Once a staunch Stephen King fan, in later years I was often disappointed by his works, finding them less engaging than I was used to in the past, and for several years I gave up on keeping updated with his new production, but for some reason the premise of The Outsider compelled me to try again, and now I’m glad I listened to my proverbial “book vibes”. Even though this is far from a perfect story, certainly not comparable to the heights of The Stand, or Salem’s Lot, just to name a couple, which I consider the peaks of Stephen King’s career, The Outsider went a long way toward reviving my faith in this author.
The novel starts in the immediate aftermath of a brutal rape/murder perpetrated on a child: forensic evidence and some witness statements seem to point the investigators in the direction of Terry Maitland, an apparently flawless husband and father of two, beloved teacher and the coach of the city’s junior baseball team. Fueled by the gruesomeness of the act and the need to quickly secure the murderer to justice, lead detective Ralph Anderson puts aside some of the discrepancies that surfaced in the course of the investigation and arrests Maitland publicly, during one of the pivotal baseball games of the season.
While the man keeps protesting his innocence, evidence to support his claim – and which contradicts both the forensic findings and the witness statements – comes to the fore: at the time of the kidnapping and murder of the young victim, Maitland was in another city, attending a conference with some colleagues, not to mention being caught on camera by the TV crews covering the event. Despite the doubts caused by this paradox, and the sheer impossibility of a man being present in two places at once, the justice machine moves forward without pause, the ripples caused by the following events expanding in a dramatic and unpredictable way.
Even though this story starts as a mystery/thriller, anyone who has read any previous work by Stephen King can imagine that the explanation for such an impossible occurrence resides in the realm of the supernatural, and after a while it becomes clear where the story is headed, but it hardly matters that the reader is able to picture how events will develop, because this is the classic case in which the journey is more important than the destination. And The Outsider is indeed a compelling journey, one that makes it difficult to put the book down.
One of the narrative strengths of Mr. King’s storytelling is his ability to describe the dynamics and mindset of small communities, and here the citizens of Flint City – the place where the first part of the novel is based – are no exception: once presented with a possible target for the (quite understandable, of course) shock and rage following the heinous crime, they are more than ready to focus them on Maitland, uncaring of the fact that until the day prior to the arrest he was an upstanding and respected citizen, one to whom many of them brought their kids for baseball practice, a person they liked and trusted. Once the mob mentality has taken over, they forget all too easily the “innocent until proven guilty” tenet, and become deaf and blind to any kind of evidence that might sow doubt about the man’s guilt, transforming the citizenry into a blood-thirsty horde not unlike those that stood at the foot of the guillotine waiting for heads to roll.
While reading these pages, especially those concerned with Maitland’s arraignment and the descriptions of the crowd surrounding the tribunal, I often thought that we don’t need to look for the supernatural or the downright horrific to feel dread, because human nature is more than enough, and sometimes it can manifest in ways that give the lie to the more nightmarish of Lovecraftian creatures. And I confess that I was more frightened by the portrayal of that maddened crow whose fear and need for retribution debased them to a nearly bestial level, than I was about the actual “monster” of the story, because I know that this latter was generated out of the author’s inventiveness, while the mob mentality is an unescapable fact of life.
Another fascinating aspect of this story comes from the dichotomy between hard facts and the uncanny, and the ability of the human mind to bridge the gap between the two: King’s characters often find themselves challenged by the weird and the unbelievable and are forced to test their mettle against something their minds refuse to consider as part of the world. In this case, as in previous stories I read, they might emerge triumphant but are never left unscathed – the price to be paid for victory and survival is the loss of innocence, of the belief in the predictability of the universe surrounding them.
Still, as I said before, The Outsider is not a perfect story, and there are some details that kept nagging at me and prevented me from fully enjoying it or from giving it the higher rating I envisioned as I was still immersed in the narrative. For starters, the slow, meticulous buildup of tension seems to come to an end far too quickly and far too easily: the mundane way in which evil is vanquished feels too abrupt and almost comical – a sharp contrast with everything that went on before. Another, and stronger, issue I had concerned the portrayal of women, since their characterization made me think that the novel might have been written (or set) in the ‘60s rather than in the present. Jeannie Anderson is one such example, her supportive demeanor toward her husband looking more the product of a “stand by your man” attitude rather than being half of an equal partnership; then there is the only woman detective in the Flint City Police Department, and her role is that of being hugely pregnant more than offering any investigative contribution.
The greatest disappointment, however, came from the character of Holly Gibney, a private investigator: hers is a peculiar personality, one saddled with psychological and behavioral problems that counterbalance a sharp, inquisitive mind, and as such she could have been a very intriguing figure in the economy of the story, but her lack of self-esteem and her inability to fully accept the acknowledgement of her value seemed geared to undermine any contribution she offered to the task force. Which ended up being kind of annoying…
Nevertheless, I did enjoy The Outsider and I consider it a welcome return to my old “Stephen King haunts” after such a long time…