“Great Events Turn on Small Hinges”
When The Institute was announced in January, the book’s description had people wondering if it would have ties to Firestarter or the Dark Tower series. Kidnapping kids with psychic powers sounds like what happened to the Breakers at Algul Siento, and Charlie McGee underwent extensive testing at a compound run by the Shop to determine the range of her pyrokinesis.
In fact, The Institute isn’t connected to those earlier works—or really to anything else in King’s work. The organization that runs the Institute in remote northern Maine (in TR-110, for those keeping track) isn’t the second coming of the Shop. The covert group has been operating for over sixty years. The kidnapped children, ranging from eight to sixteen years of age, aren’t being used to bring down the Beams supporting the Dark Tower. The one story that comes to mind when reading King’s latest is his 1997 novella “Everything’s Eventual,” which ultimately turned out to have Dark Tower implications, although that wasn’t clear at the time.
Twelve-year-old Luke Ellis is the book’s central character, but King opens with Tim Jamieson, a former Sarasota police officer aboard a Delta flight from Tampa to New York, where he hopes to get a job in security. His police career in Florida ended after an unfortunate incident left him in an untenable situation. The flight is overbooked, so he decides, on the spur of the moment, to accept a generous offer for his seat and a refund on his ticket. (Maybe he was nervous about flying after reading a certain anthology?)
He starts hitchhiking north, in no hurry to reach his destination and, after a series of random choices and incidents, finds himself in DuPray, South Carolina, a tiny town off the beaten path that exists primarily because of its location at the junction of two major railway lines. He applies for the job of “Night Knocker”—an unarmed security officer who makes the rounds of the town each night—and settles in for a few months.
Tim is an eminently likable guy who makes friends with the town’s eccentric characters—including Orphan Annie, a homeless conspiracy theory aficionado—but what does he have to do with the Institute? King puts a pin in this scene, alerting readers they’ll be back here at some point—when all hell breaks loose. It’s an interesting strategy, and in retrospect Tim’s tale speaks to one of the book’s themes: Great events turn on small hinges. Circumstances conspired to put Tim in place to deal with what comes later. Pure happenstance or fate? One might wonder if ka had a hand in putting a capable man where he needed to be…but isn’t ka just another way of describing Stephen King, the author and creator of his universes?
Enter Luke, a genius’s genius. A global genius. At twelve, he’s preparing to go to MIT to study engineering and Emerson to study English at the same time. Although it’s going to be a strain on his ordinary, working-class parents, they’re ready to do whatever it takes. He’s a singular person, constantly famished for information and learning, wise beyond his years. If three-dimensional chess existed, he’d master it. His IQ is off the charts, he’s read deeply on a wide variety of subjects, and has a massive vocabulary, but he’s also just a kid in many ways. Well-adjusted and well-behaved. Not introverted and, while not athletic, not a klutz, either. He’s almost too good to be true. His biggest character flaw is intellectual snobbery—he tends to look down on and make assumptions about people who aren’t as smart as he is. And then there’s this: Occasionally, especially when he’s upset, he can make a pizza pan flutter or the dishes in the cupboard rattle. Nothing big—not on a Charlie McGee scale. Low-grade, latent telekinesis. His parents take it in stride. Given his incredible intellect, it’s one of the least interesting things about him.
His world is turned upside down when Ruby Red team shows up at his house in the middle of the night, knocks him out and takes him to the Institute in Maine. He wakes up in a room identical to his bedroom, except there’s no window and the minor flaws in his wall posters are gone. The room is constructed to make him feel more comfortable in his new, mostly hostile, environment.
He’s not alone, he discovers. He’s housed with about a dozen other boys and girls, all of whom are either telekinetic or telepathic. Some can exert their psychic powers on demand, whereas the rest, like Luke, have no control over these powers.
The conscripts are housed in a dorm known as the Front Half, where they get decent meals and can play in a well-equipped playground. They’re under constant video surveillance and have tracking chips embedded in their earlobes. If they behave, they earn tokens to purchase special treats, including alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and even cannabis edibles. Misbehavior, though, is punished quickly, in the form of a kick, a slap or a jolt of electricity from a variable-power taser.
On most days, they’re taken to one of the levels beneath the dorm, where they are subjected to medical tests and experiments, many of them unpleasant. They’re given injections, often with nasty side effects, in an effort to get them to see the Stasi lights that indicate their psychic powers have been enhanced. They are operated on and tortured. The staff have no sympathy for their plight. They’ve grown jaded and no longer see their charges as kids.
Tenure in Front Half is relatively brief, a few weeks to a month at most. Just long enough to make friends, which Luke does with several other kids. Every now and then, guards drag a resident off to the Back Half, a place none of them have ever seen, about which they only have rumors, suspicions and information gleaned from telepathy, because no one ever returns from there. Their captors tell them that, after they complete their work in Back Half, their memories of the Institute will be wiped and they’ll be returned to their families, little worse for the wear. The kids have no reason to disbelieve this.
Luke’s intelligence is the least interesting thing about him to the people who run the Institute. The place has been operating so long that institutional malaise has set in. It’s running on inertia, and the staff have become careless. Luke’s presence combined with the arrival of a young but powerful telepath named Avery creates a perfect storm of possibility, and when the kids band together, they become a force to be reckoned with. Resistance, as it turns out, is not futile. For the first time in its history, the Institute faces the possibility that one of its young charges might expose its existence to the outside world.
From this point on, The Institute kicks into high gear and becomes a full-on thriller, a non-stop series of harrowing adventures, near-misses, convenient happenstances and violent confrontations. The Institute can only exist if it remains a secret, so they mobilize against any threat, activating stringers around the country to act as their eyes and ears. The former military and government employees who run the secret installation take their responsibilities seriously. They believe the work they’re doing is critical, while simultaneously acknowledging they’d all end up on death row if exposed.
The 560-page novel reads like a much shorter book, especially once Luke’s adventures outside the Institute begin. A second reading reveals how fully in control of the story King is, from establishing Tim Jamieson’s story in preparation for his subsequent involvement with Luke to subtle details like the dusty covers on the surveillance cameras, indicative of neglect and carelessness.
Through various characters, King makes occasional digs at the current occupant of the White House, and it’s hard to read about incarcerated kids separated from their parents without thinking about the current situation with the ICE camps, but he’s also sympathetic to a group of characters who most likely voted Republican. A scene late in the novel features one of its funniest lines. When the denizens of DuPray respond to a call to action, their ringleader announces, “You’re in the South, now.” It’s also amusing that some conspiracy theories espoused by the wackiest character prove to be true.
The Institute is full of King’s well-drawn and likable characters—many of them teens or pre-teens, giving the novel YA appeal—combined with some of the most heinous, malignant people to populate one of his novels. These aren’t capital-E evil people; they’re the kind who are just following orders, doing terrible things under the misguided notion that torturing a few kids is a price worth paying for their goal. King’s other monsters pale in comparison.
- Crossovers are sparse in this novel. One character is familiar with a small Maine town called Jerusalem’s Lot where everyone disappeared some 40 years ago. She also listens to a conspiracy theory radio program called “The Outsiders.” Tim Jamieson is the kind of man who straightens pictures in motel rooms, a trait shared by a certain gunslinger, and his creator.
- I have no idea if “Bev’s Eatery” was named after me, but I’m going to pretend it was.