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Throwback thrills with Stephen King's 'The Outsider'

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Stephen King is the preeminent American storyteller.

Apologies for my broken-recordness on the subject, but it always bears repeating – there is no one in American letters over the past half-century who has managed to be as prolific and as culturally relevant as Stephen King.

And there’s a reason the zeitgeist is awash with King-inspired and -adjacent properties. Not only have the majority of his iconic earlier works withstood the test of time, but his late-career renaissance puts on display a King who has evolved while still maintaining an unprecedented degree of narrative skillfulness.

Oh yeah – and his stuff is still REALLY scary.

King’s latest is “The Outsider” (Scribner, $30), a pulpy, propulsive tale reminiscent of some of his earlier highlights. Yet even as he elicits memories of his own creepy stylings from 30 years ago, he infuses that throwback thriller with pointed references to the present. The end result is a book that is somehow both Now and Then, where early King and late King combine with an eerie smoothness. It is dark and creepy and thought-provoking and engrossing – everything you hope for from Stephen King.

In Oklahoma, a horrifying crime is threatening to tear the town of Flint City apart. A child – just 11 years old – was brutally murdered in a fashion too awful to articulate. It was a monstrous act executed in a particularly monstrous manner, the sort of crime that shakes one’s foundational belief in humanity.

Detective Ralph Anderson is charged with solving the crime – and he does. This is an open-and-shut case, with fingerprints, eyewitnesses and an alarming amount of DNA evidence all pointing to the same perpetrator. Local Little League coach Terry Maitland – who coached Anderson’s own son – is the guy. He did it. Anderson doesn’t know why he did it, but he did it. And so he has Maitland arrested in a very public fashion.

Except it turns out that Terry Maitland has an alibi. A really good alibi. An alibi that is almost impossible to deny. An alibi with plenty of eyewitnesses and other solid proof to back it up.

All the physical evidence points to Terry Maitland. And yet, there’s a whole slew of other evidence proving that Maitland was somewhere else entirely when the crime was committed. Two sets of seemingly ironclad facts at direct opposition to one another. There’s only room for one of these sequences of events to have taken place– but which one? Which is the truth?

Down the rabbit hole tumbles Detective Anderson as he struggles with his conflicted feelings. On the one hand, he knows he has the right guy; everything he has ever learned tells him so. And yet, he can’t shake the feeling that there’s much more squirming beneath the surface of this case. With the help of some associates – including an awkward private detective to whom King has introduced us before – he has to uncover the dark reality of the situation.

And this being a Stephen King novel, that reality is dark indeed.

There are some comparisons to be made to King’s past work here – “It” springs immediately to mind – and direct connections to more recent offerings (re: the Bill Hodges trilogy), but “The Outsider” is really its own thing, with parts derived from up and down the bibliographical timeline and assembled into something different. Something with familiar aspects, to be sure, but different nonetheless.

And make no mistake: this marriage of old-school and new-school sensibilities set against the current cultural climate works and works well.

While this story takes place in Oklahoma rather than Maine, King’s special knack for bringing small towns and cities to life remains intact. Specifically, creating people who represent the many facets of life in those communities, reflecting the good by way of the bad. The spiteful, fearful machinations, the petty maliciousness – it’s all there. He finds the shadows of the soul as well as any writer of his generation.

Ralph Anderson is fairly typical as far as King protagonists go (for a given value of “typical,” anyway). He’s a well-meaning, good-hearted man trying desperately to do what’s right in the face of forces unseen and overwhelming. He’s also imbued with a healthy skepticism that serves to ground him even as he’s awash in wave after wave of the inexplicable. His is a heroism steeped in necessity; he is a hero because he has to be.

Ultimately, however, “The Outsider” – just like every King work – comes down to story. And nobody tells one like King. The narrative is packed with twists and turns both subtle and overt; the mysteries and thrills it presents compel even as they challenge. King’s easy storytelling confidence allows him to unspool things slowly, masterfully manipulating the pacing to his own ends. There’s also a gradual evolution with regards to the narrative that works wonderfully; King keeps steadily shifting the foundation. He has built on sand without compromising his structure’s integrity – a remarkable feat when you think about it. You just never know when the floor is going to disappear beneath your feet, which provides an ever-tingly tension that makes for dynamite reading.

“The Outsider” is yet another outstanding offering from Stephen King, a darkly engaging ride of a read that demonstrates once again that despite a decades-spanning career, he’s still performing at the height of his powers.  

Last modified on Tuesday, 22 May 2018 15:42

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