THE INSTITUTE by Stephen King (Simon and Schuster, 576 pp., $30).
A 12-year-old boy genius from the suburbs of Minneapolis is the hero of Stephen King’s latest thriller, "The Institute." Luke Ellis has already been admitted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Emerson to study engineering and English, but as his dad puts it, “He’s like any other kid. Once his homework’s done, and his chores, he boots up the Xbox or shoots hoops in the driveway with his friend Rolf. He still watches 'SpongeBob SquarePants.' ”
Well, maybe not exactly like any other kid. Because in addition to his IQ, his excellent manners and his eidetic memory, Luke has something more — an ability that looks like telekinesis, though he’s not usually able to deploy it intentionally. When he feels strong emotions, objects around him move. Every once in a while, he can make a pizza pan slide across a table, or flutter the pages of a book. His parents have downplayed this quirk, as they feel his academic prowess is more important to his future.
They are wrong, but they won’t live to find out. They are about to be murdered by a team of kidnappers who snatch Luke out of bed and spirit him away to a secret facility in the Maine woods where children who have telekinetic or telepathic abilities — TKs and TPs, in the local lingo — are tested, injected and tortured, then moved to a closed area from which they do not return. The evil doctors and administrators of the institute aren’t interested in Luke’s intelligence; in fact, he’s considered one of the less talented kids. TPs like his new friends Kalisha, 16, and Avery, 10, who can read people’s minds and put thoughts in their heads, are considered much more valuable. But their underestimation of Luke’s mental prowess will come back to bite them.
Paranormal and psychic abilities have played a role in many of King’s 50-plus bestsellers, and once again, he’s able to weave this element into an otherwise realistic fictional world in a way that makes it all completely believable. The operation of the Institute is established in meticulous detail, down to the paperwork and the jargon. Each freshly kidnapped conscript wakes up in a room decorated to replicate their bedroom at home, then finds that the door leads not to the rest of their house but to a cinderblock hallway hung with posters that say things like "Just Another Day in Paradise."
Disoriented and terrified, they get the lay of the land from the other kids on the playground: the not-bad food in the cafeteria, the reward system that gives them access to vending machines full of alcohol and cigarettes, the invasive tests and examinations, the brutality. There’s just one decent adult in the place — a housekeeper named Maureen, a skinny old woman with back troubles and crushing debt, a classic King cast member.
King loves a slow, deliberate setup; he luxuriates in the details. Before we ever meet Luke, the author sends a retired cop named Tim Jamieson to a little town called DuPray, South Carolina. So much time is spent filling in the details of the town and its characters that you know the story must be going back there at some point. Which is one of the things that keeps you going once you’re living the nightmare of the Institute with Luke and the other kids.
The kids are the heart of this book, and they are a dear bunch. The punk girl, the handsome rebel, the doltish athlete, the anxious bedwetter, and Luke’s crush/mentor, the empathic Kalisha — their psychic powers are woven into their personalities in ways that keeps them from becoming comic-book superheroes. They seem like real kids.
A group of kids facing evil was also the plot of King’s landmark "It," which pitted the seven members of the Losers Club against a murderous clown. "It" was originally adapted into a 1990 TV movie that sent some members of my childrens’ generation into early therapy, and it is back in theaters with the just-released second installment of a new, two-part adaptation. "The Institute" is not as primally terrifying as "It"; for me, this is a plus. You don’t need to be a horror fan to read "The Institute" — or to have "The Institute" take over your life, since this is generally what happens with King’s novels.
Some people say they don’t like King. I bet a number of these people have never read him. His storytelling transcends genre.