The Institute by Stephen King

Offering an eclectic mix of Stranger Things, Matilda, and Michael Grant’s Gone series, King’s newest venture is a dystopian twist on modern day childhood.

Luke Ellis is your average American twelve-year-old; he enjoys skateboarding, pizza, and girls. He is also a certified genius. When he’s angry, doors slam on their own, plates rattle, and pans sometimes fall from tabletop ledges.

Deep in the forests of Maine, staff of the Institute monitor children like Luke. At night, these children are torn from their beds and loaded into the back of a black SUV. They awaken within a room identical to their own, except with no windows. The hallway is littered with bizarrely upbeat posters announcing ‘I am a hero’ and ‘I choose to be happy’. Luke is now a renowned guest of the Institute, a facility that experiments on children exhibiting telekinetic and telepathic abilities.

King remains true to his chilling portrait of contemporary issues, examining the inhumane treatment of children through nausea-inducing pills, electric ‘zap’ sticks, and open-handed slaps as punishment for stepping out of line. At the heart of the story lies a battle between institutional and psychological power, as King subtly relates his fictional Institute to the true horrors of modern-day border detention camps. 

However, a far cry from King’s intricately woven plotlines, the novel occasionally falls into the overly-familiar formula of the last decade’s Young Adult dystopian narrative. The Institute is a strong contribution to this genre, but not necessarily unique in its ‘extranormal, children save the day’ trope bulldozing through the last few hundred pages. 

King’s villains, the main reason behind the author’s reputation as the ‘King of Horror’, also falls a little flat by the novel’s end. Many are reduced to the equivalent of whining ‘if it wasn’t for you meddling kids’, or otherwise embarrassingly crumble under the fast-paced wit of Luke Ellis. 

In a world where Trump sits on the Iron Throne of US politics and Brexit is quietly but consciously referenced, King fearlessly offers us an alternative reality to the threats of international terrorism, nuclear warfare, and political extremism. One moral dilemma runs through the entire book: should we kill the few to save the many?

3/5 stars



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