Luke Ellis is gifted. Not only does he have a very high IQ but he’s also mature for his age. Even though he’s only twelve he knows how to think things through, how to plan ahead. And sometimes, when he’s upset, things move around on their own account. He’s set for MIT with the help of his loving parents when a group of intruders sneak into his house, kill his parents and take him. He wakes up in a building deep inside the forests of Maine, where he is held with another group of children who, like Luke, have additional powers. Some can move things with their minds. Others can read minds. They’re subject to various tests and exams until, inevitably, they are taken to a second building, known as The Back Half. Nobody returns from The Back Half. Slowly but surely, Luke watches as all his friends disappear, and he begins to hatch a plan to escape.
What can be said about Stephen King that hasn’t been said before? Or better yet: what can King write that he hasn’t written before? Ask any Facebook page or Subreddit who the most underappreciated writer in the world is, and King’s name will come up. Ask them who the most overrated writer is and you’ll get the same answer. Neither of them are wrong. King may have a reputation for being a pulpy writer, but he knows how to turn a phrase and his work can be poignant, beautiful even. Or it can be oddly flat, derivative, overly long, or downright weird and not in a good way. For every The Shining, there’s a Dreamcatcher. Thankfully The Institute is closer to the former than to the latter, but there are a couple of missteps along the way that don’t put it as high on the list as some of his other works.
I ended up really enjoying the book, particularly the first half. The second half kind of fizzled out, and the entire book is remarkably unsubtle (not that subtlety is King’s forte to begin with, but he can do better than this). Luke is a likeable but not particularly profound protagonist; he’s there to serve the plot, though as an educator I was miffed (miffed, I tell you!) at the highly inaccurate portrayal of a gifted child because that’s not how any of this works. I get that King uses his giftedness as a plot device but I do think it’s a missed opportunity. And there is a scene towards the end in a small southern town that reads like the Wet Dream of a card-carrying NRA SovCit, which is odd because King’s not exactly with that crowd.
Ultimately though I liked the book. The secondary characters, like the children Luke stays at the institute with, are mostly well developed and the bond they form is sweet without being cloying. The institute itself is creepy enough, the tests done on the children are varying shades of awful, though Luke bears them with an astonishing (and somewhat unbelievable) degree of dignity, even when they’re not particularly dignified (because Stephen King is Stephen King, not only are there rectal thermometers; they’re “like the ones a vet might use on a horse”). The woman who runs the institute is straight out of The Big Book of Baddies: she’s flat but chillingly effective.
I had a blast reading this one, even if it was sometimes predictable and unsubtle, even if I felt let down by the ending. In the end, that’s what matters. Whether he’s over- or underappreciated, at least King can be relied on for having a good time.