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Book review

The Institute

by Stephen King

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Much to like about this Stephen King, I thought. The first forty or so pages set up the story of Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop who decides on the spur of the moment not to fly from Tampa to New York, but instead to hitchhike. He wends his way along, and ends up at the town of DuPray, North Carolina, where he spots an ad for a “night knocker” – someone to work as an adjunct to the local sherrif’s department, walking the streets at night. Again, he decides more or less on the spur of the moment to pause his cross-country journey, and takes up the job.

Then the story suddenly shifts to Luke Ellis, a genius-level twelve year old boy in Minneapolis. He appears to have a small telekinetic ability – when he’s excited, small objects might unexpectedly rattle about or fall over. He has loving parents, and a great deal to look forward to – MIT have offered him a scholarship already.

Then, suddenly, he is kidnapped, and his parents are murdered, by a well-trained and ruthless team. He wakes up in a room that appears similar, but not quite identical, to his own bedroom. And now he’s inside The Institute, in rural Maine, with a handful of other children who also have psychic gifts – some are”TK”, telekinetic like Luke, others are “TP” and can read surface thoughts. He soon learns that after a few weeks of tests, the children disappear into the Back Half of the Institute, and are never seen again.

The tests they undergo range from the mild to the brutal, but it’s the adults in charge that are in many ways most horrifying. That’s at the heart of the book for me: the moral corruption of the adults who run the Institute, inured to what they are doing to the children for “the greater good”. The children are just children – some compliant, one or two defiant, all scared and trying to hide it. The adults are the horrors. There are several references to Nazi experiments on prisoners, and many of these adults are cast in the same light: some believe in some absolute “truth” that justifies whatever they need to do, while others are by nature, or perhaps simply through long exposure, sadistic and brutal.

Uncomfortable reading at times, but largely well done by Mr King. For me the very last chapter was superfluous – the story could have ended 10 pages earlier, and would have been better for it, so I knock a third of a star off for that. But the preceding 500+ pages were good to great – the second half in particular really gripped me and I found it hard to put down. Three and two thirds of a star, rounded up to four.