Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Outside the Boundaries of Reason: The Outsider by Stephen King


Stephen King's The Outsider makes me interested in things I wasn't all that interested in before: crime fiction and King's previous Bill Hodges trilogy. And it has all the Stephen King goodness we all love: developed characters encountering something otherworldly.

The book was published a year or so before I made a low-key plan to read all of Stephen King's novels (a plan I may never finish, but who knows?). It sounded a little too crime fiction for my usual tastes. I don't mind a good mystery, but I usually need something more than a police procedural to keep me interested. I admit I was a bit disappointed in King's turn to something like conventional crime fiction in the last decade. But then the HBO show came out, and I thought it looked pretty cool. And it was! For some reason I decided to watch that before reading the book.

And then I kept putting off reading the book for some reason. Maybe it was reading Later last year that made me realize that crime fiction with a Stephen King twist is still good. So here I am at last.

In a weird way this book reminds me a lot of 'Salem's Lot (maybe no coincidence as the Dracula parallels to both are there even if it takes much longer to see them with The Outsider). In both novels you get a lot of set-up in what is, at least on the surface, a perfectly normal story about a small town. And in both novels everyday characters get a traumatic peek behind the veil of quotidian reality: as one character quotes Shakespeare in The Outsider: "There is more in heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy."

So in the end we get a very Stephen King take on Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Not as explicit as say, The Mist or Revival, but there. And of course there is a similar theme from Dracula. (Maybe even a Dark Tower reference, although it's all about the Tower if you're enough of a Tower Junkie).

Now, I don't believe in either vampires or interdimensional doppelgängers (although on the other hand, who knows?). But the deeper philosophical point, one that King had dealt with so well and continues to do so here, is that the more we learn about reality, the less we may understand. We may not fit into this universe as much as we think we do (but then, why would we expect that?) There can be a horror to this, but it is a horror of knowledge, not ignorance. (Although ignorance is another sort of interpersonal moral horror that King also deals with well with the old theme that the real monsters are right here among us already whether we know it or not.)

I realize I forgot to talk about the plot! It does have one! A small town regular guy (no blue chambray work shirt, but might as well have one) Terry Maitland is arrested dramatically for a thoroughly disturbing murder of a child. The cops have DNA evidence. It feels like an open-and-shut case to local police detective Ralph Anderson, disturbing though it may be. But. But. There is also eye witness and video evidence that Maitland was 70 miles away at the time of the murder. So what's going on here?

The answer, my fellow Constant Readers, should not surprise you: it's something weird. I don't want to explain what the eponymous Outsider is, but you may see similarities with other King interdimensional baddies (Dandelo, IT, etc.). But it's also its own thing, as King recently said he thinks when interviewed by the Kingcast. But who knows? King's own multiverse may be stranger than is dreamt of by its author's philosophy.

I should also talk about Holly Gibney, who doesn't come into the story until about halfway through. But once she does, she steals the show. I loved her in the TV show and also in If It Bleeds. Maybe it's fitting to do all this out of order, but now I suppose I should see what she got up to in the Bill Hodges trilogy!

See my Goodreads review.

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