Stephen King: The Outsider
Reviewed by Brian Bogart
Stephen King has been around the block. He’s written more books than many authors, and has his “Constant Readers” and his share of detractors. To some, it’s like putting on your favorite jacket. To others, it makes you want to try out a new wardrobe. How does The Outsider stack up?
Read on and let’s take a look but be warned:
HERE, THERE BE SPOILERS!
“The Outsider” begins with Detective Ralph Anderson, Flint City detective and the horrendous and supposedly sexualized killing of a child, Frank Peterson. All the evidence points to Terry Maitland, the epitome of “town favorite”: upstanding citizen, loving father and husband and coach of the town’s Little League team.
The forensic evidence and eyewitness testimonies are ironclad and it seems like a cut and dry grand slam. The fact that Flint City’s very own “Man of the Year” would be capable of such despicable acts compels the detective to make the arrest, in public, in front of the crowd at the ball game. Bad form, considering that Terry has evidence that proves he was with his fellow teachers and hundreds of miles away. He simply could not have done it. Video evidence and more back up his claim.
How can a man be in two places at once? That’s the burning question that plagues Ralph Anderson and the attorneys on both sides. Because of the spectacle of the public arrest, the town has already made up it’s mind: Terry Maitland deserves whatever is coming to him. He’s guilty, no matter what. And they prove their conviction, with newsreporters and an angry mob outside the courthouse.
” On the other side of the street, behind police department sawhorses, were the reporters, the camerapersons, and a small crowd of lookie-loos…”
It’s this scene right here, that really made me take notice of King’s use of writing in this book. There is so much I could quote from this scene, but that opening hints at what’s to come. Shots fired. World grinding into slow motion as we are given descriptions of the people and their hostility, each tiny moment crashing into the next one, the complexity that builds as things spiral out of control. I actually reread this scene afterwards, contemplating how often the media and paparazzi feed on this kind of thing. Like they themselves are Outsiders, as well.
Ralph struggles with this throughout the opening of the book. It haunts him. Because of the incident, he begins to question not only his role as a detective but as a decent human being himself. Can he come to grips with it? Can he accept, as a “facts are facts” man, the possibility of anything else? Even when faced with the piling evidence of something “inexplicable” or perhaps… “supernatural”?
And here’s where what seems to be a crime procedural becomes something else: a horror story.
King has flirted with this duality before, with less than stellar effect. In the Bill Hodges trilogy, no less. Given the way it was handled previously, some will balk before even giving this one a chance.
We are given glimpses of the Outsider interspersed as his characters struggle with guilt and the unraveling of the case. Here, King has created an unique tapestry that doesn’t undo all the detective stuff, but instead embraces it.
Some would argue “End of Watch” failed because it felt tacked on, or forced. “The Outsider” let’s you know that the supernatural is integral to the story and the mystery is how the group comes to terms with that.
It’s also in these moments hinting at the “true killer” where King shines, bringing to mind his early 80s works. The Outsider has created a cataclysm of murder and death in his wake, affecting entire families in the process.
” His hands slipped. The branch creaked. His breath stopped. He could feel the blood trapped in his head pulsing, getting ready to burst his brains. He heard a rasping sound and thought, It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
He flailed for the rope, a drowning man reaching for the surface of the lake into which he has fallen. Large black spores appeared in front of his eyes. They burst into extravagant black toadstools. But before they overwhelmed his sight, he saw a man standing on the patio in the moonlight…. Or maybe it wasn’t a man at all. The features were crude, as if punched into being by a blind sculptor… ”
As compelling as the police stuff is, it’s the spooky moments that linger. Nightly visitations, shadowy stalking and the unraveling of the people’s lives he has taken- both metaphorically and literally.
Enter Holly Gibney.
Many Constant Readers will remember her from the Bill Hodges books. This may be where some readers roll their eyes and shake their head. I’ll admit, I wasn’t in love with her as much as some readers.
But King adores her. He loves her, admirably takes his time entering her into the story as smoothly as possible. I can say this: you can tell in his prose regarding her that he enjoys writing her. And it doesn’t come across as forced as it first seems. Sometimes, you can tell the author is having fun when writing, and his moments with Holly reflect that. Maybe that aspect is why I enjoyed Holly more than expected.
It’s Holly who opens the eyes of the others. How she does it has to be read. It’s endearing, almost silly. In fact, Ralph takes no time letting that be known. But, her investigative footwork is sound and thorough. And he respects that. He rolls with it as best as a rational man can.
She admits she doesn’t have all the answers. But they need to find some answers, no matter how horrific the outcome.
Many children have died, many families ruined… And the Outsider feeds on that sadness, that negativity. Has for ages. And will continue to do so, unless Ralph accepts the possibility. Lack of belief is what’s caused it to thrive for so long.
The inspirations for this tale are spoken about throughout, from Poe’s “William Wilson” to Agatha Christie and even nods to Sherlock Holmes. Some hinted at and some boldly laid out, bare bones and all.
Stephen King has spun a tale that aims high, straddling the detective story with horror. That, in itself, may turn off a few readers.
My opinion, though:
If you don’t mind King wearing his influences on his sleeve, and writing that seems to hint at him having a ball as he types, this book hits a certain nostalgic sweetspot for fans.
I don’t know if it will have the same pull to non-fans, but I think it comes closer than most. He doesn’t meander much, he clearly wants you to feel for the characters involved and throws in some creepy scene dressing to tie up the loose ends.
“… we’re all bags of bones…and the Outsider wants what’s in the bag.” (“Bag of Bones”)
Now, whether this Outsider is the same as the one briefly mentioned in “Bag of Bones” is unclear, but given the folk legends surrounding this book’s version…
If you don’t believe in The Outsider, he will get exactly what he wants. And you don’t want that.
I highly recommend it.
Star Rating (out of 5): 4****
Keep reading, keep writing and Dream Darkly.
Brian Bogart is an American author of dark fiction and horror/fantasy. He has written stories most of his life and has been a fan of the genre since the age of seven. His approach to storytelling is a tad macabre at times but tries to capture the nuances of the humanity and sometimes, inhumanity, beneath the surface. He supports the horror community with bloodied open arms and demonic vigor.
Dream Darkly and Keep Writing.
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An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when the King brand has never been stronger, he has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.
An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.
As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.