The Institute pulls you deeply into Stephen King’s delightfully twisted mind and plays each of your heartstrings like a tightly-strung violin.
The Institute was written by Stephen King and narrated by Santino Fontana.
The Institute has been lauded as “the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It.” We’re inclined to agree– and we absolutely loved it. King’s character-driven storytelling in this novel draws you in right from the first page, building tension to a fever pitch all the way through the novel, right to the epilogue.
Content & Storytelling
We’re not going to go into specifics because The Institute is a novel best left unspoiled. Here’s what we can say about the plot: The book starts by introducing us to Tim Jamieson, a decorated former police officer who we meet as he’s running away from his former life. He lands in an obscure town in South Carolina, and that’s where we leave him.
The story then abruptly jumps to suburban Minneapolis and introduces us to Luke Ellis and his parents. Luke is quickly revealed to be incredibly gifted intellectually and his likable and well-intentioned parents are endearing in their earnest love for their son. Their almost immediate murder is the first of many, many emotional gut-punches, rendered with the cold precision for which King is so well known.
Luke is then whisked away to a facility where he and his fellow underage detainees are subjected to various tortures by The Institute’s overseers for petty bribes in compliance. Through the course of the narrative, kids are removed from the first environment of The Institute– Front Half– and relocated to the ominous and sinister Back Half. Through it all, Luke Ellis remains determined to escape his imprisonment and save his new friends.
The themes set this work apart from King’s other novels. When we first read the description for the book, it was like deja-vu. A group of especially plucky kids must face down a looming evil in the face of– or perhaps in opposition to– the ineptitude and indifference of the adults in their lives? We’ve heard that story before. We’ve heard that story from Stephen King before. But we’re faithful fans of King’s, and even when the broad strokes felt familiar, we anticipated a wild ride. We weren’t disappointed.
The first theme King brings into harsh relief is that of the whole course of a life can swivel on the smallest hinge. It happens with the foreshadowing of Tim Jamieson and as the second act rolls through its crescendo and toward the climax, we’re reminded that chance can ricochet our lives in any direction, at any moment. What sets the cast of The Institute apart are the different ways they handle the curveballs they’re thrown. From the masterminds charged with running the facility to the children trapped within its walls, the coping mechanisms against the forces of fate and chance are incredibly varied and soberingly real. It’s interesting to watch a master writer like King weave them all together into a tapestry of human interaction.
Also brought into the discourse is the idea of saving the collective society at the expense of (expendable?) individuals. What matters more: the collective safety or the rights of an individual person? Does that importance change if the individual is a child? What if their rights are removed from them through violence? Oppression? Illegally? We don’t have answers for the moral questions that The Institute demands of its readers– but we’d love to hear your thoughts on this theme in our Audiobook Book Club.
And it’s not a Stephen King book without talking about the violence people inflict on one another. But setting that into sharp relief in The Institute is this recurring and pervasive presence of love. The love between parents and their children. The immediate bonds the captured children form with one another. The redemptive capabilities of love in the lives of Tim, and Luke. How love can compel us more thoroughly and efficiently to act in selfless ways. It’s explored thoroughly, but not in a way that’s mushy or exhausting. It reminds us that love is very much a thread that connects us to each other, and it adds texture and life to the characters in this story.
As for the horrors in the book, King is especially talented at detailing grotesque violence with such candor and eloquence that it almost loses its shock value. Almost. In The Institute, these unspeakable acts are committed against children, adding another layer of abject horror to their matter-of-fact portrayals. What King accomplishes in his casual use of violence is desensitization to it, a journey that you go on alongside the kids trapped within The Institute’s walls. They speak about violence like other children talk about unpleasant chores.
The farther into the book you get, the closer you feel to the young characters, the less horrific the violence is intended to be. In the end, during the final showdown between the remaining kids and their captors, the chess game of horrors is full of suspense but the reader is already so immune to this behavior that it barely registers. The cadence of the drama swells and rolls and it is only once the book has slammed to its incredible and satisfying conclusion that you realize just how horrible the behavior of its characters truly was.
Length & Pacing
Stephen King knows how to tell a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The Institute is no exception, and the plot moves at a neat clip from the first page right to the end of the epilogue. The only place where I felt myself getting antsy for the story to move forward was during the first chapters– and that impatience wasn’t with the storytelling, it was to understand how the story of Tim Jamieson was going to interlock with that of Luke Ellis. I’m not going to spoil it for you– but the begging weaves perfectly into the overall plot, and I encourage patience for anyone who, like me, wasn’t sure about the book in the first handful of pages.
Narration & Writing
It’s Stephen King. He is a genius storyteller, and The Institute is a master-class in both character and plot-driven elements weaving together to create a story that has impact. The writing is just exceptional, immersive and fun and strong and sharp, just like you expect from King.
The real secret weapon of this audiobook, though, is narrator Santino Fontana. He carried the personas of each character with delicious delicacy, from the disgraced anti-hero to the vulnerable children, to the tyrranous showrunners at The Institute. No character, no matter how insignificant, was left without consideration– even the small, supporting cast sounded real and each voice was developed and handled with extreme care.
King’s storytelling in Fontana’s more than capable hands amounts to one of the most entertaining and immersive audiobooks we’ve listened to in a very long time.
If you can’t tell yet, let us be really clear: We loved this book. King delivered on his promise to once again pit kids against evil in a way that didn’t feel for a single second insincere or contrived. We’ve already recommended this to all our friends who like suspenseful horror books, science fiction medical procedurals, and that one friend who is really into conspiracy theories. (You know the friend, we’ve all got one.)
Official Description: 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 Instituteis Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.