Over the last few years, Stephen King has written some real gems that did not necessarily fit into the horror genre he is best known for. 11.22.63, the story of a man going back through time to stop Oswald from killing Kennedy, might be my favorite of his, followed closely by Mr. Mercedes, a gripping crime thriller devoid of supernatural elements.
In The Outsider, King melds his wonderful true crime writing into his well-known (and beloved) knack for otherworldly horror. The result is a modern day monster tale that makes it hard to put down and even harder to go to sleep after the book is finished.
The story opens in the most devastating way imaginable: A young boy in a small Oklahoma town is brutally murdered, his small corpse defiled in such a way that bile rising in Detective Ralph Anderson’s throat is equal parts driven by disgust and rage. Eyewitnesses positively identified his assailant as Terry Maitland, a well-liked and respected man in the community, who is arrested in the middle of a little league baseball game he is coaching.
Terry’s reaction to this news, along with his steadfast (and mortified) denials, definitely makes him feel innocent. But solid DNA evidence combined with multiple eyewitness accounts say otherwise. Just when we think the monster in our midst has been captured, however, Maitland is able to produce an ironclad alibi that all but proves he did not commit the horrific crime. As Anderson and grandstanding District Attorney Bill Samuels frantically investigate what they initially assumed was an open-and-shut case, attorney Howie Gold prepares to defend is his friend Terry while simultaneously defending Terry’s family from the media and angry townspeople.
As you might imagine, things delve heavily into the ‘People-Are-The-Real-Monsters’ trope from here. Thankfully, King writes this part of a story in such a manner that the fear and frustration caused by Terry Maitland’s arrest radiates from the page, drawing the reader into an impossible crime that still demands to be solved. By the time the conflict boils over, it’s clear that something supernatural–and unfathomably evil–is at work.
Anderson enlists the help of Holly Gibney, a private detective from the pages of the Mr. Mercedes series, to help him discover how Maitland could be undoubtedly innocent with so much incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. What they discover is something far worse than any truth they’d anticipated: A creature of ancient legend that is sustained by humanity’s worst despair…and it’s still hunting.
As with all King novels, the characters The Outsider are superb. Terry Maitland and his family in particular provide a heart-breaking lens through which we see a family torn apart, both from outside forces and the inner turmoil over whether or not the husband/father they knew might actually be a monster.
Ralph Anderson, however, ends up being the real star of the show. The character is put through the ringer, from his initial anger/rage at the discovery of the crime to his frustration and burgeoning guilt as the case’s evidence diverts on separate paths of certainty and utter confusion.
The horrific crime and its catastrophic aftermath end up bringing parties from both sides of Terry Maitland’s case together to dig for the truth. I wasn’t sure that bringing in a character from another book series was necessary, but I have to admit that it was a lot of fun to read Holly Gibney again, especially with how much she’s grown since the first time we met her. Even if you haven’t read any of the Mr. Mercedes books, however, Holly is sure to grow on you. Same with all the other characters, even DA Bill Samuels, who I initially hated. Anderson’s crack team of investigators are a joy to read as they methodically dissect a case of supernatural murder with unflinching skepticism and precision.
By the time they are forced to confront a force beyond their comprehension, the reader is as tied into the case as they are–and scared silly about their well-being.
And speaking of the aforementioned ‘force beyond comprehension,’ don’t worry. This isn’t some vague ethereal threat that attacks our protagonists through existential dread and a Lovecraftian boatload of adjectives. There is a really cool monster that’s both psychologically and physically terrifying. I’m just loath to say much more because I don’t want to give away the fantastic process King takes us through of discovering what the creature actually is.
What Doesn’t Work
The Outsider has been compared a lot to Stephen King’s seminal horror classic, It. One aspect where books definitely mirror each other is the evil force/creature using a broken human to do its bidding.
That character in The Outsider is exceptionally well-written and provides a good deal of tension…for a while. Unfortunately, he ends up feeling somewhat derivative and shallow by the end.
In It, Henry Bowers is undoubtedly an awful person, but he also had an exceptionally tragic backstory. This lent him a sliver of humanity that the reader must helplessly watch as it’s slowly obliterated. In The Outsider, the creature’s human slave is so vile on a purely human level that it’s hard to feel any fear or sympathy for him as his mind digresses into madness. Combine that with him having some laughably bad luck, and I almost wished his aspect of the story had been skipped entirely by the end.
Also, I must admit that by the story’s adrenaline-filled climax, a small part of me yearned for the taut police procedural tinged with the possibility of supernatural influence that proceeded it. Don’t get me wrong–the Man/Woman vs. Monster finale is still good. Really good, in fact. Maybe I’m just getting old and less impressed/scared by the monsters conjured from imagination than the real ones surrounding us every day.
If you’re a fan of Stephen King’s old school horror work–or just good horror literature in general–then you absolutely owe it to yourself to pick this one up. If you’ve enjoyed King’s more recent/grounded works, this one still packs all the fantastic character work and tight plotting that you’ve come to expect.
And even if supernatural monsters aren’t your thing at all, The Outsider provides plenty of scares via its look at the ugly side of our own human nature.