who are deemed “dangerous” – seemingly by the shadowy people at the top of the organisation, (there seems to be a lot of post Cold-War hang ups), people that even the most ruthless of the staff seem to fear – and so have trained themselves to turn a blind eye to the children’s suffering. Some do seem to enjoy misusing and abusing their power over them but none are evil for the sake of being evil.
In contrast, Tim and the townspeople of DuPray are the antithesis, who do all in their power to protect and rescue the children, showing that hope is not lost.
But whilst, in typical King fashion, all the characters are well drawn – even the ones whose time in the story amounts to only a quick thumbnail sketch – it’s the children who are at the heart of the story, particularly Luke. You buy that he is both extraordinarily intelligent and yet, at the same time, is a 12-year-old boy with 12-year-old boy interests, who’s not above social interaction because he doesn’t want to be seen as too weird. He and a small group of other children, including Avery, form a tight-nit group whom you quickly come to care about and whose camaraderie is both entertaining and believable. You also buy how quickly they’re forced to grow up.
Big though The Institute is, the writing means that the story moves along at a good pace.
True, the opening is a little slow, the beginning focusing on Tim before we meet Luke and the story gets started properly, feeling a little like a long prologue, but it does a good job of introducing him and the rest of DuPray, as it’s a long while before they show up again.
Thrilling, chilling and heart-breaking – and also managing to be a little prescient – The Institute is a brilliant novel about innocence betrayed and faith restored.
The Institute has been published in the UK in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton.
Reviewer Carolyn Percy is a librarian whose qualifications include a master’s in Creative Writing. She contributes reviews to a number of publications including Horla.