The Outsider, Stephen King (Scribner 978-1-5011-8098-9, $30.00, 576pp, hc) May 2018.
Stephen King’s last three published novels – excluding his collaborations with Richard Chizmar and his son Owen King – comprise a triptych informally known as the Bill Hodges trilogy, named for the retired police detective who is their main character. As a unit – and they are a unit, forged by Hodges’s recurring pas-de-deux through them with supernaturally endowed mass-murderer Brady Hartsfield – they are a well-wrought drama, with a clearly conceived first, second, and third act. Well, even Shakespeare found cause for spinning off characters from his seamless dramas into adventures of their own, so why shouldn’t King? His latest novel, The Outsider, brings back Holly Gibney, the obsessive-compulsive internet whiz who served as Hodges’s indispensable confederate in the trilogy. Like its predecessors, the novel is a splice of crime and horror fiction, although this one is situated much more in the world of the weird that King is best known for.
Before Holly makes her entrance, though, there’s a bit of stage setting. A truly revolting murder has been committed in Flint City OK, ‘‘a small town where most everybody knows everybody else, at least by face’’: a local boy has been found savaged, sodomized, and cannibalized, his body abandoned in the brush on the outskirts of town. To detective Ralph Anderson and the local district attorney, it’s an open-and-shut case: numerous townsfolk have implicated Terry Maitland, the town’s beloved little league coach, in events leading up to the murder, and a van discovered near the crime scene, as well as the body are filthy with his fingerprints. The certainty that Maitland is the murderer motivates Anderson to arrest him very publicly in front of thousands of spectators at an evening ballgame. Once Maitland is incarcerated, however, the ironclad case begins to fall apart. It turns out that, despite damning forensic evidence – including a late-breaking DNA match that positively connects him to the crime scene – Maitland has witnesses who can put him at an academic conference a considerable distance away at the time the murder was committed. Worse yet for the prosecution, he’s very visibly on a conference videotape, asking a question from the audience to attending crime author Harlan Coben (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) at about the time the murder went down.
This set-up takes up nearly the first half of King’s novel, which unfolds like an airtight police procedural patterned on an any number of episodes of CSI and similar television programs – characters even drop ironic references to being familiar with such programs – before it turns into a bedeviling mystery, full of impossible contradictions that defy any logical explanation. Better yet, it lays the groundwork for the sort of small-town drama that is King’s specialty. Until his arrest, Maitland is one of the town’s most popular citizens, a schoolteacher and devoted baseball coach who has brought his team to a league championship and coaxed the best out of his players. All of that changes when Maitland is accused of a crime so horrendous that it seems to short circuit the process by which people who know him would struggle to reconcile a charge of murder with the character of a man who would seem incapable of it. At his arraignment Maitland is met by a howling mob calling for the death penalty. In one of the book’s most moving moments, Anderson watches Terry surveying the crowd: ‘‘There was a look of pained bewilderment on his face. Seeing people he knows, Ralph thought. People whose kids he taught, people whose kids he coached, people he had to his house for end-of-season barbecues. All of them rooting for him to die.’’ The scene recalls an image that recurs throughout the story and serves as an illustrative metaphor for the novel’s horrors: when he was young, Anderson split open what appeared to be a perfectly intact fresh melon, only to discover that its interior was crawling with maggots and vermin. Anderson recalls that image to mind when he first believes that Maitland is one of those killers whose hidden foulness lurks just below his façade of normality. At the moment, though, he might just as well be thinking about the townspeople of Flint City.
King develops the process by which the authorities sift through the forensic evidence and extrapolate scenarios of how the crime unfolded with a clinical precision that serves his story well – especially when those scenarios are kicked right out the door by the impossibility of Maitland having been in two places at one time when the crime was committed. The rationalism and realism that have shaped the story at this point are suddenly on shaky ground, and that proves seriously disturbing to Anderson, whose job depends on him applying logic to the most extraordinary discoveries. ‘‘I can’t accept it, honey,’’ Anderson tells his wife when she suggests that he has to accept that something inexplicable is going on. ‘‘It goes against everything I’ve believed my whole life. If I let something like that in, I really would go crazy.’’
Enter Holly Gibney, who can tell the authorities something about having to accept the inexplicable when working on a crime case. In the Bill Hodges trilogy Holly was part of a team of investigators tracking down a criminal whose deviousness ultimately included his ability to project his consciousness into his victims and hijack their bodies to do his bidding. That sensibility – coupled with the skill at tracing and tracking people’s movements through internet resources that gets her hired into the Maitland investigation in the first place – helps her to see clues and possibilities where others would overlook them. The biggest challenge, Hollie knows, is getting people whose work is driven by logic to accept the illogical. ‘‘She would try to convince them, just the same,’’ Holly thinks en route to her rendezvous with Anderson and his cohorts. ‘‘A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first-century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.’’
It wouldn’t be fair to give away too much about the monster who rampages through the pages of The Outsider, except to say that the book’s title is the name Holly and company give it, based on its resonance with entities who crop up in a folktales and superstitions discussed by Anderson and his team. Early on a character references ‘‘William Wilson’’, Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story of a psychologically projected doppelganger, but there’s more to King’s monster than just a double. Readers familiar with King’s last few novels will see a few resemblances between the Outsider and the True Knot, the gypsy band in Doctor Sleep who feed on the misery and pain of people whom they torture to death, and to Brady Hartsfield, the monster in the Bill Hodges novels whose survival depends on his ability to appropriate and discard the identities of his victims as it suits him. You might even glimpse a touch of The Body Snatchers or The Thing in the method by which the Outsider gradually assumes the guise of those unlucky enough to make contact with him. The Outsider is a very good monster, who take the features of everyday people and, by that process, the fears that people would impress upon it, knowing that such horrifying transformations are possible in the ordinary world. His exploits drive this story to a taut finale and it’s to King’s credit as storyteller that his novel works as both a well-wrought suspense thriller and one of his trademark tales of supernatural horror.
Stefan Dziemianowicz, Contributing Editor, is author of The Annotated Guide to Unknown and Unknown Worlds and a collection of re-told urban legends, Bloody Mary and Other Tales for a Dark Night, and editor (with S.T. Joshi) of three-volume reference work Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia and of more than thirty anthologies including Bram Stoker Award-winning Horrors: 365 Scary Stories, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories. Between 1991 and 1999, he edited critical magazine Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction. His critical work on horror and fantasy fiction has appeared in Washington Post Book World, Lovecraft Studies, and other publications, and he is a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly.
This review and more like it in the June 2018 issue of Locus.
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