Welcome to The Institute, my favorite book of 2019.
Was it the best book of 2019? Probably not. But I can’t think of a reading experience that I enjoyed more than this. This book brought me back to the feelings I had when I first discovered Stephen King, back in Junior High, staying up late at night, scared to death about what might happen to my favorite characters. Its been MANY years since those first late-night readings of The Shining and Thinner (not his greatest work, but no book EVER has made more of a lasting impression on me than Thinner. I can remember staying up all night long to read it, and how the ending GUTTED me), mostly worrying about the kids in the story, and if they would survive whatever hell had come down upon them. This story brought me back to being a kid again. Thanks, Uncle Stevie.
In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”
In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.
As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.
The Institute starts off slowly…King introduces Tim Jamieson, a former Florida cop looking to start a new life in a small South Carolina town. King seems in no rush to get the plot moving, instead doing what he does best — bringing a small town and its residents to life. Tim gets a job at the Sheriff’s department as a Night Knocker, patrolling the town all night long, making sure the community is safe. Tim starts to settle in to his new life, when suddenly…
We aren’t talking about Tim anymore. And don’t think about him for hundreds of pages.
Now King shifts the focus to child prodigy (and sometimes mild telekinetic) Luke Ellis, a 12 year old from Minneapolis who is about to start college at Harvard. One night, a black SUV pulls up in front of Luke’s house, the people in the car break in, murder Luke’s parents, and kidnap a drugged Luke.
When he wakes up, he is in his bedroom, but it isn’t really his bedroom. There aren’t any windows, and some of his trophies are missing. A startled and confused Luke makes his way outside, where he discovers that he is now at The Institute, somewhere in the deep woods of Maine. A place for kids who have either telekinesis (TK) or telepathy (TP), where they are supposedly trained as secret agents of the government, but in reality, are tortured (and sometimes even killed) in order to test the limits of their powers.
The Institute is run by Mrs. Sigsby, one of the worst King villains in a long time. Her prim pantsuits and calm demeanor can’t hide the fact that she is a monster who enjoys her work and the power she has over the children under her purview. Luke and his new friends (Nicky, Kalisha, George, Helen, Iris, and especially Avery), are subjected to horrible tests and unspeakable acts of torture, as the doctors at The Institute attempt to increase/improve/evolve the potential powers of the children there.
Luke is different than the other kids, though. He is literally a genius, and he has had enough. After he witnesses the death of one of the kids living with him, he decides to plan his escape, and to take down The Institute — and Mrs. Sigsby.
There is a ton of action, some great relationships, and some fun characters here. While I love when King takes his time to describe things, I also love when he ratchets up the tension and has short, one paragraph-long chapters that let you know THE SHIT IS ABOUT TO GO DOWN.
I listened to the audiobook of this, and was constantly trying to find excuses to get in the car and listen, or go for a walk and listen. Turning it off was painful. I needed to know what was going to happen next. I needed to know which kids would make it out alive (because, I knew most of them wouldn’t, and its never a good idea to get attached to anyone in a King story). I needed to know what was going to happen to Luke and Tim and Mrs. Sigsby. And once again (for the fourth time this year), kudos to Santino Fontana (BEST GREG) for narrating the crap out of this book. He did a great job creating different voices for each character and keeping me invested and on the edge of my seat.
The ending wasn’t perfect, but so much better than some of King’s famous missteps, that I didn’t care. I enjoyed every second of this book. Even when it made me cry. Glad to have read this as my cannonball book this year! 4.5 stars!