Remember those old stories where a dragon moves into a cave near a village and goes to sleep. When it awakes its hungry and demands that the village sacrifices a few tasty young children for its supper. In return, the dragon promises to leave the place alone until it wakes up again (in maybe another hundred years). And so it goes. A slight twist on that story might just be that eventually, no one is quite sure that the dragon still lives in that cave. They tell each other that it’s there, and they toss in more unfortunate kids anyway, knowing that doing so will safeguard the village, dragon or none. Meanwhile, no kid ever comes back alive.
That’s pretty much the underlying plot of The Institute, except that in the case of this new Stephen King novel, the kids decide to revolt. The people running the Institute keep telling themselves that sacrificing gifted children to the dragon of potential megalomaniacal world destroyers has saved the lives of billions. But are they just telling themselves fairy stories so that they can keep their grisly but well-paying jobs?
If you are one of “the chosen” children, subjected to harsh treatments, told that your sacrifice will save the world, but gradually learning that the process leads to a fate worse than death, what would you do? Since the reason you are special is that you have telekinetic, telepathic and possibly even precognitive powers, you have the mental chops to really connect with others and then to revolt. And that’s exactly what they do.
Stephen King’s ability to create characters (good and bad) who are absolutely gripping is as powerful as ever. The Institute he describes is as evil as anything anyone could ever encounter in the history of inhumanity. The story builds to a fabulous climax that ends in Luke’s survival. And then, for me at least, the book just sort of dies. The last quarter of the work gives us a far less gripping telling of the fate of Luke’s friends. It also ties up a lot of loose ends and offers a long philosophical discussion about “uncertainty” and all its ramifications. But for some reason, I just don’t care as much.
Bottom line: The Institute is another mind-bending yarn from Mr. King and definitely worth the read. To bad the last quarter of the book doesn’t have the same energy as the earlier parts. Still, great work by Mr. King for reconnecting us with another version of the institute we got to know so well in his earlier novel Firestarter.