In his new novel, Stephen King devises an epic-sized thriller perfectly in tune with these divisive times.

What could be more timely than a novel about children taken away from their parents and held in a secret facility? Only the kids aren’t desperate refugees from distant lands, but captives at a private research center hidden deep in the Maine woods?

Cover courtesy of Scribner

“The Institute” opens with a long sequence that feels like the start of one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, with a likable loner hitting the road, no destination in mind. Ex-cop Tim Jamieson impulsively gives up his plane ticket for two grand in cash and decides to hitchhike home from Florida. The journey takes him to the small town of DuPray, South Carolina, where he lands a job with the sheriff’s department as a “night knocker,” checking the back roads for trouble and earning a hundred bucks a week.

Like almost everything King has written, these opening chapters are suspenseful, engaging and highly readable. They exhibit a strong sense of place, this time focused on the rural South, rather than New England. The first chapters, however, feel a little like warm-ups. The extended prologue works structurally, but the 40-page delay before meeting the main character seems an odd choice that may require a certain amount of patience from readers.

The main plot begins in the Minnesota home of certified boy genius Luke Ellis. Mysterious operatives break in at night, drug him, take him away and kill his parents. Luke awakens to find himself in a detailed replica of his bedroom, only without any windows. Welcome to the Institute.

As he worries about the fate of his parents, Luke meets his fellow captives, including the worldly Kalisha; Nick, who refuses to knuckle under to the rules of their kidnapper; and Avery, a skittish 10-year-old who may be the Institute’s biggest catch yet. Each child possesses some degree of paranormal power, but with the exception of Avery, rarely can they muster enough mojo to do more than slam doors, break kitchenware and knock over chess pieces.

Luke and his friends aren’t told why they are there, but they are put through a battery of tests. If they co-operate, they receive tokens that can be used at the handy vending machines, which dispense adult beverages like hard lemonade, not to mention cigarettes and pot. If they cause any trouble, the kids are punched without mercy, zapped with cattle prods or nearly drowned.

As he has demonstrated initially in “Carrie” and later in “IT,” the novella “The Body” and many other books, King excels at depicting children and teens in crisis. In Luke, King presents a prodigy who is smart without being obnoxious, someone readers can root for without reservation. Despite his prodigious intellect, Luke is the 12-year-old Everyman who keeps the narrative humming – still a child and vulnerable, but with a core of toughness that sometimes allows him to get the best of his tormentors.

At the Institute, kids start out in what’s referred to as the Front Half and undergo testing to determine to what extent they are “TP,” telepathic, or “TK,” telekinetic. Kalisha tells Luke, “I don’t know what goes on in Back Half, and I don’t want to know. All I do know is that Back Half is like the Roach Motel – kids check in, but they don’t check out. Not to here, anyway.”

Among King’s books, “The Institute” most resembles 1980s “Firestarter,” in which pyrotechnic prodigy Charlie McGee learns how to set things on fire with her mind. Charlie was able to save herself by walking into the offices of Rolling Stone, a solution unthinkable today. Even before they start scheming to effect an escape, Luke and the gang know that finding true safety will take more than an interview with a crusading journalist, that they will need to be suspicious of the media and especially of law enforcement.

Given the nature of the Institute, it’s no surprise that it is ruled by adult bullies. Chief among them is Mrs. Sigsby, a tightly wound authoritarian who rules her domain with a lead fist. The doctors forswore their Hippocratic oaths a long time ago, and cannot even recognize that they’ve become part of something monstrous. Many of the guards take sadistic delight in abusing the kids.

As he has shown in books such as “Under the Dome,” King understands that fascism is something to be scared of, that monsters don’t always have fur or fangs, just a will to put someone else under their thumbs. The incidents of violence against children don’t feel far-fetched, sad to say. Casual cruelty seems to be a favored character trait among certain high officials, and in “The Institute,” King maps the path some characters take as they inflict their meanness and incompetence simply because they’ve been allowed to do so.

Yet, for all the harrowing incidents that befall young Luke, there is never much doubt that he and his friends will prevail in the end. It’s only a matter of how the bad guys will get their comeuppance, and King takes care to choreograph the climatic showdowns for maximum impact – physical and emotional.

King has been on a steady roll since at least “Mr. Mercedes” in 2014. In a year that already brought the supernatural crime thriller “The Outsider,” King offers a generous second helping of wide-screen storytelling.

“The Institute” puts a new spin on a familiar conceit, not so much making the plot unpredictable as updating it for the current political climate. As grim as Luke and his friends’ predicament is, a thread of optimism runs through the narrative. Terrible things befall the children, but there’s still reason to be hopeful, a notion to hang on to past the final page.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: