Review by Simon Bewick
(A caveat before the review: I listened to this one on Audible as I had a long car journey ahead of me. My print version of the book arrived today. The audio version was one of the better readings I’ve listened to courtesy of Santino Fontana)
Some ‘serious’ critics have claimed this is Stephen King ‘going over old ground’. In a sense, it is – the most obvious comparison in this tale of psychically gifted children held against their will in the titular ‘Institute’ is King’s novel Firestarter, almost 40 years old now, but those forty years have seen King write a lot of very different stories – different in terms of length, style, genre and medium, and this book feels as if it uses those years’ of experience in its telling to give a ‘bigger’ story than all those years ago when he wrote about little Charlie McGee and her experiences with ‘The Shop’. There are touches of themes and stories ranging from ‘It’ (a rag-tag group of children) to ‘Shawshank’ (prison life and break) to ‘Misery’ (the hopelessness of capture and brutality of the captors) ‘The Talisman’ (a young boy forced to undertake a mental and physical journey as well as parallels to Sunlight Gardener’s School), and of certain themes explored in the likes of ‘Hearts in Atlantis’ and ‘The Black House’ in the putting to nefarious work of ‘special’ children , to name just a few: not that these other works are explicitly referenced or act as Easter eggs in any way: it’s more a constant reader will recognise that this is King drawing on almost half a century of writing to tell the tale – after all, the idea of children/ young adults with TK or TP powers goes all the way back to his very first novel ‘Carrie’. If this makes it akin to a ‘greatest hits’, then for a lot of faithful readers that’s not in any way a bad thing.
The novel starts with Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop, new drifter, arriving in the small town of DuPray: aimless and happy to take on a low-level law job. Just as we’re getting into Tim’s story, the novel switches to the murderous kidnapping of twelve-year-old Luke Ellis – a child genius with limited Telekinetic powers. Ellis awakes in a mysterious facility where, along with other children of varying ages are being tested for…something. It says something of King’s confidence in that he’s content to leave any further involvement of his opening scenario and characters until some 300 pages in. To this end, there’s a pretty major hint to the reader that the two central characters are going to cross paths at some point and given it is unlikely to happen in the confines of the prison gives a pretty big clue to how events are going to progress.
Stephen King has never been less than prolific – this is his 14th book in the last ten years and during that time he’s explored straight (and not so straight) crime novels, alt-history time travel, family collaborations, small Press experiments, but this, more even that his Shining sequel Dr Sleep, feels like a revisit to the themes and style of his late ‘70s/ early ‘80s works. It’s Firestarter + – and not just in length (150 pages longer), but in scope, characters and themes.
There has been some criticism that this is King ‘getting political’ and there are obvious parallels to current events – it could be argued that the whole issue of child internment is a non-too-subtle allegory to recent events in the US. The fact that King dedicates the book to his grandsons adds to the belief he is clearly ‘saying something’ and over recent months/ years there have been plenty of articles written about King’s feelings towards Donald Trump – not least in his own statements that Trump is ‘worse than any bad guy’ he has ever created, even as King’s own pre-cog abilities have been mentioned in his creation of Greg Stillson, the shady politician looking for presidential candidacy way back in The Dead Zone published forty years before this offering. King says that this book was started before Trump’s campaign had begun. That may be so but somewhere along the line there has certainly been rewrites and additions made to directly reference Trump, through the mouths of his characters and the author’s voice. Personally, I have no problem with artists of any medium expressing their own beliefs: if it conflicts with my delicate feelings or I find it is detracting from the basics of creating a strong piece of work, I’ll walk away from it. For whatever reasons – politically or artistically, I’ve never felt that need to give up on King because of his views and his expression of them.
So for long term fans of King this MAY well feel like a throwback – in the best possible way – to those earlier works. His writing of child characters is as good as ever, even if we don’t get quite the level of detail from previous works like The Body or IT, and his pacing is… well, some might say ‘plodding’ – I’d disagree with that strongly and say it’s assured. King, for me (and as I wrote about yesterday) is at his best when he’s painting the smaller picture: giving you the detail, in the feel of a place and its’ inhabitants through the small detail – the dialogue, the thinking, the actions. It’s what make his characters and his scenarios three dimensional, and the way he does it keeps me hooked even as I wait for major plot developments. And the bureaucratic bad guys and girls? They’re as drawn as you’d expect from someone who has considered them throughout the history of his work. It’s not even possible to say it was his near fatal accident back in 1999 that has given King such a view of so many of institutional workers: going all the way back to The Stand he’s seemed to have a thing about a lot of those people in the white coats.
And the ending? Well, no spoilers, but it’s worth mentioning given the other lazy critical comment that King simply cannot end books. Suffice to say that here it’s definitive up to a point but twists a few ideologies- if not on their head then at least slightly lopsided for consideration of what we have read over the 500+ pages preceding. There’s nothing ‘easy’ about it: perhaps the most political statement of all in the book – and not in any obvious, facetious way. It’s something that might well make the reader think on after the last page has been turned.
Where does it fit in King’s works? It’s good. And it’s old-school. Is it as good as The Stand or the comparable Firestarter? Well, that’s tricky to say: in my case we’re talking about books which I’ve read and re-read multiple times over the years so maybe I’ll wait to consider that for a while. What I DO think is that The Institute is a book I will return to: that’s not something I’ve said about every book King has written over the last ten years.
Of course, there’s already a mini-series in the works, and I can see it’s the sort of story that will benefit over an extended run. Will that, ironically get compared to Stranger Things? We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime it’s good to have a new…old…King novel out there.