When an eleven year old boy is found mutilated and murdered in a local park, the cops know who their man is. Respected teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland was spotted with the victim getting into the back of a windowless van. He was later seen leaving the park covered in blood. His fingerprints are found on the body. Terry Maitland is immediately arrested in front of a crowd of thousands and brought into police custody. There’s only one problem. Terry has an ironclad alibi. He was out of town on the day of the murder, with fingerprints, eyewitnesses, and video evidence to support his claim. Now, Detective Ralph Anderson must race to uncover the mystery of the man who was in two places at once.
In the past few years, Stephen King has moved away from the strictly “horror” novels that defined his early works and made him a household name. While The Outsider certainly contains supernatural and horror elements, it is first and foremost a mystery. In fact, for the first three hundred pages or so the plot focuses solely on the detectives as they build their case against Coach Terry Maitland, and on Maitland as he struggles to prove that he is innocent of the horrible murder he’s been accused of committing. Only after the tension has been heightened to a screaming pitch do things take a turn for the paranormal.
King is widely regarded as the modern master of the horror novel, far outstripping any other horror novelist in terms of both skill and popularity. This is, in my opinion, because he understands what makes people tick. Instead of focusing his attention on supernatural creatures or strange occurrences, King looks at how people respond and react to the abnormal. His protagonists are fully realized, flawed, and ultimately very human. King also understands that it is often the darkness inside of man, rather than any kind of outward evil, that has the most capacity for harm. The Overlook is just a hotel, it is only by exploiting the turmoil of Jack Torrance that it is capable of wreaking violence on the people residing in it. Christine was just a rusty old car until Arnie Cunningham began fueling it with his unhappiness. King has always demonstrated an innate understanding of people and their fears, and he twists and exploits those fears in his novels.
In The Outsider, Detective Ralph Anderson is enraged and disgusted as mounting evidence points to a respected member of the community having assaulted and murdered a child. Terry Maitland, after all, coached Anderson’s own son. His righteous indignation takes a hit, however; when Maitland behaves equally outraged and indignant. Maitland’s fear and confusion are palpable as he sees community turn against him and begin screaming for his blood. The reader can empathize with both of these men, and the suspense mounts as it appears that they are both justified in their actions. There is irrefutable evidence that Terry Maitland murdered Frankie Peterson. But there is also incontrovertible proof that he was one hundred miles away when Frankie was killed. The wives of both these men act as sounding boards for the frustrations of their husbands, particularly Jeannie Anderson, who consoles Ralph as he begins to question whether or not he’s made a horrific mistake.
There is a strange time-warp going on with King’s writing here. Many of his books are centered in the past, particularly in the 1950’s and ’60’s, and King seems most at home in these decades. Setting The Outsider in the present day, King sometimes seems to have a very tenuous grasp on modern technology. There are several passages that mention iPads, smartphones, and various popular apps, but it almost feels as if they were crammed in as an afterthought rather than as a natural part of the plot. At no point does anyone seem aware that their phones are capable of doing things unrelated to making phone calls. There are also some odd references that do not fit in with the ages of the characters. At one point man in his fifties remembers a dirty version of “Shave and a Haircut” from when he was a teenager. However, in 2018 a fifty year old man would have been a teenager in the late 1970’s, and would probably have been more familiar with disco or heavy metal than jingles from the 1930’s. Another woman muses about John Lennon’s death, which would have taken place when she was still in diapers. None of this detracts in the slightest from the overall enjoyment of The Outsider, but it was obvious enough to make me smirk once in awhile.
Ultimately, this is a novel about the powers of good and evil. As with so many of his books, he also delves into the difficulties faced by the rational mind when presented with something that is utterly irrational. As always, King’s writing style, his mastery of characterization, and his ability to understand what truly scares us make this book compulsively readable. There are two types of seven-hundred pages novels. Those that fly by in a blink and those that never seem to end. The Outsider certainly belongs in the former category.
While this novel will probably not join The Shining, IT, and Firestarter on my list of favorite Stephen King novels, I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of the day, I would rather read an “average” effort by King than any other horror writer at their best.