Friday, October 23, 2020

"The Outsider," by Stephen King--Fiction Review

I’m a huge Stephen King fan—I know, shocker—so I’ve resisted doing the obvious thing and jumping in on a review of one of his books early on after starting this blog. However, we’re closing in on Halloween, and I feel like now is the time. So today, we’re talking about “The Outsider” by Stephen King. 

Stephen King

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Stephen King has mastered a variety of small American townie voices that always seem to populate his novels. It’s genuinely impressive, and one of his literary talents I don’t think gets enough praise, and sure—he’s thought of as the master of the macabre and horror, but his skill with character voice is nearly peerless.

King, in my experience, is a master at setting up a story. He develops that plot through the middle with fascinating and diverse characters, ramping up the tension—then introduces elements at the end like a giant cosmic space turtle or we’re going to defeat the evil clown with tongue biting, metaphorically, or maybe not. What I’m trying to get at is endings are not really known as his thing. It’s a cliché to point that out—so why go on about this in this section? Because “The Outsider” has an actual end, one that I found satisfying, too. 

This book isn’t just a partnership between Detective Ralph Anderson and Holly Gibney—a character he established in other books of his—but none-the-less I enjoyed their inverse X-files partnership a whole lot. I was always a big fan of that show, and this novel really scratches that itch, unlike many actual X-files novels that feel vaguely parody-like to me.   

What I don’t love about this book:

Speaking of X-files, at a certain point, just like in that show, I became wearied by Detective Anderson’s agent Scully-Esque constant insistence on there being a “rational” explanation even after some serious supernatural shit has gone down. I know this is a seemingly weird position for me to take because often I’ve written about how I am such a person who is always seeking a rational answer to things, and decrying magical thinking or reasoning is bullshit. I, however, have never claimed that I would make a good fictional character. I would be that smug jerk who dies right at the beginning of the horror story saying something like, “c’mon guys, demon vampire ghosts aren’t real!” 

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The book begins bouncing between scenes of various witnesses being interviewed by the police and Detective Ralph Anderson and his team on their way to arrest a popular little league coach Terry Maitland. Maitland is a family man and a local school teacher in addition to being a little league coach and is beloved and respected around the community. Now he is suspected of raping and murdering a little boy.
As the damning interviews go on, with various people claiming to have seen the Peterson boy being picked up by Coach T—as Maitland is known by—ostensibly to give the kid a ride home because his bike chain was broken, it seems like the case against the coach is airtight. Anderson has Coach T arrested publicly, right at the ball field, in front of a crowd at the end of a game. Maitland is stunned and insists that there has to be some mistake.

Then after the slam dunk arrest with all the evidence and witnesses, Detective Anderson and the police have gathered, their case starts cracking. They have Maitland’s DNA on the victim, but it comes out that he has an alibi. He was in a different city at the time of the murder at a conference for English teachers, his coworkers can vouge for him, plus he was on tape at the hotel.

Things become weirder, though, because he’s also seen in security footage back in the town where the murder takes place simultaneously. It’s the ultimate, in two places, at the same time conundrum for Detective Anderson to solve. The district attorney pushes to have Maitland arraigned anyway, but he never gets his day in court. The Peterson boy’s bereaved older brother shoots Coach T to death on the steps of the courthouse, getting himself killed in the process when Anderson is forced to shoot him.

Later, Anderson and the late Terry Maitland’s attorney—and others—continue to investigate the case because Anderson becomes more and more convinced that Maitland really was framed despite all evidence. Anderson isn’t prepared to accept that Maitland was framed by a shapeshifting demon, as suggested by a new investigator, Holly Gibney, brought on by Maitland’s Attorney. This is a Stephen King novel, and if you’ve read at least one, you can guess who wins that philosophical argument.

Anyway, so shapeshifting demons are totally a thing, and Anderson and Gibney, along with assorted others, have to stop the thing before it impersonates a guy, who until recently worked at a strip club, to kill again.

They manage to corner the thing in a cave where Holly Gibney gets the drop on it and smashes it with an improvised club, and it—dissolves? Stephen King’s endings always tend to be a bit weird.    


This novel blends police procedural with horror in such a sublime way, you almost can’t see the seams from when it flows from the former to the later by the end. It’s one of the great proofs to me that horror as a genre can mix with any other just as well as Sci-Fi or Fantasy. It would be fair to say that writing talent such as King’s to pull off that trick is precious and few, but it’s not impossible. 

“The Outsider” is also the title of one of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories, which is a story about a ghoul. I’m not entirely sure if King is making an intentional nod to Lovecraft with this book’s title. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was because King has talked publicly about how Lovecraft influenced him as a writer numerous times. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” has one of the best moments of realizing the narrator is unreliable endings in horror. It involves a mirror, you should read it.  

I wouldn’t say the ending to King’s “The Outsider” is great, but it is satisfying, “Revival” has my favorite ending to one of his books. That book’s end still bounces around my head and creeps me out. Of course, the man can write a good ending and has done it more than once. He is a genius, after all. People who’ve only read a few of his novels tend to remember his bad endings because people tend to remember bad more than good.

Parting thoughts:

King has often extemporized many times in his fiction—and in interviews—that stories need not have any more reason to exist other than they’re just good yarns. It’s a position I find myself resonating with immensely. Also, it might be why I mentally align more with the side of genre fiction rather than literary fiction. 

I often feel that literary types take such an elitist attitude that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There is sometimes a perception—warranted or not—that if a piece of writing isn’t high art that plumbs the human condition and soul’s depths, it doesn’t have merit. If the reader doesn’t get the lofty plots and clever references to classic literature, then they are just plebeian, which is literary speak for stupid. Trust me, my fellow knuckle-draggers, I’ve been called it several times.  

To say all literary fiction authors are stuck-up isn’t fair, and not every literary-minded novel is this way either. “Circe” by Madeline Miller might be the single most beautiful book I’ve ever read, and not once while reading it did I feel like I was being talked down to or given a homework assignment. I think that’s why so many people are always chasing that moving target of commercial success of genre-stylings with a literary novel’s aesthetic.

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