Scribner • 2018 • 576 pages
A Novel Critique
For most of Stephen King’s long career, his characters have reckoned with the inexplicable. Some have had had more success than others getting there: when faced with supernatural or otherworldly forces, some characters adjust quickly, some more reluctantly. All the way back in ’Salem’s Lot, Ben Mears and Mark Petrie easily understand there are vampires in their midst, and have to work mightily to convince the rest of their party. Those who don’t believe – those who refuse to believe – are the ones most likely to suffer, and the ones most likely to die.
Here we arrive at The Outsider, a return to a type of novel King hasn’t worked with since 1996’s Desperation. The situation is simple: Terry Maitland, Flint City’s beloved English teacher and Little League coach, has committed the worst crime imaginable: the murder and rape of a young boy. The crime is so heinous that Detective Ralph Anderson, who has a young son in Little League, chooses to arrest the man in full view of the town – including his wife and two daughters – at the height of a major Little League game Maitland is coaching. It’s not just an arrest. “It was, for reasons he could not comprehend” Maitland thinks, “a public shaming.” The reason why Maitland can’t comprehend it is because Maitland didn’t do it.
Some of this setup feels like an echo to early scenes in The Dark Half. In that book, fingerprints at the scene of a grisly murder match Thad Beaumont’s prints, even though he has an alibi and couldn’t possibly have done it. That book was written in 1989, when DNA profiling was still in its infancy. Terry Maitland’s DNA is all over this crime scene – King’s most horrifying, just this side of Jack Ketchum or Edward Lee – but we never see it directly, we never stumble upon it. We never see it happening, a pull-back from more gruesome tortures and murders in Black House or Doctor Sleep. We get reports, interviews, memories, but the way King elides the grisly, up-close examination of what happened is deliberate. The reader is not omniscient. In this way, the nature of The Outsider remains at a remove, remains questionable. How much of what we believe is real? And how much is suspect?
Nearly everyone in The Outsider wrestles with these questions, none so much as Ralph Anderson, who eventually discovers beyond the shadow of a doubt that Terry Maitland couldn’t have slaughtered the boy. He was verifiably in another city: eyewitness reports, fingerprints, and actual video prove his alibi out. But that’s still not enough for Ralph, who has always put his stock in facts; to believe in anything beyond the natural world would challenge everything he’s ever stood for.
It’s this essential conundrum that’s at the heart of The Outsider, a novel about the burden of belief that reflects the unease of 2018 America even more than the feminist fairy tale of the recent Sleeping Beauties. The seismic cultural shifts brought about by #metoo, #BlackLivesMatter, and other personal and political protests are now too prevalent to be ignored. When something bad happens to someone – especially if it’s sexual in nature – do you believe the perpetrator or the victim? Do you ignore evidence? Do you discredit past behavior or take it into account? And what happens when the police take action against an innocent man, and that man ends up dead?
Because The Outsider utilizes these questions, most without answers, in the service of a juggernaut story, none of it feels ham-fisted. As with Pet Sematary, Rose Madder, Insomnia and others, King once again examines the horrors of myths made real. El Cuco is a creature of Mexican legend that kills children and wears the faces of innocent people, sort of an inverse It. And as with It, killing children is almost – not quite, but almost – secondary. Where Pennywise thrived on fear, El Cuco, the Outsider, eats sorrow. During one of the book’s creepiest scenes, the Outsider appears to a young girl and tells her it’s good that she cries. There’s something subtly awful about this, even more than the more brutal portions of the novel. And it’s not just her: when this creature not only commits a crime, but also implicates a beloved pillar of the community, it demoralizes everyone. We watch how the Outsider’s actions – and the actions of the people who do his work for him – nearly ruin Maitland’s family, tear the victim’s family apart, and incite the community to unthinking mob violence.
All of this seems bleak, but The Outsider rises above that utilizing the good detective work at the heart of so many of King’s books. Most recently, King closed out his Bill Hodges trilogy with the finale End of Watch, in which one-time basic toxic lunatic Brady Hartsfield gained supernatural powers. That book, coming after the very good Mr. Mercedes and the excellent Finders Keepers, was a bit of a letdown; occasionally, King brings in supernatural elements into a story that would seem to do better without it (see Cujo, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, or Dolores Claiborne). The Outsider makes a case for why. Though not a direct sequel to End of Watch, one of the Hodges’ trilogy’s main characters, Holly Gibney, becomes a central character to this book. While at first jarring, Holly’s presence in this book serves the same purpose as Alan Pangborn’s in Needful Things: after being faced with the inexplicable in a previous novel, both characters are more prepared to handle the horrors of this new one. She’s the one who realizes that everyone involved with El Cuco thinks of him conditionally – if he’s real, supposing he can do what we fear he can do – and she’s the one who forces them to believe, if only for a little while.
The Outsider hits all the marks you’d expect from a Stephen King novel while still feeling fresh and exciting. The compulsively tense feel of the first half of the book gives way to the familiarity of exploration and scenes of smart people figuring out what they’re up against; it’s almost the mellow feel of the middle portion of 11/22/63 mingled with the getting-the-gang-together fun of ’Salem’s Lot or The Drawing of the Three. The ending perhaps echoes the finale of Desperation a little too closely, but there’s no wrangling with entities from another plane of existence here. In the end, the Outsider is just a creature whose existence depends on disbelief: what we’re willing to accept, what we’re not, and the monsters we become when we fall on the wrong side.