Book Review: "The Outsider" by Stephen King (2018)
The Master of the Macabre is a horror writer, yes? Sure he is. His most famous creations are the stuff of legend in the genre. Everything he touches turns to literary (and often screen) gold. What folks tend to overlook when they dismiss King as just a horror writer is how well he spins a yarn and gives you characters to care about in their peril.
He's also a master of setting. All of those novels set in Maine feel like you could step right into them. Even "The Shining" (set in Colorado) or "Duma Key" (set in the Florida Keys) have that same vibe. King lives/lived in those places and remembers them very well. With "The Outsider", though, he's taking you into Oklahoma and Texas. It's not his neck of the woods, and you can feel that from the get-go.
That may sound like a knock, but it's really not. King is doing something different with this novel, and it works rather beautifully. The subject matter is both brutal and mysterious. He's not pretending to be a man of the American Southwest, though the tightly-knit community is still front and center. Very few authors do the small town vibe like Stephen King. No one argues that.
"The Outsider" has a diverse cast of characters, but at its heart is the story of Detective Ralph Anderson. A horrible crime has been committed. A young boy has been brutally murdered and sodomized with a tree branch, his body left exposed for the world to see. The crime galvanizes the community. Things get really ugly when Ralph decides to arrest the killer in front of the whole community based on DNA and fingerprint evidence. The killer is beloved Little League coach Terry Maitland, a man who coached Ralph's own son! It's a slam dunk for the cops and the hot-shot young DA...until an airtight alibi complete with up close and personal video evidence surfaces. What the hell is going on? Now Terry's reputation and family are ruined. Further tragedy turns the case into a circus. This is all before shit gets really weird and the inevitable supernatural evil is introduced. What follows is pedal to the medal hunt for a creature that can be anyone it wants to be, that invades minds and destroys everything it touches.
The word vague comes to mind more than once when reading this one. The setting isn't as crystal clear. The motivations of the characters are shadowy at times. The Outsider himself (itself?) is truly vague; it can be anyone but what it really is is the physically shifty, changing essence of pure evil.
What isn't vague is what King is really saying under the surface. It's borderline fable, a scathing commentary on how we immediately view the accused. It laughs in the face of the notion of innocent until proven guilty. It doesn't say "fake news" or name drop Donald Trump. It doesn't have to. You get the picture. The theme of this masterful fable is how easily led we are and how we don't want to believe the truth even when it's screaming in our faces.
It's a two-part book, as well. The first is pure mystery, and King has gotten really good at the police procedural and gumshoe stuff. When the "Bill Hodges Trilogy" started with "Mr. Mercedes", I was initially disappointed. There were no monsters to creep into your nightmares. It was a legit detective story that rapidly won me over mainly because he's so damn good at telling it. I read the first 300 pages in one sitting. The pages were on fire.
The second part gets weird, and that was also fantastic (if not slower paced). There's more exposition, and it doesn't burn as bright. The finish is claustrophobic and properly horrifying, though. It's a showdown to remember.
Finally, I'd simply like to thank Sai King for the character of Holly Gibney (from the Hodges Trilogy) and for making her a big part of this book. She is such a joy to read, multilayered and as complex as a Rubik's cube on an acid trip. For my money, she's one of his ten best characters ever written. She's the bridge between the detective side of the book and the monstrous side. She's seen both and lives fully in both worlds.
There's a moral to the story here that's very simple: open your eyes and ears and listen to your heart, because there really is "no end to the universe".