In casting about to get their bearings, the Institute’s inmates helpfully reference Pleasure Island and the witch’s cage from Hansel and Gretel. They might also have cited Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, another dystopian tale of battery-farmed children. Hell, while they’re about it, they might even namecheck some previous Stephen King publications – specifically Firestarter, The Shining, Dreamcatcher and Carrie. After more than 50 profitable years in the business, the author has long since hit the point where he’s circling back on himself, revisiting themes he’s covered in the past (in this case supernatural children and a mammoth dark-state conspiracy). The success of The Institute, though, is in the way it repurposes this familiar material to spotlight a 21st-century US in crisis; corrupted and compromised and mired in debt. The Institute sits alone in the woods. But it’s symptomatic of a wider malaise.
Without doubt one of the world’s greatest storytellers, King has an uncanny knack of finding horror in the midst of the commonplace, and he demonstrates it once again in this story about a shadowy state facility hidden deep in the woods of Maine.... King himself describes his story as a cross between Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Lord Of The Flies, and you can see what he means. But I found the result lacked the quality of either of those great novels — or some of King’s other work. In the end, it felt fussy and overblown, lacking a poignancy that would have rendered it unforgettable.
What a year this is for Stephen King fans. We’ve already been treated to film adaptations of It and Pet Sematary, with Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, still to come, on Halloween no less. And one cannot ignore the popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things, a Frankenstein’s monster of King tropes. But while 2019 might be a good year for King on screen, his latest novel, The Institute, disappoints. [D]espite a few good moments of peril and thrills, The Institute feels oddly tame, lacking the psychological credibility of King’s best work that makes the horror hit home and sells you on the trippier stuff. It could well translate to a good TV series, though. Indeed, one is already in the works.
Stephen King’s protagonists have been hunted by all sorts of malevolent beings, from the demonic clown of “It” to the fiendish cowboy Randall Flagg in “The Stand.” But as scary as those supernatural bad guys can be, King’s most unsettling antagonists are human-size: the blocked writer sliding into delusions of grandeur and domestic violence, the fan possessed to the point of madness by someone else’s fiction, the bullied teenager made homicidal by the cruelty of her peers. We can see something of ourselves in these characters, and recognize in them our own capacity for evil. King’s latest novel, “The Institute,” belongs to this second category, and is as consummately honed and enthralling as the very best of his work. It has no ghosts, no vampires, no metamorphosing diabolical entities or invaders from other dimensions intent on tormenting innocent children. Innocent children are tormented in “The Institute,” but the people who do it are much like you and me.
By virtue of necessity, the narrative is told almost entirely from Luke’s perspective, robbing us of the strengths of King’s oft-peripatetic point of view, which in books like It, The Stand, and Under The Dome, emotionally mines myriad individuals for the benefit of the whole. Here characters either disappear or disengage from Luke just as they’re starting to crystallize, only to resurface after a new batch of characters has been introduced. The same goes for the Institute’s shadowy management and hatchet men, most of whom remain as opaque as the organization itself. One longs for King to dig into these villains, to make us despise them as we did Henry Bowers’ thugs in It or the sadistic henchmen of The Talisman’s Sunlight Gardener School... The Institute is archetypal King in that it contains much of what we love about and associate with his name—powerful kids, supernatural forces, small towns, heartfelt explorations of friendship—but it’s also a grander glimpse of the bright-eyed King we saw with last year’s hokey Elevation. It’s easy to miss the guts, but contrary to what some might think, nobody reads King just for the guts.
It has often been argued that his paramount talent as a writer is for storytelling. Such a claim is borne out by his wider cultural influence, the Netflix series Stranger Things being just one recent example. What is mentioned less often is the engine of his storytelling, the compelling and tactile quality of the writing itself. His immaculate sense of place, his flawless ear for dialogue, that intangible literary quality we refer to as voice – these are the reasons we return to King, and in King it is the voice that persists, even when the stories themselves are so much bunkum... The Institute is already being billed as IT for the Trump age, but speaking as one who prefers those works often thought of as misfires (Hearts in Atlantis, From a Buick 8, even – yes – The Tommyknockers) it feels too writing-by-numbers for that, insufficiently distinctive. Extreme facility with words can be the writer’s enemy. One is never in doubt that King could write about anything. It is just a shame he writes so much of it, and – too frequently these days – to such small ends.
Everything you would expect from King is here: eccentric background characters (the tramp who believes in government conspiracies, the 70-year-old secretary who’s also handy with a gun, the doctor who’s slowly going crazy thanks to over-exposure to telepaths); a sturdy, controlled plot; and a sense of the kind of bonkers, slant-wise imagination that gave us It and Pet Sematary. While not his best, The Institute still hums and crackles with delicious unease.
Once pigeon-holed as a “horror-meister”, King has become a formidably versatile author, enabling him to pull off a captivating, hybrid novel that shape-shifts through several genres... What it all adds up to, though, is unclear. Does The Institute stand for something (perhaps the US military, which also grooms teenagers to kill faraway enemies)? Or is the novel just a bravura display of King’s own special power, with no ulterior purpose besides showing that tales of missing children don’t have to be formulaic?