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The Institute by Stephen King – book review

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“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.” — Joseph Brodsky

The Institute is a gripping, if occasionally horrifying, read.
Stephen King is a great storyteller and The Institute showcases many of his strengths and traits: we have an engrossing narrative, children and teenagers with psychic abilities, and an army of evil characters.
While The Institute is in many ways a ‘classing King’, its story struck me for its incredibly relevant portrayal of America’s political and social climate (from Donald Trump to anti-vaxxers). The novel’s main concern however is the inhumane treatment of children: within this narrative we read of children who are used and abused, treated as commodities, and denied of their rights, freedom, and agency.
Their age, the fact that they are indeed children or underage, becomes a weapon that is used against them. King’s story subverts society’s notion of children, their role and place in society: children run away from home, they are rude, they don’t know enough about the real world or important issues, and they are egocentric. In The Institute not only do adults keep children in the dark but they use their limited knowledge and lack of experience against them. Those working for the Institute kidnap, imprison, and torture children. Yet, they believe that they are justified in their methods. They believe that as adults they have the power, if not right, to ‘punish’ and ‘educate’ children.

“I am having quite the adventure, Luke thought. Yes indeed, quite the adventure for me.”

This propelling narrative is populated by an array of believable characters. Rather than just focusing on the children, those who are oppressed by the Institute, King’s narrative is polyphonic. We become acquainted with the adults who commit such horrific acts, their working-dynamics, their motivations and beliefs. Still while we see that they themselves view their own actions as necessary, readers will still find most, if not all, of their behaviour and values to be utterly appalling.

“He was only twelve, and understood that his experience of the world was limited, but one thing he was quite sure of: when someone said trust me, they were usually lying through their teeth.”

The characters I cared about the most where of course the children (Luke, Kalisha, and Avery in particular). King gives each child and teenager imprisoned in the Institute a distinctive personality, which is no small feat given that their horrifying circumstances threaten to erode their very sense of self. They are repeatedly humiliated, tortured, and dehumanised. Yet, the fact that they are all living through this nightmare, create a powerful bond between them. They have a camaraderie of sorts, they distract each other from their terrible surroundings and heinous experiences.

King’s depiction of good and evil within The Institute’s brutal world although complex and ultimately open ended convinced me that the end does not justify the means. While in many of his novels there is an unseen or arcane evil presence, something un-human, within The Institute it is the seemingly ‘ordinary’ people who cause the most evil.
What is most terrifying is that they are often completely desensitized to the violence that they are committing against these children (and their parents). When we follow them in their ‘daily routines’ we see that they do not consider or second-guess their job requirements. They consider their horrific actions towards and mistreatment of these children as part of their job descriptions. After all, these children have psychic abilities, and therefore they are not really normal children. They are ‘soldiers’ and they have to do their duty. The way the Institute’s employees normalised their own violent and gruesome behaviour brought to my mind the notion of ‘the banality of evil’.

In spite of the novel’s dark themes and difficult subject matters, this novel never comes across as heavy going. King manages to inject this story with a healthy dose of humour and compassion. He also is one of the few authors who is able to incorporate popular American culture in a way that is accessible to non-American readers (most of his references are made clear because they aren’t just thrown out in the open air, they have some context). Speaking writing of America…I just enjoy the way he portrays small towns. He perfectly captures the ambience of the places he writes of, giving us an impression of a community within the space of a few lines.
King also excels at dialogue. The children and teenagers within this novel have the most entertaining of conversations and arguments. I particularly liked the way in which he employs various slangs as well as managing to convey a person’s inflections. You can see that King pays incredible attention to the English language, to the way people speak, and to the significance of their chosen words.
The novel’s occasional intertextuality (the horror fiction is after all a rather derivative genre) create some moments of entertainment, but it is his self-referentialism that is particularly effective (“They were holding hands and clutching dolls as identical as they were. They reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie”).
Another thing that I appreciated is that the children’s psychic abilities doesn’t make them into unstoppable forces. Even Avery isn’t made into an all-mighty figure. He is a ten year old who didn’t have a lot of friends before meeting Luke and Kalisha. These children have all too believable fears and they obviously affected by their environment. And it’s perhaps because their powers are limited, because they are afraid and they have everything at stake, that makes their determination to leave the Institute all the more admirable.

“Telepathy always sounded great in stories and movies, but it was annoying as fuck in real life.”

The Institute’s story and its characters, even King’s writing itself, are—in more ways than one—incredibly vivid. With its thrilling storyline and through plenty of slam-bang chases and action scenes, this book makes for an adrenaline-fuelled read.
While there is a lot of stomach-churning violence (often committed against children) King’s descriptions never struck me as gratuitous. If anything that I was ‘forced’ to silently witness what these children endure made me all the more irate towards those who committed these vicious actions.

“Because it was chess now, and in chess you never lived in the move you were about to make, or even the next one.”

King examines the way in which power structures and or authoritative figures abuse and oppress those they perceive as expandable (in this case children) and he portrays in almost painful detail the way in which Luke, Kalisha, and Avery, are robbed of their ‘innocence’.
The absorbing narration, the captivating dialogues, and the edge-of-the-seat plot combine together into an exceptional reading experience.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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