*Mild spoilers for The Outsider*
Like any horror fan (and latchkey kid raised by TV), I love Stephen King. The prolific master of horror has done so much to entertain and terrify readers for over forty years. I’ll never forget what it was like to read Carrie for the first time or to tackle It, and his books have influenced much of my own storytelling. While not every King novel is a success, I learn something new from everyone I read. Accordingly, when I heard about his latest novel, The Outsider, I didn’t think twice about including it on my list of most anticipated horror novels of 2018 to eagerly await its publication.
In a departure from Stephen King’s beloved Maine settings, The Outsider takes place in the fictional town of Flint City, Oklahoma. Life in Flint City is slow but decent, full of God-fearing Americans living the dream of a peaceful community, where everyone is a good neighbor. But the peace is shattered when a little boy is savagely murdered. At first, the case seems clear-cut. There’s an abundance of substantial evidence that points to one culprit—Terry Maitland, high school English teacher, family man, and Little League coach. Everyone believes they’ve caught the killer until Terry proves his airtight alibi. The authorities, baffled by the impossible situation, must discover who or what is responsible before another child ends up dead.
In many ways, The Outsider is a return to form for Stephen King. The novel hits the ground running. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly The Outsider read. It has excellent pacing and sidesteps the bloat and long-windedness of some of King’s work. Not only is it an interesting book with relatable characters and a compelling premise, but it is well written. It’s not the most artful, but the writing style is unobtrusive and smooth with a nice flow. Yes, the hardcover is a thick book, but it doesn’t read like a brick.
King’s storytelling has rarely failed at creating detailed, believable characters, and The Outsider is no exception. He strikes a good balance between the mundane details of his characters’ lives and their inner monologues, which made it easy to identify with them. This balance also builds the world of the happy, wholesome small town. King presents an idyllic community, where unaccompanied kids roam neighborhoods, upstanding citizens coach each other’s children in little league, and everybody in town attends the baseball games.
I’ve seen this set-up before. We all have—the perfect small town that becomes tainted by a malicious outside force is a well-worn archetype. And yet, King’s version feels so genuine. By grounding the story in the good townspeople (many of whom divulge the gory plot developments in their own words) makes the whole book compelling. King’s choice to veer from first- to third person point of view, moving in and out of characters, is an elegant way to make efficient use of his characters. The nuanced characters throw the unfolding tragedy into sharp relief. It is all the more shocking when we read the first-person account otherwise cheerful senior citizen, who was out walking his dog when he discovered little Frank Peterson’s mangled body.
And, in true Stephen King fashion, his premise is great. A monster who can appear as any person and can rip through lives relatively undetected? That shit is scary, especially because it flies in the face of our entire way of living. Our world and human psychology are rooted in a set of physical rules, and this monster fucks with our collective perception of reality. It destroys with our earnest belief that we understand how the world works.
Not to get too heavy, but this is a monster perfectly designed to reflect the current state of American society, if not the global community. In the last few years, so much has happened that wasn’t supposed to ever happen: the election of President Trump, the sudden thawing of relations with some of our worst adversaries, and the reckless, petty fights between allies. Conspiracy theories, from Flat Earth Theory to the anti-vax movement to Pizza Gate, flourish and garner mainstream attention. Despite the cries of “fake news” and accusations of insidious plots, people are more unwilling than ever before to consider that they might have been misled, that they might not be seeing the whole picture. People all over the country, from all walks of life, have been confronted by the painful truth.
Thus, The Outsider is an intriguing examination of how the human mind struggles with evidence that runs counter to preconceived notions. This fact alone makes The Outsider a worthwhile read.
However, The Outsider isn’t the horror novel I was hoping for, as much as I enjoyed it. I was a little disappointed because I was expecting a lot more horror. The novel has loads of creepiness and weird shit, but the non-supernatural tragedies overshadowed much of the horror. On top of that, The Outsider spends a lot of time on the nitty-gritty investigation of Terry Maitland’s accused crime, and then the subsequent inquiry to clear his name. Consequently, The Outsider is more a detective novel with supernatural elements instead of a horror novel with a mystery.
The horror that did exist was interesting and left me wanting more, but not in a satisfying way. The monster seems a lot more disturbing early on but loses much of his original menace as the story progresses, becoming a stand-in, a shallow portrayal of a physical and existential threat. More disappointing was that the protagonists don’t even come face-to-face with the monster until page 516 out of 560. Spoiler Alert—they dispense with the monster by page 528. And it’s not even the most exciting part! The showdown with the monster comes after a heart-pounding (yet drawn-out) action sequence that primes the reader for an even splashier scene that never arrives.
Talk about anti-climactic. I wish the monster were as nuanced and complicated as the townspeople. I wanted it to be one of King’s iconic villains, a threat that leaps off the page to strike at the heart of the reader’s anxieties.
All in all, the novel reminded me of Season 1 of True Detective, because The Outsider is about the men and women trying to understand unimaginable evil. It is about an enigma challenging their perceptions of the world and how these rational people act when the rules no longer seem to apply. It’s about what they do with their new knowledge of the world. That is not a bad thing, but without a strong horror element, The Outsider fails to resonate like a real Stephen King classic.