Book Review: “The Outsider” by Stephen King

This Review Does Not Contain Spoilers

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Before I get into the review, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I am a huge Stephen King fan. Like so many other horror aficionados, my first exposure to the genre was through a King classic. I was raised in a conservative Christian household at the tail end of the Satanic Panic hysteria. Anything that had any supernatural undertones was strictly forbidden. Harry Potter was supposedly a warlock and an enemy of God. You get the picture. Nevertheless, I rebelled and bought a copy of “The Shining.” It was one of the defining moments of my life. The rest is history.

The story starts out with the gruesome murder of a little boy, Frank Peterson, in a fictional town in Oklahoma. All of the forensic evidence points to a respected member of the community, Terry Maitland. He is arrested in a very public way by Detective Ralph Andersen. Terry offers an airtight alibi and has eye witnesses and other evidence to back up his claims. Andersen and the DA are determined to reconcile the contradictory evidence in order to convict him. Terry and his lawyer attempt to do the same in an effort to be set free. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that there is a dark force at the root of the murder. Both sides of the legal fight join together to uncover the mystery of the “Outsider.”

“Outsider” starts out like a Michael Connelly police detective mystery. There’s quite a bit of witness statements, pathology reports and technical legal minutiae. There is a pivotal moment in the story where the plot trajectory takes a wild turn and the tone of the novel shifts from crime/mystery to horror. Both of these elements are done well, but the crime facet of the story is significantly more effective than the horror one. After the pivotal moment, the characters start to grapple with the possibility of a supernatural entity and the plot unfolds along those lines.

King’s character development is as dependable as ever. There are quite a few characters, but the total count is much more manageable than last year’s “Sleeping Beauties.” One of the novel’s best characters, Holly, doesn’t come into the picture until a little over halfway through the book. King does great with colloquial dialects and his skill for dialogue makes it easier for the reader to get pulled into the story quickly, in spite of some dry procedural sub-chapters in the beginning.

A big issue with the horror element (and story in general) is that there’s a steady build-up of suspense without a thrilling climax. About 80% of the way through the novel, the suspense reaches it’s apex. Up to this point, I was titillated and ready for the King to put the pedal to the metal. But it didn’t turn out that way for me. After the 80% high point, the tension weakens. The finale is disappointing and anti-climactic. It felt like either King got tired of writing or Scribner had him on a tight deadline (unlikely). It reminded me of the 1990 “IT” TV movie with Tim Curry. I watched that as a kid and loved it, but when they met the monster at the end, I was like: “really, that’s it?” There was a dissonance between what the reader is told about the Outsider’s power and the ease with which he is defeated.

I enjoyed “Outsider” but when I finished, I didn’t feel like I knew the Outsider the way that I knew Pennywise at the end of “IT” or the Overlook Hotel at the end of the “The Shining.” The antagonist for me was underdeveloped and underutilized. It felt like the book wasn’t finished and the character wasn’t fully realized. Maybe I’m being harsh because I’m a die-hard King fan, but the finale of the novel was lackluster enough to taint the experience. However, everything up to that point was great, which makes the finale’s failure sting even more.

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RATING: ΩΩ (I’VE HAD BETTER)

Scale:

Ω – PAINFUL – Suffering through this was cruel and unusual punishment.

ΩΩ – I’VE HAD BETTER – This didn’t rock my world but it was better than a nut tap.

ΩΩΩ – GOOD – My life was enriched because of this.

ΩΩΩΩ – TANTRIC ORGASM – I will trade my soul for more of this.

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