What is it this year with stories about kids locked away in institutions for various reasons? It’s a pre-adolescent hunting ground out there.
Stephen King’s The Institute follows one primary character – Lucas Ellis, a disturbingly brilliant child that wants to go to two colleges at once and also happens to be capable of low-grade telekinetic abilities. From there we’re spiraling into stories about kids with different abilities, disturbingly narcissistic adults, and heroes that don’t get enough screen time.
There’s a lot to be said about latter-day King, particularly about his execution (I think he honestly did better on rails and with a 30-pack of beer a day, sadly). I enjoyed Revival quite a bit but found everything else since 11/22/63 a bit of an interesting mess. You see…King’s work has always been inconsistent, but lately, he’s begun to be a bit of a mess in a way that’s still fun to read due to his innate skill. The Institute contains absolutely effortless prose, but the nitty-gritty gets in the way to make it awkward.
Lucas Ellis is a smart kid, brilliant on a level that would only work in fiction. When he’s kidnapped and his family out of the picture, he bands together with other special kids to make a try for freedom. Simple premise, simple execution, but the character work woven together here is textbook King. That’s not a knock, it’s a statement about his strongest abilities. Whether you want to talk about Jack Torrence or Father Callahan, King has always had nuanced and layered characters. Lucas Ellis is no different, but his existence as a Stephen King “psychic kid” is a hard thing to deal with. Boy howdy, is he a nice kid with clever references and up-to-date commentary references! This has always been the author’s weakness, a need to keep things on point by using stark socio-political references instead of subtlety. It worked in an era where he got lucky, his tastes winding up being timeless, but some of his references in the modern era feel very researched. He’s holding back here, leaving behind references to social media in favor of popular television series and music. Those moments work on a hit-or-miss basis, with the misses being more frequent.
What works like a charm is everything involving the kids at the isolated Institute. Each one develops a stereotypical personality, and each of them evolves beyond that. You have the rebel, the smart kid, the beefy bully, and the tiny shy kid. All of them move further and make something special out of the basic elements. Everyone can do the Breakfast Club stereotypes, it takes a practiced hand to use them to advantage and make them into something real. I thoroughly enjoyed each child character and was happy to follow them beyond what I thought I would.
This courtesy isn’t extended to everyone. Wendy and Tim are perfectly serviceable characters, but we lose them for hundreds of pages and are then brought back to see where everything has come to. I would be much happier if I had their moments peppered throughout the series, and it would break up the more fantastical elements of King’s novel and ground it. He used to be good at this, and the final third of the book sees shades of what he’s capable of. I turn to each bit and see what could have been while lamenting over about 5 characters that needed more time on the screen. It’s a shame, but we got what we got.
At the end of the day, this is for King fans. It has its problems, but it’s well-written enough to keep them around and it has a premise that might be new for him but is unfortunately fairly prominent in today’s zeitgeist (see the anime The Promised Neverland and the book Inspection by Josh Malerman). I enjoyed it, but I don’t see myself revisiting the book anytime soon. I’d rather revisit Doctor Sleep or Revival if I’m going to drench myself in latter-day King. Only go for The Institute if you’re a devotee of the author.