King of the Dark Episode 15: The Institute

Welcome to episode fifteen of King of the Dark, our special series on the B&N Podcast devoted to the worlds of Stephen King. It’s big week for us — Louis Peitzman, Liz Braswell and Bill Tipper started with King’s 1974 bestseller Carrie and now we’ve arrived at his latest novel, The Institute, which was published just last week, on September 10th. It’s a story packed with themes that will be familiar to King’s fans — the story concerns a group of children who possess psychic talents, a drifter who finds a fresh start in a small town, and a government conspiracy willing to stop at nothing. But it’s also about kids banding together against grotesque forces, uncertain journeys across America, the ease with which the powerful exploit human weakness, and the unheralded strength in the bonds of friendship.The Institute is also shot through with humor, horror, incredible tension and an eye for workaday cruelties and unexpected moments of beauty. In other words: vintage Stephen King.

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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 Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

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