For all of the countless pop cultural references that spring to mind when reading “The Institute,” Stephen King’s latest novel, it’s worth remembering that nearly all of them are in our collective consciousness because of King himself.
It’s the tale of Luke Ellis, a 12-year-old boy with a brilliant mind and latent telekinetic powers whose parents are murdered by several intruders. The intruders then kidnap him and take him to a mysterious location deep in the Maine woods. There, he finds he’s one of many “powered” kids whose talents are being honed and exploited by a group of shadowy operatives, led by the sinister Mrs. Sigsby.
It’s also the tale of Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop with street smarts and a good heart, who opens the novel and then disappears for many pages before reappearing much later.
Luke and Tim will be drawn together by novel’s end, but not before readers are treated to an overflowing buffet of classic King imagery and action. Besides the telekinetic and telepathic kids — a career-long favorite subject of King’s — there are sadistic guards, small town weirdos, an epic road trip, gibbering lunatics, and low-key references to the state of the U.S. under the Trump administration. It’s paced beautifully, ramping up to a satisfying, action-packed climax before giving way to a satisfying emotional ending.
In some ways, “The Institute” is the most Stephen King-y book he’s written in years. It shares much more of a spirit and shape with his earlier, more fantastical novels. Telepathic children? “The Shining.” A group of kids, bound by shared trauma? “It.” A shadowy cabal bent on exploiting powered people? “Firestarter,” though it’s unclear whether The Institute is related to the The Shop, the organization at the center of “Firestarter.”
King has always put children at the heart of many of his tales, reveling in their innocence, honesty, loyalty, lack of social filter, unvarnished intelligence and bravery. In that way, “The Institute” is more akin to a young adult novel — yet another genre King has undeniably influenced.
Some of those elements can start to feel a little well-worn in a pop cultural landscape rife with similar stories, including clearly King-indebted TV series like “Stranger Things,” “The OA” and “The Santa Clarita Diet” and any number of horror and sci-fi movies. But then you remember: Stephen King has been writing about all those sorts of things since before the creators of most those shows and films were even born. It’s his fictional world. We’re just living in it.
And yet, with all those references in “The Institute” to his gloriously horrific literary past, 2019 Stephen King is a much less bloodthirsty, punitive writer. His characters suffer, yes, but with hardly the same ghastly fates had by the characters in, say, “The Mist” or “Dreamcatcher.” The bad guys are really bad, but the good guys — kids, mostly — are pure of heart. There is much more time for character development and emotional resonance, and less time set aside for blood and guts.
Don’t worry, though. There’s still some blood and guts. A few things, thankfully, don’t ever change.
“The Institute” is available wherever books are sold.