“The Institute”

By Stephen King

Scribner, New York, 2019

576 pages, hardcover, $30

 

Inside the institute of Stephen King’s “The Institute,” there are very fine people on both sides, administration and residents. At least, as far as the administrators are concerned. The residents, not so much.

Twelve-year-old Luke Ellis, of Minnesota, lands against his wishes (had he had a choice) at the somewhat timeworn institute hidden, it turns out, somewhere in the north woods above Presque Isle. Luke’s prodigious native intelligence had already garnered him admission to two prestigious East Coast universities. But for the institute administrators, Luke’s intellectual brilliance is more hindrance than help. What interests them is his ability to telekinetically nudge pizza boxes off the kitchen table. Similarly for the other inmates, all young teenagers, few of them as smart as Luke, but many of them more psychically gifted.

The plot turns on the kids’ efforts to cope with life inside the institute, which is different kinds of harrowing. They form quick, touching friendships, shy young-love affairs, acute fears and a collective hatred for most — but not all — of the institute’s staff. They also share their rare psychic abilities, which are categorized in time-tested institute jargon as TK (telekinetic, able to move objects by their minds) or TP (telepsychic, able to read and sometimes communicate with other minds).

So “The Institute” is, for one thing, another foray into some of Stephen King’s favorite subject matter: telepathic capabilities. Johnny Smith in “The Dead Zone” (1979) had the crippling ability to read past and future. Death row inmate John Coffey’s terrifying psychic links to suffering and dying were the central force in “The Green Mile” (1996). And in the “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy (2016), Brady Hartsfield’s psychic powers serve his mass-murdering insanity. In “The Institute,” the kids learn to broadcast and receive thoughts in complete sentences, silently.

Silence is imperative, because the administrators at the institute are always listening. Nominally, at least. And amid some pretty rough stuff, you can’t help but start comparing the place to a concentration camp of sorts. What do these administrators think they’re doing, exactly? At least one of them could easily have been modeled on Amon Goth, the camp commander made infamous in “Schindler’s List,” and others with Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death” physician. And indeed, late in the book there is a short discussion of what the institute’s ways owe to the Nazis. There are also passing references to the election of Donald Trump, and inside out, the defeat of Hillary Clinton. The implicit parallel between kids caged in the woods above Presque Isle and kids caged in holding pens near the Texas border is kind of hard to miss. Immigrants and unusually gifted people are aliens to be exploited. For the greater good?

“The Institute,” like “The Outsider,”  is another of King’s really finely tuned stories. While this is somewhat less reflective than some of this other books (and more reflective than others, let’s say), the economies of plot, prose, personalities and profluence are masterful here. It’s hard to put this one down. At the age of 72, Bangor’s most famous writer is still on top of his gifts.

 

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

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