The Outsider (2018) by Stephen King is a big book with a big, layered story. With great effort I’m going to hold my review to one or two aspects of it. First things first; it’s horror, with its roots in King’s classic horror works but with a sensibility influenced by the modern world. It’s good. Horror readers will love it and be creeped out by it, but non-horror readers will find plenty that is thought-provoking (and they’ll be creeped out by it). Of course I’m recommending it.
Terry Maitland is a big man in the town of Flint City, Oklahoma. He is an English teacher at the high school, and he coaches both football and baseball. Nearly everyone knows him because he’s coached nearly every boy in town in some sport. He has a loving wife and two lively daughters. The town is rocked when Terry is arrested, in a highly public way, for the horrific rape-mutilation murder of a boy. The evidence is irrefutable. Terry’s bloody fingerprints are found on the body at the scene; his DNA is on the scene; a witness saw him give the victim a ride the day of the murder and multiple witnesses saw him after the crime, covered in blood. It’s hard to imagine a stronger case, and the town turns against Terry. Leading the charge is Ralph Anderson, a Flint City police detective, whose response is personal; Terry coached his son Derek, and in Ralph’s mind, Derek could have been Terry’s next victim… or even his first one. It’s Ralph who arranged for the very public arrest.
The case is water-tight, but Terry provides a water-tight alibi. It isn’t contrived or iffy; there is irrefutable evidence with, again, multiple witnesses to corroborate it. Ralph’s questions are overcoming his conviction, but before the case gets straightened out, things spin out of control and soon more people are dying.
This is the first twenty-five percent of The Outsider, and while it’s clear that there is a supernatural element, it’s in the background at first. Much of the early part of the story has to do with Ralph’s questioning, his growing fear that his zeal led to a miscarriage of justice. For Ralph, this is a story of redemption, but in the early sections, his concern is also that of a good cop — if Terry is somehow innocent, then there is a child murderer still out there.
Ralph is a good man who believes that he’s made a catastrophic mistake. Along with everything else that King does well — the slice-of-life sense of a small town, the vivid descriptions, the creeping evil that reaches out to various families in Flint City — Ralph’s struggle is quite well done. Before the book is finished, we see Ralph wrestling with a fundamental world view shift as well; he is being asked to believe in the impossible. In the supernatural. In things he cannot explain. As likely as it seems that there is a supernatural element at play, that flies in the face of everything Ralph knows about the world.
King doesn’t take it easy on Ralph in either of these battles. Maitland’s wife Marcy, even when she accepts help from Ralph, does not forgive him. And Holly Gibney, an investigator called in by Maitland’s defense attorney, confronts Ralph on his lack of belief. Holly is a recurring King character who has faced monsters before. In her view, Ralph’s skepticism does not show strength or “rationality;” it’s choosing to turn away, a refusal to admit what’s right in front of them.
All of King’s characters, even the evil entity itself, are well-depicted in The Outsider, but Holly is one I want to write about a little more. Holly is self-reliant, smart, meticulous and thorough. She has a mental illness. Her mental illness is not a character defect to be overcome as a plot point in the book; it is not some sort of “magical madness” that allows her to see the monster in some way. It’s a condition. Holly takes medication for it. She has other strategies she uses to deal with it, and it is part of her. She lives with it every single day. It is a reality that does not define her. Her condition is not her “Hollyness,” but it is part of her Hollyness. It does not magically vanish when it’s convenient for the plot. King always remembers that Holly is obsessive and has anxiety, just as Holly always remembers it. I didn’t think much about this until I finished the book and realized just how positive a character she is here, without a lot of fanfare.
Now I want to go back to Ralph. While the last half of the book is centered on the search for the evil entity and the human it has beguiled to serve it, Ralph’s road to redemption is still a large part of the story. Ralph realizes that redemption is not a one-and-done. It will be a process. Just as things will never be the same again for Marcy and her girls, life will not be the same for Ralph either.
I have one tiny bone to pick about The Outsider. In the course of his duty, Ralph shoots and kills someone. It is a justified shooting during a horrible situation. Ralph worries about it once, early in the book, and then the dead character is never mentioned again. I thought this was an oversight. The dead person is a victim of the evil, but I don’t believe Ralph, who pulled the trigger, would forget his name and face so thoroughly.
Once again, in a big, creepy, scary book about things that hide under the bed (in one case literally), King manages to tell a story about what it means to be good, what it means to live with a mental illness, and what it means to be human.