Does anyone remember that in 2002, Stephen King announced his retirement? Let’s just pause to think about that for a second. Even if you assume that From a Buick 8 and the Dark Tower books were already in the pipeline at that point and don’t count them, he’s written 17 books since that time. Seventeen! I mean, dude barely even slowed his roll. And several of those books are as good as anything he’s done. Glad he didn’t take retirement seriously, is I guess what I’m saying.
The Outsider starts with the fuel of nightmares — and I mean non-supernatural nightmares, the kind of thing you could feel nervous about even if the worst thing you watch is CSI or Law and Order. A child has been murdered in Flint City, in the worst, most horrible, most brutal possible way, and the police know who did it: Terry Maitland, a well-known and beloved Little League coach. And when I say they know, they know: they have fingerprints everywhere, DNA, semen samples, footprints, tire prints, eyewitnesses who saw him put the kid in the Econoline van, the works. It is an absolutely slam-dunk case. So they make a huge public arrest at the ball park, in front of all Terry’s family, friends, and the kids he coaches. But then… it turns out that Terry has a totally iron-clad alibi. Not only was he out of town at the time of the murder, he was with colleagues the entire time, and he was even captured on video. He had to have done it. But he could not have done it.
Ralph Anderson, the detective on the case, is that satisfying thing, a good cop. He regrets the mistake of arresting Terry so publicly, and he understands that there’s something weird going on. When Terry’s lawyer wants to bring in outside help in the form of Holly Gibney (an excellent character from King’s earlier Mr. Mercedes series), he agrees. But when she suggests that the something weird is actually what she calls an “outsider,” someone who can take on the likeness, DNA, and even memories of another person in order to kill children, he comes to a screeching halt. “That’s like believing in Santa Claus,” he says. (Funny kind of Santa Claus your parents told you about, my dude.)
This is one of Stephen King’s scariest books he’s recently written. It’s scary on both the non-supernatural level (what if you were accused of a slam-dunk crime you didn’t commit? How quickly would your town turn into a mob?) and the supernatural level (shape-shifting child-killing boogeyman, uuuuggggh.) The action is nonstop. There are several unexpected twists. The characters are terrific and engaging.
One thing I appreciated about this novel is that it plays with the Portuguese/ Latin American legend of El Cuco, which is essentially a boogeyman who eats children, and with las luchadoras, heroines who hunt him down. King doesn’t try to appropriate these myths. He knows he’s an outsider to them, and he signposts that in the book. But his deep interest and appreciation (and fear!) make this a really interesting novel. I liked having some culture in there that was small-town, which King does well, but not Maine.
A big theme of the novel is skepticism. As I said, Ralph Anderson simply isn’t willing to believe that there’s a supernatural explanation for what’s been going on in Flint City. He thinks there simply has to be a rational explanation for it, because the rational is all there is. Holly Gibney has had certain experiences that incline her to be a little more open, and she knows that beings like the Outsider get away with literal murder because people won’t believe what’s going on in front of their eyes. (It’s all a little bit X-Files, but since I love the X-Files, that’s not a bad thing.) Holly asks Ralph — and by extension asks us — if it were a question of life and death, would you believe something like this?
In any case, I definitely recommend this book if this is the sort of thing you enjoy. It was fast-paced, exciting, fun to read, and satisfying. Hail to the non-retired retiree.