Sunday, January 19, 2020

Soundtrack for a Novel: An Experiment.

Can novels have their own soundtracks?  It's not a question most people would bother to ask.  The most commonsense answer would be to point out that a novel is not something like a movie or a record.  All a book amounts to is just a series of words on a page.  There's no sound or music to go along with it.  Even if its possible to say you'd like you're copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Fellowship of the Rings to have its own soundtrack accompany the words as you read along, the fact remains you're not going to find it anywhere in the book itself.  You'll either have to find some music that could go well with the words, or else just use your imagination as best you can.

That's as far as everyday commonsense can go when faced with such an off-kilter question.  By and large, the majority of audiences, including even the readers in the crowd, do not tend to make an automatic connection between texts and songs.  The reason for this seems to be because there is no essential reason for the two forms of art to mix.  One can exist just as well without the other, unless of course you're a band like the Beatles and you're trying to make a concept album with something like an actual narrative attached to it.  Then the singer must learn how to be not just a songwriter, but also a kind of storyteller.  That's a task that can be harder than it sounds.  A lot of talented artists who make great musicians are also pretty lousy at trying to be straight-up writers.  When an concept album like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? is able to mix both music with a sense of narrative its usually an achievement that goes underappreciated by both music and book enthusiasts.

The irony is that the commonsense response itself has left the door open for certain creative opportunities.  Let's recall that the answer boils down to three statements.  (1) Books and music are separate artistic mediums. (2) If anyone wanted music to go along with their reading material, they would have find ways of incorporating it from vinyl, CDs, or clips off the Net.  Those are about the only options anyone has left in terms of where you can get music to listen to.  (3) The third and final option is to just use your imagination in order to fill in all the sonic gaps provided by the text, if any.

The good news is that it is possible to meet all three challenges, if you know how to do it.  Take Tolkien's aforementioned Fellowship, most Middle-Earth geeks already have a soundtrack all neatly laid out for them and waiting in the wings, thanks to, and courtesy of Howard Shore.  All anyone has to do is grab a headset, pop in the CD, open the book, press play, and begin to read.  All of that amounts to one way of proving that it is possible for books to have the potential for a soundtrack.

I'd like to see if it's possible to go a bit further than that.  I want to try something.  I don't know if it's new, or anything like that.  In fact all of the materials involved are all pretty darn old.  However there may be a lingering sense of novelty about the whole thing for those who've never tried or thought of it before.

What I'd like to do is take a random novel, a handful of old songs, and then see what happens when an imaginative attempt is made to combine the two.  I don't mean to create anything like a new hybrid medium where literature and music interchange with one another to the point of being indistinguishable.  Instead, I'm trying something that I might have got from Walt Disney.  Allow me to explain.  In his 1940 concert film, Fantasia, Disney took the concept of the animated film, and combined it with music in a variety of ways.  One of them was a mix of images and music, with the goal of setting up a mood or atmosphere.  This was done in the film with sequences like Toccata and Fugue.  Another was to use music in a way that told a story.  This goal was best on display in Night on Bald Mountain, The Rite of Spring, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  As it turns out, Fantasia was not the only time that Walt would find ways to utilize music in the service of a legit narrative.  One of my oldest childhood memories is seeing a Silly Symphonies adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.  It was an animated adaptation of the entire folktale, and it was free of any real dialogue from start to finish.  Instead, the symphonic score of the legend was used to punctuate and accentuate the action and story beats happening up on the screen.  The result was a film that used music to tell its story.

I think it's a technique that's been tried here and there, once or twice more, though it's never the sort of thing that has ever managed to really catch on with the public.  We seem to have reached a point where we tend to like our medias unmixed.  Part of the reason for this might be down to the ways we've allowed imaginations to shrink and atrophy with the passage of years.  It didn't use to be like this back in the days when everyone lived in forests, and no one could live anywhere else.  Back in the old, Medieval peasant cultures of Europe, most groups never minded if a fiddler decided to provide some violin accompaniment to retelling of an old folktale or legend such as that of Robin Hood.  In fact, such techniques were said to enhance the experience.  That's one of the reasons why storytelling minstrels flourished for such a long time in an age when books weren't really a thing like they are now (if they ever were).

I'd like to see if I can bring some of these old materials back in a minor way.  It's nothing major, just a brief moment's diversion.  What I'd like to do is take a text that lends itself easily to a musical soundtrack, and see what happens when we mentally use various Golden Oldies to provide something like a musical compliment or commentary for the text.  I think the best choice for now is to choose a book like Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis.  I think this is the best course of action because King is a writer who likes to sprinkle the artifacts of pop-culture here and there throughout his works.  He can erase 99% percent of the world's population, and then have one of Marvin Gaye's songs start to play in an abandoned, imaginary record shop.  This makes King's work an ideal test case for my experiment.  I want to take the narrative beats of a novel like Hearts and see if it's possible to make a soundtrack for an already established text.  From here on in, I think it's best if I actually show what I intend to do, rather than just talking about it.  With that in mind, let's take a bit of mental leap and see if there's anything to find.

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Tribute to Old Time Radio.

I sort of have my parents to blame for this one.  It all started a while back when was just a kid.  I was an avid book fan in the making back then.  I knew I liked what I had read to me, but I didn't yet know how to read.  Turns out this wasn't too much of a problem, however.  There were two reasons for that.  The first, and most important, is that I soon got rid of the whole illiteracy problem by learning to both spell out and pick up the meaning of the words, both on the page, as well as the ones my school teachers made me spell in notebooks.  Another factor in my favor was that I never lost the enthusiasm for books, and so it was the drive of that whole interest which finally made me drill down, grab a copy of R.L. Stine, and begin to pour over the letters I found inside.  It was something of a relief to discover they made sense.  It was even better when, a few minutes later, they also turned out to be pretty entertaining.

That was the major reason why I didn't have much trouble back then.  Another part of it has to do with the fact that I'd discovered an item that was called a "Book on Tape".  They were clunky, yet compact audio cassettes with little spools or reels of odd, ink-ish stuff woven around them like cloth on an old weaver's loom.  They had to be the novelest looking things I'd ever seen up to that point.  I don't think I had much time to give the cassettes all that much consideration however.  What riveted my attention was the cover of the miniature box the tape came in.  It was one of the familiar and macabre illustrations of an old artist named Stephen Gammell.  The cassette tape was an entire collection of the second volume in Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark series, and it was all mine.

I suppose it wasn't my first exposure to books on cassette.  However, the little I'd heard of this "hip new medium" was in the form of old collections of children's folk songs that my grandparents kept lying around, and maybe one of two condensed narrations of Disney's that I can still recall, but they are all a vague series of snippets of dialogue and one tune that I remember and yet can't make out at the same time.  I know there was perhaps one more in there, an kids audio of Return of the Jedi, however that's about as far as my exposure went at the time.  It's a bunch of voices from the aether that aren't quite live enough to be Memorex.

That Scary Stories tape, however, was something else.  I recall I had one of those cheesy old tape players, the kind with the sort of bright, garish colors painted on that would appeal to no one else except a little kid.  It's main casing was red with a yellow main speaker.  I could be wrong, yet it's just possible that the player buttons were blue, or something like it.  What I know a lot better is that I might have had a pair of headphones to go along with the whole ensemble.  I put on the head-set, unwrapped the cassette with what might have been careful eagerness or just plain carelessness.  It's the small details, after all, that seem insignificant as they happen.  It's the passage of time that somehow makes even the trivial seem like one big moment of important, like a form of code whose cipher has been lost.

Anyway, I know for a fact I opened the tape box and brought out a curious, squarish, white rectangular object.  You could just make out the spool of tape inside.  I don't think I knew what they meant, however.  I placed it in the tape player, and pushed play.  Or was it just an ordinary Walkman, and the multi-color player was from earlier?  Either way, a lever was flipped, there was an audible pop as the speakers began to work.  There was the arrival of a slow, rhythmic opening musical chord that in retrospect is sort of like a milder, slower form of the Halloween theme.  Or at least that's as close as I get get to a description.  The next thing I knew, I was listening to the voice of the Heat Miser from The Year Without a Santa Clause as he took me on a guided tour of a corpse who didn't know he was dead, vengeful wraiths from beyond the grave, a girl who survived a premature burial, a new mother with glass eyes and a wooden tail, as well as my first experience with the Gothic genre as a spoken performance.  That was my introduction to what is nowadays known as the audiobook.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Peter Pan Goes Wrong (2013).

It's part of the stated goal of this blog to take a closer look at the nature of stories in general.  Sometimes this can mean paying special attention to the way they are told.  One way to do it is to look at the narrative strategies used to tell a story.  Narrative strategy itself isn't all that common a word.  You're never likely to hear it outside of a creative writing seminar, or anything like that.  Since there's not a lot of familiarity to go with the phrase, it's no real shock to learn it's the kind of thing few people would bother to give a moment's thought about.  Like a great deal of ideas and concepts that fly under the radar, this doesn't mean they've ceased to exist.  Sometimes it doesn't even mean they''re no longer in use.

A good way to look at narrative strategies is to think of them as part of the bells and whistles that go along with the art of writing.  A particular use of the word could refer to the various techniques the writer has for getting across the desired artistic effect.  A good example is the way Spielberg is able to build up suspense around the main villain of Jaws.  Every scene in that film is about the build up towards the film's Great White.  When it makes its appearance at last, the moment is impactful because the movie spent the last half hour drumming into our heads the threat that it represents.  This is a relatively straightforward example of just one kind of narrative strategy.  There are other ways of telling a story.

One of them revolves around an old English theater tradition.  I suppose the most familiar label for this style of writing is Pantomime.  However, I think I prefer the more open-ended term of the Popular Dramatic Tradition.  The phrase isn't mine, by the way.  It belongs to someone else.  It's the main topic of Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition by S.L. Bethell.  That's a subject we'll get to in a moment.  For now it's enough to point out that the Popular Tradition amounts to a whole way of telling a story that's not so much different as it is out of sight and out of mind.  It also appears to be still in use today.

That's the only explanation I can offer for the existence of something like Peter Pan Goes Wrong.  It's a kind theatrical production I'm not quite sure most folks have seen before.  It's a commonplace across the pond, however.  Plays like this are older than the Bard of Avon and have managed to hang on as a staple of British entertainment long after the old scribbler for the Globe Theater breathed his last.  Pan Goes Wrong just seems to be the latest incarnation of the same Tradition I mentioned above.  It's the kind of play that might appear to offer little in the way of a serious artistic discussion.  The irony is that such a minor seeming jest really can point the way to an old alternative way of storytelling.  That's why I'd like to take some time to unpack this bit of theatrical sport and see what it can tell us about how much we've forgotten in terms of how to both write and pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves.  It might also be a decent enough way to spread a bit of holiday cheer to those who need it.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Man Who Would Be King.

The most common question an author gets asked is, "Where do you get your ideas"?  Part of what makes it so difficult to answer is that the ideas could just as well come from anywhere, at least to a certain extent.  J.K. Rowling has claimed that Harry Potter just stepped into her head one day while riding on a train.  Tolkien found himself faced with a blank sheet of paper and all at once wrote, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit", without any clue as to the meaning of the word.  Both cases are examples of what might be called sudden inspiration, or a story idea that occurs more or less of its own accord.  This is perhaps as close as anyone can get to a standard operating procedure in the creative arts.  However it's not the only way that a work of fiction is created.  It's also possible for writers to draw inspiration from the world around them.  Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" is one of those cases where sometimes real life encounters lead to the creation of a totally made-up situation.

Kipling scholar Richard Jaffa is able to provide a glimpse at the events that set everything in motion.  "The origins of the story can be found in Kipling's correspondence.  In a lengthy letter to his cousin...He goes on to relate...an experience he had...on a train on the other side of India.  He describes how he met a man who was also a Mason.  "Ships upon the sea' are nothing compared to our meetings in India."  The man told Kipling that he had a friend coming across the Empire by train from the East, (that) he could not meet him but that Kipling's route meant his train, if on time, would cross this man's route.  He asked Kipling to take a message which he would not write, to give to this man.  The message was unintelligible to Kipling.  "My brother gave me this message...." continues Kipling.  He goes on to describe how at 5:00 a.m., on a cold winter's morning the Calcutta train drew up alongside his and he sleepily put his head out the window.

"Kipling relates, "I didn't want to go threshing all down the train - there were three Englishmen on it - in my search for the unknown, so I went towards the window and behold, it was the man I was told to find; for he also (doesn't this sound mad?) was a brother of mine."  The man thanked Kipling and said he knew what the message meant.  Kipling comments that he didn't know the name of the man who gave him the message or the man who received it.  The description in this letter confirms the great enthusiasm that Kipling felt for Freemasonry and the concept of universal brotherhood.  It also demonstrates the contemporary significance of Masonry among its adherents in British India at that time (99-100)".

I'll have more to say on the topic of this symbolism later in the review.  At the moment it's enough to note that for a simple short work of fiction, it's amazing how many layers of depth there are to explore if you take a closer look.  It's one of those old curiosities that somehow stand as a kind of sentinel, or testament to the staying power of a well told story.  Perhaps just a handful of authors are able to keep the heads of their popular reputations above the tide of time in such a fashion.  Dickens was one, and Lewis Carroll seems to be another from the time when Kipling first wrote.   In what follows, I'd like to examine both the original story, and it's film adaptation in order to unpack the materials hidden in this simple tale.

This review will be a bit different as I've decided to see if I can't review both Kipling's original story, and its later movie adaptation all in one go.  I'm at least sort of confident in this approach because John Huston's film is an example of that rare beast where the adapter seems to understand his source material on an almost fundamental level.  The result is one of those cases where the text and the picture can be placed alongside without either doing harm to the other.  Huston's respectful approach to the material also has the added bonus that both versions share a thematic overlap.  This makes the critic's job a lot easier, as the underlying concepts of the text inform the movie in a way that is near beat-for-beat.

There are at least three levels that I'm able to unpack in Kipling's narrative.  The first is the lingering question of Imperialism, and how the story tackles this difficult subject.  The second revolves around Jaffa's recognition the presence of Masonic themes in the tale.  An examination of this symbolic aspect of the work leads to a further inspection of the story's third and final theme: the idea of antiquity, and the uses and abuses that this concept is subject to in an ill-informed modern age.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling.

There are two ways to immortality.  One of them is earn the kind of achievement that people will talk about forever.  Mahatma Gandhi provides a good example of this first type.  The other is create such a scandal that your name has no choice except to survive forever as an example to be avoided.  Rudyard Kipling is a rare and exotic breed.  He seems to managed both tricks in the space of a single lifetime.  At least, I think that's what he did.  Part of the hesitation stems from a number of interlinking factors.  Part of it is that all you have to do is mention The Jungle Book to call up whole film reels of childhood memories.  The catch is that just because most viewers are familiar with Walt Disney's last animated feature film, that's still no guarantee the majority of them will ever know that the film's author even existed.  Fewer may even realize that The Jungle Book was, in fact, an actual text.

The result is I can't say I know just what kind of reputation Kipling has in this day and age.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he's a fossil relegated to the darkest corner of a nursery that's escaped our memories.  I'm willing to go far enough in believing maybe handful of book types might remember who he is.  Even if that's the case, there's still a problem of having a notorious reputation.  The closest thing to a basic consensus I can find is that Kipling is regarded in much the same light as H.P. Lovecraft.  He's a great talent lodged inside a troubled and troubling personality.  Like his Providence counterpart, Kipling is seen as the great Imperial Apologist.  He's a man with a blind loyalty to Queen and Country, right or wrong.  Even his best works are alleged to be thinly disguised propaganda.  If he isn't cheering young British boys to throw their lives away for an unjust cause, then he's urging them to keep the "others" in their proper place.

At the same time, he's something of a childhood favorite.  Aside from the Mowgli stories, Kipling is responsible for filling our world with the likes of a mongoose christened "Rikki Tikki Tavi", a street urchin named Kim, and a "Man Who Would Be King".  Each one of these tales, taken together or separate, have since won recognition as genuine classics of both fantasy and adventure.  Still, there is the nonsense drivel known as "The White Man's Burden".  "And so it goes".  You can't admire Kipling.  You can't just bring yourself to throw him away either.  The worst part is the odd, almost schizoid quality that seems to live in his work.  The "Burden" doggerel is some of the most shallow and insensitive waste of good ink ever committed to paper.  Then, if you go from there and read about "The Man Who Would Be King", the strangest result happens.  It's as if the author of that tale were another man who, after reading the poem, got inspired to dash off, as in a white heat, a story with a clear anti-imperialist message at it's core.  The message in that short story is not just true, it's almost downright prophetic in the way it narrates the slow decay and downfall of British rule in India.  An ending that was written by none other than Gandhi himself.

How does one reconcile such a dichotomy?  How can two men live in the same head?  Are we dealing with a Jekyll and Hyde personality?  Does the right hand truly have no idea of what the left is doing?  What gives with this Kipling guy, anyway?  Is he some sort of elaborate fool, or just plain crazy?  Charles Allen is one who author who has at least made a valiant attempt to find an answer.  The question is what kind of writer does historical examinations turn up?  That' the question at the heart of Kipling Sahib, which details RK's exploits in the land of his birth, and how it shaped the writer he became.  It sounds like a standard enough approach, yet the writer uncovered by Allen is not the one I was expecting.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Silkworm (2014).

Part of the stated goal of this blog is to ask questions about the nature of creative writing, in addition to critiquing the finished results of this same process.  That's why it's gratifying to know that a number of writers out there are just as obsessed with the subject as I am.  I suppose it's kind of an honor to discover that one of those authors is J.K. Rowling.  That a writer like her should be concerned with where the stories come from (much less whatever they might mean or not) is one those ideas that might strike an average person as puzzling, if not outright pointless.  What does a success story like her have to be concerned about?  Isn't she rich enough to the point where she can leave that sort of thing to the hired help?

Even if I'm willing to grant that a lot of artists take just such an attitude to their work, the impression I've got from Rowling's books is that she's not the phone-it-in type.  If you can manage a deep dig into her Cormoran Strike novels, for instance, what you'll find is the craftsmanship of a woman who takes her day job too seriously to be lackadaisical about her art.  That's a particular impression I get whenever I turn my attention to her second performance in what is turning out to be a whole series of detective novels, The Silkworm.

It's the second book to be released detailing the exploits of a private detective who's set up shop right in the heart of Denmark Street in London.  Together with his professional colleague, Robin Venetia Ellacott, each novel in the series plays out the by now familiar formula of the Mystery novel.  A crime is committed. Someone consults Rowling's amateur sleuth about it, and together he an Robin start their investigation until the search for clues points them toward the guilty party.  For such a standard setup, it really is amazing just how well Rowling is able to pack almost all of her novels with incidents.  Her writing is able to accomplish two things in these stages.  On the one hand, she always manages to find a way to hook the attention of her readers and lead them into the pages of the mystery.  She does something a lot more important than that, however.  She is able to hold that same attention span for the entire length of the narrative in such a way that you've got to keep turning the pages in order to see what happens next.

With Silkworm, however, Rowling is interested in just a bit more than spinning a good yarn (although she never loses sight that this is the main goal of her book, or the novel in general).  She flat out wants to investigate the art and craft of writing in the same way that her detective is always eager to sink his teeth into a new puzzle to solve.  The way she does this is by creating a mystery with a novel within a novel at its center.  This make-believe text is more than just a prop.  It's probably the closest thing that her actual book has to a guiding symbol.  In addition to this, it also serves as a very useful macguffin that helps drive both the action and conflict of her story.  To understand why the whole thing works, though, is the job of this review.

It will help to make a few caveats before this article gets down to business, however.  The approach of this review is perhaps a bit more involved than normal.  If this should become a problem anywhere down the line, all I can do is point to the author and say, "Don't look at me, she started it".  The reason for this has to do with the way Rowling composes her work.  She's the type of author who always manages to write layers into her novels.  You get them every now and then.  Her technique is very similar to Vladimir Nabokov in this respect.  He was one of those artist who wrote in such a way that often the finished work was a simple looking book on the outside, while on the inside, one theme and meaning was stacked upon another like an intricate birthday cake.  What this means is that a lot of times there are several aspects to be unpacked in just a single text.

The biggest layer of importance is of course Rowling's thoughts on the creative process itself.  This shall be the main subject to which this article will build up to.  Before we can get there, however, there is also the matter of the main character's over-arching narrative.  In addition to the mystery-of-the-week, Rowling's new Mystery series is similar to TV shows like Monk, where every stand-alone story must share space with the series' main plot.  In shows like this, the main plot can often revolve around an unsolved mystery or trauma in the backstory of the detective's past.  For TV's Monk, it was the murder of his wife.  For Rowling's protagonist, it all revolves around the death of his mother Leda.  It's one of those cases where the coroner ruled suicide, while the detective remains convinced it was really homicide.  I suppose the setup is stock-in-trade enough for the Noir genre.  If that should be the case, then what matters is how Rowling chooses to fill in the form.
I have some ideas about the nature of the series back story that we'll get to in a moment.  For now, I should stress that in some ways I probably don't have much business talking about the back story.  The reason why is because a lot of it is pure speculation, with little to go on except for a few hints and clues that may just be red herrings.  I don't know if this is a less professional way of looking at a book or not.  I am certain that, on the whole, I'd be a lot more comfortable just standing back and letting the author do her own thing.  That said, it has to be admitted that part of the fun of mystery thrillers is that it pulls you in by inviting you to speculate on what comes next.  If that aspect can lay claim to being a legitimate part of examining any given work of fiction, then at least I can say it has its place in the critic's toolbox.  With all these caveats in mind, I'd say it's time we begin.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Outsider (2018)

If I had to recommend a good place to start reading Stephen King, which book would it be?  That's a question with no single answer.  Different people will always find their own way into King's works.  Most of the time this means finding the novel or short story that works best for this or that particular person.  With any luck, the experience of browsing through one of these texts will be enough to turn the average person into a reader.  There are a lot worse things you can do than get hooked on books by reading a King novel.

I can point to a lot of good starting places.  Perhaps the best gateway text has proven to be the author's 80s anthology series, Skeleton Key.  It's easy to see why this simple collection is often cited as an ideal reading primer.  Most of the stories in it can be taken in at one reading, which is a value if the daily schedule is busy.  Another plus is that all of them appear to be simple enough in terms of subject matter.  In addition to all this, a response I keep hearing from readers, one that seems to span the passage and arrival of generations, is that for a series of unconnected short-stories, the whole thing almost reads like a novel.   

Skeleton Key seems to be one of those books that can sometimes grow on the reader.  The first time you read it, what grabs your attention are the situations to be found in each individual story, and all the gory special effects that come with it.  Those who choose to have a second and, maybe, with any luck, third read-through will perhaps find themselves focusing more on the character dynamics, and slowly become aware of King's skill at drawing you into his narratives.  For those who find themselves turned into dedicated readers by the experience, a fifth and sixth study of Key might just make them aware that King is an actual author, one with legitimate, and above all, literary themes embedded in his writings.

In some ways, I guess the best praise I can find for King is that his work itself is often a discovery process of literature, if that makes any sense.  Perhaps it makes sense to view his books like one of those paintings that look simplistic at first glance, only to catch you off guard when you start to notice little minute details that add to its overall complexity.  What makes Skeleton Key such a likely beginner's candidate in this sense is that as a collection of short-stories, it is able to combine a surprising amount of artistic depth and sophistication into an easily digestible package.

This is even more of a bonus when you stop to realize that while vast majority of people can read, knowing how to read well is often just as much an art as being able to spin a good yarn.  Just like books themselves, being able to read them well is a multi-layered activity.  What makes any story valuable is what lies beyond its surface appearances.  That's an idea that sounds obvious on the face of it, and an immediate assumption is that anyone can do it.  It's true, anyone can read if they truly want to.  The  trouble is you can't expect a young mind to read any given text with an automatic, sophisticated point of view.  The goal of being a good reader is to see just how many levels (or lack thereof) is contained within the pages.  In that sense, being able to read well is less a natural ability like breathing and seeing, and more like a hidden, invisible skill that you have to work at for quite a while in order to do it well.  Skeleton Key helps in that training by offering itself up as a stepping stone to greater heights and conquests.

Nevertheless, I'd like to offer an alternative place to start making this author's acquaintance.  While Skeleton Key is often cited as the best place to begin an acquaintance with King's writing, the fact remains that this is just one staring place out of many.  Real life experience points to readers getting hooked by works like Cycle of the Werewolf, The Stand, or even out of the ways novels like The Dark Half.  I myself, for better or worse (and I still can't say it's all that bad) got hooked on King by listening to Jeffrey Demunn narrate the author's 2001 book, Dreamcatcher.  That's an argument of defense for another time.  The point goes back to what I said earlier.  Everybody finds their own way into this author's work.

I think a novel like The Outsider deserves its place as a beginner's candidate for a number of reasons.  The most obvious point in its favor is that it is a neat examination of the theme of the doppelganger in literary Gothic fiction.  King uses this trope in his novel to hold a mirror up to the Dionysian/Apollonian conflict in American society.  The other point I can think of is that the novel is something of a neat distillation of a lot of the prototypical settings, characters, and situations that sort of typify the nature of a Stephen King book.  In the sense, I think what makes The Outsider a good primer for King neophytes is that it helps ground the new reader into a clear idea of the main subject matter of King's secondary world.