The Outsider by Stephen King

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Readers of the Stephen King novels will love this classic tale. Baseball coach Terry Maitland stands accused of a particularly vicious rape and murder of a young boy. Arrested in front of a crowd watching a baseball game, the town turns on the popular family man when the evidence against him is made public – eyewitnesses, fingerprints, blood type, and DNA. Mob rule takes away issues of fair play and innocence until proof of guilt is established. Evidence that Maitland was out of town in the company of other teachers and is on tape as having asked a question of a famous author at a conference at the time of the atrocity is ignored.

Maitland’s murder at the hands of the brother of the victim, the assassin’s death, and the attempted suicide of the father of the two dead boys is the outcome of unthinking violence triggered by mob ideas of justice. Meanwhile Detective Ralph Anderson and the State prosecutor Samuels have been building a strong case. Despite Anderson’s difficulty in believing that his friend Maitland would commit such an atrocity, he cannot ignore the evidence he uncovers. The case against Maitland is airtight – but so is the case for his innocence. In fact, the evidence for guilt is too readily believed by the characters in the story. Maitland is so well-liked and well known that rather than instant condemnation, the more likely response would have been scepticism.

This raises two issues for me. King chose Oklahoma for the setting of his novel. Oklahoma, the State that was so influential in electing President Trump to office, the State where hill-billies who gathered in mobs to elect Trump could be expected to attack a man no matter his reputation. This could be an agenda that King is following. The other is on firmer ground. This is the ‘Americanness’ of the book – the crass humour, the ‘over-the-top’ events, and the shallowness of the story. It is an exciting story but the reliance for humour on bodily functions (273 – 74), and the Nine Iron Joke (not to mention the bawdy “rhyme from his raucous teenage years: Shave and a haircut . . . you bet! Sung by the whorehouse . . . quartet!”) are school boy standard. The serendipitous attack by what seems to be a giant rattlesnake at the moment a sniper is set to fire a rifle , and the just-happened-to have a sock full of ball bearings to sort out the villain make the plot a little amateurish. Combine these issues with a story that ignores the technology in our society – there are no cameras in mobile phones, no texting, no Facebook or other media, and no Skype – and the effect is certainly not modernity.

What King has produced in the first half of the book is conventional, forensics driven crime fiction. Third person narrative combined with transcripts of witness statements drive the unfolding plot. But then King’s fertile imagination throws in the weird stuff for which he is famous. A young girl is visited by a ghastly figure who sits on her bed and delivers a message, a woman is accosted by the same figure in her kitchen. The plot turns to the supernatural and the ghastly so late in the chronicle of events that much of the horror is ineffectual.

There is a new element in King’s writing that requires scepticism. Women are shown to be clear-thinking, good planners, supportive wives and lovers. The writing on one level shows a genuine belief in the power of women. I applaud that in King. Jeannie is the best example. She rehashes the police investigation with her husband. She has views that are logical and full of common sense and, while her husband does not necessarily agree, he listens to her and treats her as an individual with a brain. It is at her suggestion that Holly becomes involved. It is her intuitive understanding of what might be at the centre of this case that directs Ralph to Holly.

Holly is the catalyst for the actions that lead to the unmasking of the villain and his subsequent demise. With her appearance, the men almost become ciphers. (I must admit to a feeling of distaste when Anderson, despite his outspoken beliefs to the contrary agrees without a murmur to suspend disbelief for twenty-four hours when Holly requests it). King has always excelled at portraying real people mixing it with unreal situations, and Holly does not let his readers down.

The other side of the coin is that King has at last realised that women have fought to build a strong place in society and that an author may well lose a vital part of his reading audience if he does not address this group favourably. However, having said that King is careful of his female audience, he is not so favourably inclined towards the big hat brigade in Oklahoma.

Strangely, I came away from this book dissatisfied. The titular “Outsider” was certainly evil but the centre of focus, the strongest presence of evil, lay in the political undercurrents that relegated sex offenders to beyond all hope, and found no hypocrisy in bleating for justice while turning the mob loose on the ostensible offender. In earlier books – in particular the magnificent It – King conveys his monsters as impressions rather than as they are. It is scarier to believe in what they might be than if the monsters appear in the flesh. Truth is much easier to handle than supposition.

Mob mentality, paedophilia, violence…this book has it all. A well-researched tale, told with aplomb, supported by convincing characters, makes excellent reading overall. Suspend distractions, enjoy the book.

The Outsider

(2018)

By Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978-1-473-67640-4

$32.99; 496pp

 

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