Review: The Outsider

CW: murder (including child murder), pedophilia, sexual abuse of children (occurring off the page only).

Alongside other projects, I spent September buddy reading Stephen King’s The Outsider, one of King’s most recent releases which has recently been named the start of a new series of unknown length, the Holly Gibney series. I highly recommend reading the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) before picking this one up, if you’re at all interested in reading those books. For me The Outsider was a definite improvement after the concluding novels of the Bill Hodges trilogy, but still doesn’t rank among my King faves, sadly.

theoutsiderIn the novel, Terry Maitland, upstanding citizen, local teacher, and boys’ little league baseball coach, is accused of a heinous crime. An eleven year-old boy has been brutally violated and murdered, and witnesses plus DNA put Maitland at the scene of the crime. Except at the same time as this child was murdered, Maitland was attending an event in another town, where his presence is not only recorded on audio and video, but televised as well. Was Maitland framed? Does he have a long-lost twin? Has he somehow discovered how to be in two places at once? A few sleuths begin a deeper exploration, and find that the case just gets weirder the more they learn. There may be a supernatural force at work.

” ‘There is nothing to confess to, sir. I didn’t kill Frankie Peterson. I would never hurt a child. You have the wrong man.’

Samuels sighed and stood up. ‘Okay, you had your chance. Now… God help you.’ “

The first half of this book was gearing up to be a 5-star favorite Stephen King for me. It revolves around interesting but disturbing real-world issues: child murder, pedophilia, wrongful accusations/convictions, truth vs. public opinion. The supernatural element is actually scary. Admittedly it doesn’t paint women in the best light (Stephen King is not good at writing female characters in general, in my opinion), but there weren’t any really offensive sexist comments, or any other offensive content. The writing, as always, is readable and engrossing, making the pages fly by. It was the perfect pre-October read to put me in the mood for Halloween horrors.

I know plenty of Constant Readers dislike King’s endings (a phenomenon that gets a hilarious spotlight in the It: Chapter Two film, by the way), but I don’t usually have that problem. So I grew more and more disappointed as I realized the second half of this story was going to be a flop for me. Here’s what went wrong:

1 – Though I usually enjoy King’s tendency of referencing details from his previous novels, they’re usually small nods that anyone who hasn’t read his older work likely won’t even notice. In The Outsider, he abandons the subtle nod by including a main character from the Bill Hodges trilogy (I won’t say which, to avoid spoiling End of Watch for anyone who doesn’t already know), and specifically mentioning details from each of the three criminal cases covered in that trilogy. The crossover character even wins over an ally by recapping the results of that trilogy for him- there are mild spoilers in the text, and I imagine anyone who hasn’t read Bill Hodges will also be annoyed to find events they’re unfamiliar with playing such a key role in this supposedly standalone story. Even having read those books prior to The Outsider so that I understood the references, I found their weight in this completely separate plot somewhat bothersome.

2 – As the pieces of the mystery begin to come together, we start to see some small plot holes, especially as Maitland’s case begins to look a lot like other, similar cases. Relatedly, King falls into his old bad habit of allowing his characters to reach convenient conclusions. Somehow, in the midst of a plot that’s trying to prove there’s “no end to the universe” (meaning anything is possible), these sleuths are jumping to annoyingly correct assumptions. The mystery all but solves itself.

3 – It’s probably realistic for police, lawyers, investigators, etc. to close their minds against evidence of the supernatural, but the otherworldly element of this novel is very clear to the reader; thus the constant naysaying from the unbelievers gets old fast.

“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.”

4 – The oh-so-very-promising monster that succeeded in creeping me out early on turns out to be sadly unimpressive in the flesh. For a creature that seems so powerful, violent, and unknowable (there are some frustrating “we may never know…” remarks about it that feel like cop-outs), the final showdown is surprisingly uneventful. Though I find it very possible that a supernatural monster would be unknowable to humans if one were indeed to intrude upon our reality, the way that the narration approaches the creature toward the end of the novel left me feeling that King just hadn’t taken the time to get to know his own creation very well.

The only other point worth mentioning is the unclear “purpose” of the story. Clearly The Outsider is primarily meant for entertainment, and to that regard the focus on “no end to the universe” does the trick; I think X-Files fans would like this one. But I’m a little concerned that one of the takeaways here might be that no matter how guilty a man might look he’s probably been framed by an elusive supernatural being. Not that King seems to be at all suggesting that something like this supernatural tale is occurring under our noses in the real world, but the case does start off so realistically, with such interesting commentary on guilt and public opinion, that I wonder if there might have been a more tasteful way of incorporating this supernatural element without casting doubt on the guilt of murderers and pedophiles?

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end.”

Despite these flaws, The Outsider was still a fun read for me, at the very least. A few of the scenes really were quite spooky to be reading alone at night, which is an effect I enjoy and don’t come across very often. Some of the story takes place in a condemned cave, which is appropriately atmospheric. There are a few major deaths to keep things interesting, and one of King’s favorite climax types: a blaze of guns and gore and damage. I also read the ending as slightly ambiguous, concerning the fate of the monster, which is really the best way to handle supernatural aspects, in my opinion. So, if you’re just looking for a spooky good time that you’re not planning to look at too closely, you could certainly do worse. It’s not a Stephen King masterpiece, but it is a unique story.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so sad that ending didn’t hold up here. I’m still glad I finally got around to reading this one, and I’m definitely still on board for more Stephen King. Hopefully I’ll manage to fit The Institute into my schedule in a more timely manner! I’m planning on picking up Firestarter later this month, and The Institute sometime thereafter.

Do you have a least favorite Stephen King novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

26 thoughts on “Review: The Outsider”

  1. Great review! This sounds like a bit of a mixed bag, but based on my limited experience of his work, King is at least always readable. Such a shame it started so strong and then fell away for you though! What’s been your favourite of his books so far?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Definitely a mixed bag, but certainly readable.
      My go-to answer for fave Stephen King is Bag of Bones, but it really has been so long that I’ve been wanting to reread it to be sure! The Shining would probably be my next top choice. I want to do a full ranking in the end, but will probably reread the half dozen I read pretty young.

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      1. Misery definitely ranks among my favorites as well! And honestly, King’s been so prolific that even after 20+ of his titles I still feel like I have a ton left to read as well… I hope you continue to enjoy his work!

        Also I’m curious which 4 you’ve read so far?

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      2. Very true! It’s pretty daunting to even browse his back catalogue.

        I’ve read Misery, Carrie, Dolores Claiborne, and I just finished The Mist. I’ve read one each October for the last 4 years, so it seems to be becoming a little Halloween inspired tradition!

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      3. Ooh, I’ll have to check out your thoughts on The Mist, I haven’t read that one yet! Otherwise I would say Misery is my favorite between the other three as well, so perhaps we have similar taste with King. 🙂 I fully support this Halloween tradition!

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  2. Great review! Very interesting, I’ll probably check out the Bill Hodges trilogy at some point, so I’ll hold off on this one for now but will have to remember to keep my expectations checked.

    As of now, I’d say my favorite King is probably Pet Sematary, but I also haven’t read a ton of his work! Most of it is on my TBR though.

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    1. Thanks! Definitely pick up Bill Hodges first if you’re planning to read both. I loved the first book in that trilogy and the rest was kind of meh, but worth it to get all the references in The Outsider.

      Pet Sematary is a great top choice! Definitely one of his most classic novels. I hope you continue to enjoy his books!

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  3. When the horrible thing is human, such as the woman in Misery, it’s easy to wrap up the story. The main character has nightmares that this crazed woman will find him again, thus leaving him with PTSD. I liked that ending. Cujo also ends realistically, with the family unable to get out of the car. Pet Semetary is able to destroy all humans and leave the rotting soil, which makes us assume this problem will happen again. However, the minute King goes supernatural AND abstract, he tends to lose me. I mean, I don’t get what IT is supposed to be. A ghost? A demon? Why a clown? Why is IT killed and then needs killed again?? Because IT can take any form, I lose interest and find the “rules” of this particular monster too slippery.

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    1. The ending of The Outsider is similar to the end of Misery, tbh. It wasn’t so much the format of this ending that bothered me, but the way that meeting the monster didn’t really clear up any questions about why it was there or where it came from or why it needed what it did to survive, etc. Sure, the unknown is scary, but apparently it is also very frustrating! So I know where you’re coming from with It, even though that one worked better for me.
      Some of your questions are answered in the novel, I think, though perhaps not in the films. For instance, It can appear as anything, but he chooses a clown as his default because it’s supposed to be cute enough to lure children, but also frightening enough to scare them once he’s caught them. A clown is versatile. When he’s one-on-one, he can specialize according to specific fears, but in a crowd what’s scary to one kid might be laughed at by another, and he loses the upper hand if they think he’s hilarious. And he comes back because the first time he’s not really killed. He’s attacked by a bunch of kids who don’t really know what they’re doing, so they don’t finish the job. And actually I believe It doesn’t die the second time either- in the novel there’s some ambiguity about whether all of the, shall we say “pieces,” are really gone, and in King’s later publications he references voices coming from the drains in Derry in years following that big showdown. Which is the sort of referencing to past work that I really like turning up in future novels! I do not mind ambiguity, but I’m with you on abstract… there’s certainly a line between leaving a few possibilities open and just not doing the work to lay out what the possibilities might be.

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      1. Oh, I love that IT still has voices in the drain. That’s such fun. Not sure if you have Netflix, but I watched the new Stephen King movie, In the Tall Grass, and really liked it. Awwww, yas. October scary movie time!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ooh, that’s great to hear, I’m actually planning to watch In the Tall Grass in about an hour!! I read the short story it’s based on this afternoon because I like to compare the formats, and I’m really excited to see what the film does with it. I’m glad you liked it! Let the October spooks begin. 🙂

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      3. Yes, I really liked it! But I think it might seem lesser to read after watching the film, because the film expands A LOT on some things only hinted at or not present at all in the written story. But it’s free online through Esquire magazine and fairly short, if you’re curious to check it out! I’ll probably do a short post comparing the formats sometime this week.

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  4. Great review! I am not a fan of Stephen King at all, but since you ask about the least favourite books, I can certainly contribute to the discussion! 🙂 I have not read many of his novels, but the ones that I did largely disappointed me, that includes “Carrie” and I did not enjoy “The Shining”. His books are like screenplays for me, and, therefore, I enjoy films based on his books much more, and that includes such films as “Misery” and “The Shining”. I have to say that the only King’s story that I really loved was very short “The Shawshank Redemption”, but even here I cannot help but wonder whether my love for the movie influenced my perception of the story too (I first watched the movie).

    However, I am looking forward to reading “The Institute”, because I have heard rumours that the book resembles in spirit Stephen King’s short stories and its premise sounds very exciting.

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    1. Thanks for adding to the conversation! 🙂 I generally like King’s ideas and have been enjoying sort of tracking his style through his career, but I can definitely agree that he’s not a perfect writer- I have my share of least favorites as well! I did like The Shining, both in novel and film form, but Carrie didn’t particularly impress me either. Misery is one of my favorites of his novels, but I haven’t seen the film yet! At some point I read an article comparing small plot differences between the film and novel, so I feel like I’ve seen it, though I haven’t. From the films I have seen though, I can understand what you mean about his books feeling like screenplays; they do seem to translate very directly to that format without really losing anything extra from the writing. The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite King film, though I actually haven’t read the story yet! It’ll be the first story that I’ve watched before reading, and I’m intrigued to see whether that will make a difference for me.

      I hope you enjoy The Institute! I haven’t heard it likened to his short stories so that’s interesting to me as well. I’m planning to read it before the end of the year, and also have high hopes! The premise does sound very good!

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      1. I hope you enjoy the Shawshank Redemption story. It is actually part of his larger work titled Different Seasons, but I guess I was not as interested to read his other novellas in the book.

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      2. Thanks! I already have a copy of Different Seasons on hand, and I know there’s at least one other story in the book that I’m interested in- The Body. I think that’s another of his best-known novellas, though I haven’t heard much about the other two in the collection.

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      3. I have just read that “The Body” was adapted into the film by Rob Reiner “Stand By Me”, starring the late River Phoenix (an actor who I think had phenomenal acting skills), and that gets me thinking – is there a story by King that was NOT adapted into a great movie? 🙂 I need to return to Different Seasons as soon as possible now to read “The Body”!

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      4. I hope you enjoy The Body! I think you were spot on with the observation that his books read like screenplays- they do seem to be very popular stories for adaptation, and very successful in that format! I remembered that The Body’s adaptation had a different title than the story, but forgot that it was Stand By Me- which I saw years ago and loved as well. Now I’ll definitely need to read that story and rewatch the film!

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