Uncanny valley

Uncanny valley

With The Outsider, the two universes of King’s horror novels and King’s detective novels collide again.

Stephen King has given us so many monsters in his writing that he’s almost a genre unto himself now. A haunted hotel, a possessed car, creatures from other dimensions, telekinetic teens, ghosts, even murderous dogs — you name it and he’s done it. For a very long time, it felt like he couldn’t get out of that rut, in spite of occasionally writing in other genres like the Shawshank Redemption novella, or the Dark Towers series.

But then we’ve had the Bill Hodges trilogy, about a retired police detective reluctantly going on the trail of a psychopath. This series begins as a straight crime thriller with all the tropes. It even assembles the proper crime-fighting team of brains plus geek plus braveheart. But by the third book, we are veering into horror-and-supernatural territory again, with the villain acquiring supernatural (shall we say King-like?) powers before being soundly beaten by the detective team.

And now, with The Outsider, the two universes of King’s horror novels and King’s detective novels collide again. Terry Maitland is well known and loved in the little town he calls home. He coaches the kids of the local baseball team, is friends with the kids’ parents, and has a stable family life. The peace of the town is shattered when a young boy is horrifically murdered and mutilated. Worse, multiple eyewitnesses have seen Terry with the boy at the time, and later in blood-splattered clothes. The police arrest him quickly on the basis of the eyewitness evidence. But then incontrovertible proof surfaces that Terry was in another town altogether when the murder happened. Ralph Anderson, the investigating police officer, is unsure about how to proceed with the case — but then the murder triggers off more deaths in the community, and it’s clear a larger game is afoot.

So far it was more or less ‘crime thriller’ stuff. But now things start going into ‘horror novel’ territory. A strange person appears, almost unnoticed, on the scenes of the crimes, and he seems to be taking an active hand in the affair. And — I might as well tell you this — one of the characters from Bill Hodges’s detective team enters and essentially takes over the story. Because this is the horror world intruding into the real world, it takes a long time to convince people that something supernatural is going on. Once that is done, the thriller turns into a fairly run-of-the-mill monster-hunt story.

This is Stephen King, so some things are going to be beautifully done: the writing still flows smoothly. The characters are described typically vividly, with their quirks and their inner voices. The setting is proper vintage America (Oklahoma this time instead of Maine). Dialogue and family interactions, though traditional, are authentic.

But other things don’t work as well. The bad guy feels underpowered — for a long time, it feels like the good guys are just too well equipped to lose. In fact, the climax feels like a let-down for this very reason. Compare this villain to ones from King’s heyday and he’s positively a midget. Where are the mind-altering hotels, the uncatchable aliens, the telekinetic teens? It only makes sense if you keep thinking The Outsider is a realistic crime novel with a minor digression into the uncanny. King seems to be of this mindset, too, because a very large part of the second half is the process of convincing the Good Guy party that this is a real villain and that he has these powers. We the readers always know better — we’ve been reading King too long to be surprised.

There’s one other area in which the novel falls short — the really large number of characters that float around the pages. King’s best work has been marked by claustrophobic settings with the bare minimum of people (and in one memorable work, just one person throughout), and this has kept the character interactions to a minimum. But here, there are so many people we have to struggle to keep up: half a dozen witnesses, a bunch of police officers, any number of neighbours, connections to previous crimes, and everyone’s family to boot. And inevitably there is a lot of talking and socialising. A good editor would have cut this work down to maybe half the characters and a hundred pages less.

In spite of all those people, we see no real character development — no one growing into their role except for the leads, and that too just enough to face off and dispatch the monster-of-the-day.

Overall, this is a rather confused novel that straddles multiple genres and never quite masters any one. For long-time King fans, the saving grace is the smooth writing and the familiar small-town locations that feature in so many of his books. A good one-time read, but not a classic.

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