Reality is Thin Ice
The Outsider by Stephen King
Reviewed by Bev Vincent
One of the themes of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It was the notion that adults lose the ability to believe in the kinds of things they embraced as children. Mike Hanlon contemplates this issue when he’s planning to summon his childhood friends back to Derry to confront the monster they defeated but did not destroy nearly three decades earlier. He wonders if they’re up to the task because their former ability to believe in the power of certain talismans gave them the strength to hurt Pennywise.
The inability to believe plays a major part in The Outsider. The book starts out as a solid procedural that makes use of contemporary forensic procedures, with a touch of Agatha Christie thrown in. Then things take a turn for the strange. Flint City, Oklahoma Detective Ralph Anderson (no relation to the little boy from Storm of the Century) is forced to confront two contradictory but incontrovertible facts. He has an ironclad case against Terry Maitland, a popular English teacher and Little League coach, in the sadistic, cannibalistic murder of 11-year-old Frank Peterson. Eyewitnesses who know Maitland see him pick the boy up in a nondescript white van, place him at the crime scene, and establish his actions after the murder, wearing blood-soaked clothing. His fingerprints are everywhere, and the DNA evidence, when it comes in, is the final nail in the coffin. Anderson has Maitland—a man he’s known for years, who coached Anderson’s boy in baseball—dead to rights.
Anderson is so sure of his case that—with the blessing of the District Attorney, Bill Samuels, who wants to expedite the process—he has Maitland arrested at a pivotal moment in a Little League semifinal game in front of over 1,500 people, including Maitland’s wife and two daughters. Anderson doesn’t trust himself to make the arrest personally, afraid he might strangle the man. They arrest him without interviewing him in advance because they were afraid Maitland would get spooked and run. They wanted to publicly shame him, get him off the streets in case he decided to kill again, and also demonstrate to the residents of Flint City that justice has been served. Anderson wants people to be able to sleep again.
Except Maitland has an alibi. At the time of the murder, he was in Cap City with three other English teachers, attending a mid-summer conference where crime writer Harlan Coben is the featured speaker. Not only do the other teachers vouch for Maitland’s presence during the crucial hours, security footage shows him in the hotel and the event was videotaped. Maitland can be seen asking Coben a question. He couldn’t have been in Flint City, an hour away. Additional forensic evidence confirms that he was in the hotel.
Anderson is a rational man. Certain facts are as unassailable as gravity: a man cannot be in two places at the same time. He’s not willing to accept the doppelganger theory his wife raises when she mentions the Poe story “William Wilson,” even though that story is more about abnormal psychology than supernatural events.
Still, he regrets the publicity stunt. The case is in trouble, but he and Samuels are in too deep to back out. Their jobs are on the line and the city—and them personally—could be facing a seven-figure lawsuit if they can’t figure out how Maitland pulled off the crime of the century. Anderson is so distraught he briefly considers destroying exculpatory evidence.
Despite his Kafkaesque circumstances, in jail awaiting an arraignment, Maitland is confident he’ll be exonerated. However, even if he is released, Maitland knows their lives in Flint City are probably over. A cloud of doubt will always hang over him, and his children will be bullied and harassed on social media and at school.
Anderson is a good man who made a bad mistake. After he’s placed on administrative leave, he remains conflicted. He can’t ignore the evidence against Maitland, but if Maitland isn’t guilty then the killer is still out there. He begins an off-the-books investigation, during which other inexplicable things pop up. Anderson steadfastly refuses to entertain supernatural explanations. If he allows something like that into his thinking, he believes he’ll go crazy.
The case takes a dramatic turn when Maitland’s lawyer’s investigator enlists the assistance of someone from out of state to follow up on leads in Dayton, Ohio. This operative has had first-hand experience with supernatural occurrences before. She knows a man can be in two places at once: she’s seen it happen. The world is full of strange nooks and crannies, she believes, where anything is possible. The greatest advantage monsters have is the unwillingness of rational people to believe. Besides, real monsters like Ted Bundy walk among us, and we believe in them.
She’s not a nut-job—her track record demonstrates her skills as a detective, and she proves herself again by turning up important information in Dayton. When she joins the ad hoc investigative team in Flint City, she is persuasive—but not enough to convince Anderson that her suspect, who she calls “an outsider,” is a creature from mythology and legend. In a sense, she is an outsider, too.
For the case to be solved, though, Anderson will need to let go of his logical way of thinking and embrace, if only briefly, the possibility that there are things in the world that can’t be explained. After all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the apotheosis of rational detectives, also believed in fairies. As they say to each other several times: There’s no end to the universe.
The Outsider, in addition to being about what adults can’t believe in, explores the tragedy crime brings upon a community. The death of Frank Peterson ultimately destroys his entire family. The accusations bring shame upon Maitland’s wife and daughters. No one will rest easily while there’s any chance the killer is still at large.
There will likely be a lot of discussion about what the Outsider is. An identity-stealing entity, the inspiration for a low-budget Mexican movie and myriad legends, he feeds on sadness and on the pain of his victims while they’re dying, reminiscent of a number of creatures from King’s works: Dandelo and Pennywise, to name just two. In Bag of Bones, Mike Noonan’s late wife’s ghost tells him that Sara Tidwell “let one of the Outsiders in, and they’re very dangerous.” Elements of the story will remind readers of Tak from Desperation, too. While there are some similarities to those creatures, this Outsider is not exactly like any of them. He’s a force of nature, albeit an unnatural one, whose origins are unknown but whose motives are clear: to feed and survive. Murder is its life’s work. He is another in a long line of evil-doers in King’s mythos. At the same time King proposes that a force for good exists, too, attempting to restore the balance.
At 560 pages, The Outsider is a fast read. The setup, featuring an impossible set of circumstances, is compelling, and once the eponymous character enters the scene, the stakes go up rapidly.
Apart from one bit of character overlap with other novels, the connections between this novel and King’s other works are minimal. There aren’t any 19s of significance, for example. One character expresses an opinion about the Kubrick adaptation of The Shining. Another wonders what Maitland’s wife might have known about his crimes, which calls to mind “A Good Marriage.” The dual nature of the evil entity will likely make people think of The Dark Half, and a crucial scene takes place in a setting reminiscent of the China Pit mine.