The Outsider by Stephen King (Scribner’s, 2018)
He’s the Boogeyman who hides under your bed or in your closet when you are a child. Sometimes he lurks in the dark attic of your home, so it’s a place that you avoid at night. He is Big Foot who skulks the woods in Alaska, or he is Grendl, brought to his demise by Beowulf. He is the Golum, a monster in Jewish lore. He is the Skinny Man, who is frightening adolescents all over the United States today. In Stephen King’s latest novel, he is the Outsider, a shape shifter, who can morph into a mortal and commit heinous acts inthe guise of an innocent man in the community.
Stephen King believes in the Boogeyman. If you don’t trust me on that statement, read the short story, “The Boogeyman,” in Night Shift, an early collection of some of King’s best horror tales. And, while you are at it, check out “The Mangler,” the tale about a machine in an industrial cleaning firm that morphs into a boogeyman of epic proportions. The doomed boy in Cujo, Tad, fears the Boogeyman, whose red eyes peer at him from the closet in the night, foreshadowing Tad’s fate at the power of his beloved dog, Cujo. The creepy clown in the King classic, It, is another incarnation of the mythical beast that has appeared in world wide literature.
The Outsider begins with Detective Ralph Anderson, of Flint City, Oklahoma, interrogating Jonathan Ritz, a man who has discovered the severely mutilated body of a young boy while out walking his dog. “That poor boy. His head was turned toward me, and his eyes were open, and his throat was just gone. Nothing there but a red hole. His blue jeans and underpants were pulled down to his ankles, and a saw something . . . a dead branch, I guess . . . sticking out of his . . . his . . . well, you know.” (p.8)
Through an intensive investigation, Anderson and his men come to the rapid conclusion that a beloved Little League coach in town, abducted the victim in a white van, violated, and then murdered the boy in a vicious, cannibalistic frenzy. “Ralph had no doubt of it, he knew they had the right man, but he still would have preferred a little more investigation before pulling the trigger. Find the holes in the sonofabithch’s alibi, punch them wider, wide enough to drive a truck through, then bring him in. In most cases that would have been the correct procedure. Not in this one,” the narrative explains. (p.9)
Thus Anderson makes the decision to humiliate Coach Terry Maitland in front of a crowd at a ball game, with his wife and daughters in attendance to witness his humiliation. Anderson’s reasoning is that he wants to send a message to the community that the police had quickly and adeptly apprehended the villain who had slaughtered one of its own children.
Although Maitland’s DNA and fingerprints are immediately tied to the crime, there is a nagging problem that Anderson cannot explain. Maitland appears to have an ironclad alibi. He says that he was at a conference for English teachers with several members of their department. The keynote speaker for the evening was Harlan Coben, the New York Times best selling author, and there is a video that shows Maitland asking questions of Coben at the lecture. Also, Maitland’s colleagues vouch for his presence at the conference. Surely a man cannot be in two places at once?
Or can he? This is the dilemma with which Anderson is faced as he continues to investigate the crime. Although he is certain that he has the right man, the physical evidence is clear, he has doubts that nag at him and continue to grow as he discusses the case with his wife, Jeannie, and she helps him to follow his doubts and dive deeper, seeking for the truth.
King brings in a familiar character from the Bill Hodges Trilogy Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch, the odd, but efficient, Holly Gibney, who had partnered with Hodges, and learned a lot about murder investigations from him. Gibney’s intuitions on the Maitland cases open things up and Anderson begins to turn the Rubik’s cube to look for a different combination of facts to solve the case. However, that doesn’t happen without tragic consequences for many of the characters in the story.
The Outsider is a solid read, but I did not find it as compelling as some of King’s earlier canon, such as The Shining, which I consider King’s masterpiece of horror fiction. The Outsider is overwritten, unnecessarily talky. The opening grabs the reader with the gruesome description of the initial murder scene, and the major scenes have the verve for which great King writing is known. It just seemed to take so long to get there. Perhaps King has forgotten that oftentimes less is more.
Despite the thickness of the prose, which could use a good pruning, King is masterful at weaving in literary reference to writers, past and present, that literally sent me back to my college volume of Major American Writers to reread the creepy stories of the master, Edgar Allen Poe. When an author can pay homage in such a way that it directs the reader to other writing masters and cultural mythology, that moves the writing into the category of literature
rather than gimmick writing.
Holly does some research on a Mexican shape shifter and comes up with the following story, “Most legends hold a grain of truth, but they’re not the truth, if you see what I mean. In the stories, El Cuco lives on the blood and flesh, like a vampire, but I think this creature also feeds on bad feelings. Psychic blood, you might say.” (p.391) The investigation team begins to delve into the Mexican monster through films of great popularity in their culture, the “outsiders” studying las luchadorus movies as well as a parade called the processo dos Passos that begins to open their eyes to the incredible truth to the tragic accusations against Coach Maitland.
Despite its weightiness, there is more to celebrate in the recent King tome than to criticize. As an aficionado of crime and horror fiction, I will always consider Master King at the apex of the impressive list of writers who enjoy scaring the readers into many sleepless night. The Outsider offers the reader a lot to think about, and is well worth the time it takes to read it.