by Stephen King (2018)
A quarter century ago I read pretty much everything Stephen King had written. In 1996 I was coming off the high of his serial novel The Green Mile and rushed out to purchase both Desperation and The Regulators when he published them at the same time in September 1996. I hated those “mirror” novels. I felt that King was spinning his wheels. Sure, those two novels were meant to be similar — that was part of their marketing, with covers that blended together — but I also felt that the characters blended with so many of King’s other characters, that the monsters felt like King’s other monsters. In effect, it made me discount even the books I’d already read and enjoyed. Since then, other than Hearts in Atlantis (which did nothing to convince me I should start reading his books again), I haven’t read any of King’s books.
Still, I cannot deny that King’s characters and monsters are an indelible part of my memory. I realized this when the teasers for the television series Castle Rock first came out. That teaser showed no footage but instead moved around a mind space where each neuron had a name or place: Annie Wilkes, The Barrens, Father Callahan, the Marsten House, Mr. Jingles, Danny Torrence, Pennywise, etc. As I watched this, I realized they brought to mind old memories that made these individuals and places feel as if they were part of my own past.
Since then I’ve had a hankering to read something else by King, and some folks said his most recent novel, The Outsider, was good and felt like classic King. I started it and was sucked in. I ended it disappointed once again.
The novel begins as an interesting mystery and police procedural in the small town of Flint City, Oklahoma. There the popular teacher and little league coach Terry Maitland is arrested for raping and murdering an eleven-year-old boy. The evidence is rock solid: eye witnesses saw him with the boy just before the murder and his DNA is all over the scene. This gives the detective Bill Samuels the fury required to mount a very public arrest of the beloved town figure even before he’s been questioned. The problem is, Maitland’s alibi also appears to be rock solid. He was in another city for a teaching conference when the murder happened. The physical evidence — to say nothing of the eye witnesses — that places him somewhere else is just as strong as the evidence putting him in Flint City.
For the first few hundred pages, this mystery builds wonderfully. We come to know the characters through their quirks of character, which may feel cheap once you see what King is doing but is also incredibly effective and probably one of the main reasons so many of these people stick in the mind over the years.
Now, even though I saw it coming I was upset when the story turned from a compelling mystery to outright horror. The mystery, of course, presents an impossible situation: how can a man be in two places at once? The best classic mystery may come up with an ingenious resolution. In horror you can make it work without any labor: invent a monster. As I said, I saw this coming, but it was still a bit disheartening to have spent that many pages in a mysterious build-up to have it all dissipate. The monster can feel like a cop out.
I started to forgive the book, though. Just like the characters were having to slowly rework their expectations in order to see what was going on, I figured it was okay that I kind of go through that with them. It was the ending that really go to me. There we once again go to a cavern that contains bits of a town’s nostalgic past mingled with its horror. There we once again see a monster who could be named — is even called at one point — It. There once again the heroes confront their fears and ridicule the monster, again mocking its sexuality.
Yes, The Outsider felt like classic King. Here he is presenting a similar tale, sometimes hitting the exact same beats. It reminded me that I’ve only ever really loved the ending to a few of King’s novels (Pet Sematary comes to mind as being one that is truly chilling at the end without deflating entirely). It reminded me that I think King is an exceptional story teller, but that he doesn’t always have the best stories to tell, particularly when taken as a whole, from beginning to end.
However, even though I ended up annoyed at The Outsider it was still fun to be back in King’s world. A good storyteller, honestly, can create a fun ride, and I don’t regret it. I may even be on the lookout to read something else King wrote in the last quarter century.