Pulp Consumption: The Outsider by Stephen King

Cover of The Outsider by Stephen King

Stephen King has long been one of my favorite authors. Until about five years ago I could say I owned every book he’s written. Looking over his bibliography on Wikipedia, I’m still pretty damn close, missing only five of his most recent works, but I’ve read all but one of those, Gwendy’s Button Box, which I’ll rectify as soon as I’ve finished reading Econoclash Review #3 and the Spring 2019 issue of Cirsova.

I’ve had some mixed feelings about several of King’s recent books, namely the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch), but even with those so-so emotions I don’t regret the time spent reading them. They trade more on mystery/detective fiction than the supernatural horror King is famous for, and because of that they weren’t something I immediately fell in love with.

The same is true of the most recent book I’ve read, The Outsider, which is directly tied to the Hodges books by the inclusion of Hodges’ assistant, Holly Gibney. The Outsider starts off as a traditional mystery much in the same way Mr. Mercedes set off its trilogy. As with Mr. Mercedes, I was initially put off by the seeming ordinariness of it, enough that I skipped ahead to a chapter in the back half just to see if there was more to the story. It took only a page or two to see there was a supernatural shift, so I jumped back to where I’d left off. I’d probably have finished reading the book anyway, but I was having a really hard time connecting with the main character as he was simply a douche at the beginning, something he himself admits (not in as many words) later on and attempts to atone for by the end.

The novel starts off with the discovery of a violent and particularly depraved murder scene that includes sexual violence against a pre-teen boy. It’s almost directly out of something like Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds (or, sadly, reality). Suspicion flows to the boy’s baseball coach, who was seen in the area and who forensic details (including blood, DNA, fingerprints, and eyewitnesses) point so solidly to that no one in the investigative process has any doubts is the perpetrator.

The main problem with the investigation is the suspect has a rock solid alibi, including video, eyewitness, fingerprints, and DNA evidence suggesting he was out of town at the same time. Unfortunately, the suspect is gunned down outside the courtroom as he’s brought in for the indictment hearing, and that seems to be the end of it. Except there are now serious doubts in the heads of the investigator. How can a person be two places at once? Well, here’s where the fantasy horror comes in and provides the conflict for the bulk of the novel.

Be aware the next paragraph contains spoilers.

Cover of The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance by Robin Furth.
For years I’d talked with friends and family about putting together a concordance as part of a doctoral dissertation I’d planned in my head, linking the Dark Tower to the mythology of World Trees present in many old religions…then Robin Furth published this as I was applying for graduate schools.

There are direct connections between this novel and the larger Stephen King universe. Everything King writes ultimately connects into The Dark Tower series — he even wrote himself in as a character, which loops in even works that may not seem connected at all. The Outsider is no exception. There are discussions, oblique though they may be, about ka (fate/destiny), about the struggles between light and dark (with direct influences from powerful beings who represent those world views), and about beings from outside the known universe. The main villain is a sort of psychic vampire, feeding on the powerful emotions of its victims (mainly fear, rage, and despair) in the same way Pennywise (It) and the Dandelo (The Dark Tower) do, suggesting it’s of the same sort of species. This creature, sometimes referred to by the Latin American designation of El Cuco (part of a much larger mythological construct of a bogeyman that developed on the Iberian peninsula), is a shapeshifter who takes on the likeness of a person, commits horrible acts against innocent victims, and then feeds on the resulting fear, rage, and despair before skipping town to do it all over again with a new face.

At the end of the day, I’m glad I read The Outsider. I’ll have to acquire the book for my collection at some point in the future, along with the others I don’t have. It’s not my favorite of King’s novels, but it’s worth spending time and money on.

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