The most prolific horror writer of his time delivers once again with 2018’s The Outsider, a supernatural detective story, with the twists, turns and scares that Stephen King does so well.
The Outsider is set in the fictional town of Flint City, Oklahoma, and the story centers on Detective Ralph Anderson as he tries to solve the brutal homicide of a young child in their hometown. What starts off as a cut-and-dry case with a quick and public apprehension of the suspect devolves into something far more terrifying. Anderson has interviewed witnesses. Combed over the crime scene. There’s even DNA evidence strewn all over the place. All signs point to one person; Terry Maitland. The only thing he didn’t plan on is that Terry has an air-tight alibi, complete with his own set of witnesses and forensic evidence. The two accounts can’t both be true, can they?
The story that follows is filled with a host of King’s typical, quirky characters with their own well-detailed personalities, and as they navigate a trip into the supernatural, the reader learns just what makes them all tick. Main protagonist Ralph Anderson, a seasoned Detective with a skeptics mind typical of those in his position, and a reluctance to consider any possibilities outside the realm of his reality. His character throughout the novel struggles to comprehend that there is more to the world than he has previously believed. In this way the reader and Ralph either follow a similar journey as the story progresses or, knowing there’s more to it, watch Ralph be forced into needing to believe against his own natural experiences.
Holly Gibney, a private investigator who may or may not have encountered something similar before, is an eccentric of sorts but knows her stuff and is the key to understanding what they are all up against. Terry Maitland, a beloved member of the community and dedicated family man, now the chief suspect in a horrific act. His arrest leaves his wife and daughters completely devastated and the entire town turned completely upside-down. Claude Bolton, a recovering addict and former criminal who now finds himself on the opposite side of the law for a change. And Jack Hoskins, a rival law-enforcement officer who already despises Anderson, who becomes an unwitting pawn and gets drawn into the ugly situation to assist “The Outsider” in his machinations.
One example of where The Outsider succeeds is in its transition from a seemingly clear-cut murder case, even though the details of said homicide are disturbing, into a gripping supernatural mystery and the hunt for something else entirely. With Terry Maitland being killed less than halfway through the book, it leaves the reader wondering just where things go from there and it’s there that the suspense really starts to set in. As Anderson and the Flint City P.D. fall down the rabbit hole of the unexplainable, the real culprit of the atrocity begins to come into view, and the truth is something far more sinister than anything imaginable.
The antagonist, this “Outsider”, is drawn from real-life and uses aspects of a legend known as El Cuco. This “Cucuy” is sort of a bogeyman in Hispanic and Portuguese folklore, something that has been known to eat children and is able to shape shift. By using aliases of the unsuspecting innocent, doubling them, this creature is able to commit the most heinous acts all while implicating others. Not just their physical appearance but right down to the molecular level; their very DNA. In a society that puts a lot of faith in forensic evidence this throws everything the detectives think they know right out the window.
However, even though the novel does a solid job of exploring just what the Outsider is capable of, his ability to project himself physically while remaining safely at a distance, to influence others to help him, the climax does leave something to be desired. Without giving too much away the resolution to the story is criminally brief. It’s a lead-up to a confrontation that is much too short and in a flash; it’s over. It’s possible that this was the point all along. That this monster, despite his powers, isn’t so different than the worst that humanity has to offer. Therefore no fantastic duel between good and evil is necessary. In its plainness it sidesteps the readers expectation of how the climax should go and offers up something a little more realistic.
Reflections of Evil
The Outsider has lot of common themes with the rest of King’s work and fans may see some similarities from past novels of his. In fact, one of the major players in the book, Holly Gibney, has appeared in several of Stephen’s novels before. It creates a sort-of shared universe as many of his projects do and creates a picture of a darker reality than ours, but one that also doesn’t seem so far-fetched at the end of the day.
Although enough of a difference remains to not come across as derivative of a past novel, 1986’s IT also by Stephen King, The Outsider shares some of the same narrative paths. A supernatural being, one who has an unnaturally long history, commits horrendous acts often on children, and after needing to change identity must hibernate, or rest, while the change occurs. Similar to Pennywise, the villain of IT, who dwells in the depths of the sewers, this Outsider chooses cemeteries or places of death to complete his transformation. This leads the team down into the caverns of the Marysville Hole, the site of a tragic cave-in years before and is reminiscent of the children from IT‘s journey to confront Pennywise in the climax of that novel. There is also a discussion about Dracula some of the protagonists have during their hunt for the killer, specifically his need for someone to watch over him while he is vulnerable. In Dracula, this assistance comes from the insane Renfield, and in IT Pennywise seduces Henry Bowers to help take out the Losers Club. Here, the Outsider gets into the psyche of Jack Hoskins and preys on his hatred for Detective Anderson and his paranoid fears to get him to “follow orders”.
A chilling read overall, and one worthy of being included in a long line of bestsellers that make up this authors catalog. And it wouldn’t be a Stephen King novel if it wasn’t already on its way to the screen with a live-action series currently ordered for HBO and starring Ben Mendelsohn.
Stephen King has been scaring the pants off readers for over forty years, this novel is no exception, and it just goes to show that he’s got plenty more to give to the genre.
Long live the King.
Mike Harris hails from the suburbs of Chicago and has been a fan for most of his life. Working as an industrial radiographer and raising a family with his wife take up most of his time, but there’s always room for Star Wars books and podcasts! Just looking to give back to Star Wars and the fan community, it’s been a source of fun and learning for him for so long.