The Outsider is a novel written by resident spooky-guy and famed American author, Stephen King. This marks another entry into his long line of horror bibliography, which is also sprinkled with crime drama.
The Outsider wastes no time in setting the stage as Terry Maitland is identified as the sole suspect of a heinous crime – a young boy, Frank Peterson, has been sexually molested and murdered in the community of Flint City. Police are quick to act and take Maitland into custody. This happens in front of nearly two-thousand people attending a Little League playoff game. Several interviews place Maitland at the scene of the crime and evidence is found that would normally convict without a reasonable doubt. This terrible act would seem to be a sloppy crime committed by an upstanding member of society, but all is not as it appears. As police begin to investigate the crime, they find that Maitland actually has a bulletproof alibi that puts him out of town at the time of the murder. Confusion is widespread as some take the side of the prosecution, while others rush to defend Maitland’s name and life. One thing seems to be a recurring theme: Maitland appears to be in two places at once.
I had my opinion on the subject of the murder, but the story did a good job of keeping me guessing. It felt almost like a mystery novel instead of the horror that we’re used to seeing from King. It doesn’t feel out of place.
The storyline is compelling. King made me feel like I was invested in Maitland, although I had just established his character. I wanted to believe that this Little League coach, husband, and father of two could never be capable of such a disgusting act on such a vulnerable twelve year old. The author does a good job of dividing the town and provides a description of all manner of individuals residing in the community of Flint City. Alongside these civilians are the public servants, rushing to put Maitland behind bars. I could feel the air of some unknown force at work as certain characters, including Detective Ralph Anderson, were not wholly convinced of Maitland’s guilt. What ensues is an investigation into the events surrounding the murder. The character I felt most involved with was Ralph. The conversations with his wife made for the best dialogue of the story. Listening to him tell the tale of a “maggot-filled cantaloupe”, was enough to burn a negative image into my mind.
The human psyche and all things that occupy the unknown are major themes for our characters. Some of them find it easier to accept these strange happenings while others are foolish and stick to what’s comfortable and safe. These internal struggles plague Ralph in particular, which give his character layers of realism that feel right at home in a Stephen King novel. A rather striking line stood out to me towards the book’s end – “Reality is thin ice. Most people skate on it their whole lives, and never fall through until the end.” King is to be applauded for making the reader consider the unknown. This theme permeates the story and made me question my own fears.
Unfortunately, the antagonist of the story felt tired at times and I was not overly impressed with their motivations. The author didn’t do much to build the dread of such a terrible entity and I felt as though I might be chasing smoke through the pages of this book. The descriptions of frightening scenes were clean and precise, but the force being described was hardly worthy of conjuring nightmares. The whole development of our villain felt tailored to the plot instead of organic, which was a blessing and a curse, as the story was straightforward and easy to follow, yet the opposition to our heroes was obscure and fell flat. The investigators surrounding the Maitland case eventually default to calling this nemesis ‘The Outsider’.
Barring any major spoilers in the story – in the latter half of the book, themes seem to be tossed asunder and the pace of the story begins to slow. The scenes are believable, but few chances are taken with original ideas and the reader is dragged along through the last two hundred pages. Instead of a grandiose climax, the story just seemed to end, and all the original things we questioned about fear of the unknown are laid bare. As I came to realize what our investigators were chasing, the story seemed less interesting to me. The writing style does not suffer due to this change in story, but as aforementioned – we lose the dynamic facets of our characters, who seem to be simple plot devices as we close out the book. Ralph Anderson becomes unilateral and boring in his search for answers. The group of invested characters seem to be solely interested in playing white knights and eradicating this evil force. The last act of the story ends up becoming a mad scramble to complete this quest.
Surprisingly, I was more interested in one of the pawns of our villain – a cranky old detective who is persuaded into joining the evil cause. The manipulation of this character at the hands of The Outsider made for the last truly engaging plotline of the story. After this plotline was resolved, I felt very little incentive to finish the book and did so out of principle, more than interest. I admire The Outsider because of the marvelous set-up and tangible themes that the author puts forward in the beginning. I just wish that the book would have tried to follow up such an excellent start with an equally good ending. It’s a shame that the major force opposing our protagonists will not stand up against similar literary horrors from the recent past.
The audacity of a budding writer critiquing the master of horror is not lost on me. Mr. King is a cherished author the world over and has terrified millions of readers throughout his long career. Yet, I can’t help but feel that King rushed to get this book out and I would not wholeheartedly recommend The Outsider. Some readers will no doubt find the redeeming qualities in a story of this caliber but ultimately, this is a story that starts strong and loses steam going into the final acts. If you are looking for a readable murder mystery, you may want to pick this story up. If you are looking for another groundbreaking entry into the horror genre, I must report that The Outsider is not for you.