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.

The Story.

There are some things about committing a crime that most people don't bother to talk about.  This is because either they don't want to talk about it, or else it's just so much a part of the process that everybody takes for granted most of the time.  That could be a mistake.  This mistake could cost someone their life.  See, the trick with committing a crime is that once the act is done, the perpetrator has either crossed an invisible line, or else has just broken it all together.  It's a small thing to notice, yet it can sometimes be the most important aspect.  To commit a crime is to break something important, whether it be a law, the public trust, or else just another person's sanity.  Another thing most folk don't like to dwell on much is the price tag that often comes attached when the boundaries are broken.

That's a lesson the residents of Flint, Oklahoma learn the hard way, after a gruesome murder rocks their small town community.  The worst part is that it looks very much like one of their own, Terry Maitland, a well respected member of the community who coaches the town's Little League team, is the guilty party.  The police, led by Detective Ralph Anderson, have all the trappings of an ironclad case against Terry.  He is spotted by multiple witnesses near, during, and after the crime.  In addition it seems like Maitland's image and actions were captured by various security cameras as he attempted to cover his tracks.  The worst part is that his fingerprints are all over the crime scene.  He was clumsy enough to leave the victims blood on his hands.

From that moment on, Terry Maitland's life is over in Flint City.  It's the price tag that comes with breaking boundaries.  All he can do is watch things unfold in a kind of stunned horror.  His reputation takes a nose dive in almost a single instant.  A lot of close friends and acquaintances are reduced to perfect strangers at the snap of a finger.  All of this gets amplified when the carrion buzzards of the media machine get rolling and begin to paste the story over the small and digital screens.  From there things begin to run the their expected courses.  As word spread of Terry's crime, the temper's of some of his fellows citizens begins to rise.  A frontier justice mentality begins to take hold.  Terry needs a guarded escort just to get too and from his trial.  Everything looks set to go as expected.  The last thing anyone is counting on is for something impossible to happen.

The impossibility arrives in the form of novelist Harlan Coben.  The suspense writer was holding a meet and greet event in Capital City on the same day, and at the same time as the murder was being committed.  Among the attendees of the event were several alumni of the same school Terry used to teach at.  Someone there thought to bring along a video camera to record the event.  Coben can been seen giving his speech and then taking questions.  The impossible happens when a man in the audience raises his hand, and stands up for all to see when Coben acknowledges him.  The man Coben takes a question from is Terry Maitland, the same former school teacher who is now being held as the prime suspect in the death of a young boy.  Except he is clearly shown on video located somewhere else when the death occurred.  At the same time there is evidence linking him to the crime.

The impossibility Ralph Anderson finds himself confronted with is that a man wanted for murder cannot be in two places at the same time.  So there's Terry on footage from a security cam, while also busy interviewing Harlan Coben in another.  Each event takes place within minutes of each other.  Maitland is caught both dead to rights, while having an unbreakable alibi.  It isn't until after some of the dust begins to settle that the impossibility begins to compound itself.  Ralph makes a discovery when he reviews footage of Terry being led into the courthouse amidst a sea of hecklers in an angry mob.  Ralph was there and he can clearly remembered being jostled by the crowd.  There's was one guy with a yellow shirt wrapped around his head who was particularly rowdy that day.  When Anderson reviews the footage, the guy who was standing right next to him isn't there, even though Ralph himself is clearly visible in the broadcast footage.

It's an anomaly he can't explain, just as Ralph has no clue how Terry could be in two places at once.  A man who isn't there, and another who is and isn't a murderer.  The two impossibilities drive Ralph to try and unlock the growing mystery he finds himself confronted with.  The results he turns up soon may lead him toward a confrontation of an enemy with no face.  The worst part is that this opponent may be less than human.  In fact, you could say he's downright unnatural.  It isn't long before Ralph Anderson is forced to confront a scary conundrum.  What happens when embracing an impossibility is the only way to preserve your sanity?

A Case for Late Stage King.

According to Bev Vincent's Stephen King Companion, "While other writers currently sell as many or more copies of new books as King does (J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown come to mind), no one else symbolizes an entire genre the way King does.  News items never say that a court case is like "something out of a John Grisham novel", but hardly a week passes without the media describing a creepy occurrence as "something out of a Stephen King story."  Horror novels or films are often said to be "in the tradition of Stephen King (6)".  It's true enough that Stephen King still counts as something close to a household name.  The trouble is there's an irony involved in the whole deal.  When people think of the name Stephen King these days, the first things that often spring to mind is stuff like Jack Nicholson poking his head through a door and delivering the now memetic "Here's Johnny" punchline.  Either that or it's Bill Skarsgaard as Pennywise the Clown.  A smaller number may recall a pair of kids trying to outrun a train, or maybe Tom Hanks as some kind of prison guard.  These are the closest thing to a popular awareness that King has in the current culture.  All of this awareness is, for the most part, limited to the film adaptations.  This can be good or bad depending on both the inherent writing quality of these films, as well as the shifting public perception of this output.

It is still possible that a smaller number of the general public will recall that King is, in the last resort, an actual Gothic novelist.  Even in this case, however, the popular perception of the artist only stretches so far.  Odds are if you were to ask a generic number of people what novels King has wrote, the highest statistical answer would always group itself around a small handful of books.  What is significant about this handful is that each of the texts the general public is aware of all center around the very starting point of King's career.  The books listed off seem limited for the most part to Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, and just maybe two more, Misery and It.  This is the space King has carved out for himself in the awareness of the general popular culture.

I am now going to make a claim that can be taken as either scandalous or else just puzzling, depending on whoever is reading.  My claim is that as far as this same general public is concerned, that's about all there is to King, or at least that handful of books and films is all there is that really matters.  I will now compound that statement by saying the reason why is because that is about as far as the majority of the popular audience can go in terms of a close reading of King's texts, whether on page or screen.  I said earlier that reading was an art, and that it took patience and honest effort to develop the skill.  With that in mind, one of the sad truths I've had to accept is that a lot of the books and films that matter to me the most will always have a peripheral shelf life for the majority of the audience.  Art has always existed as something on the margins of history.  It's legacy has always been kept alive by a mere handful of bookworms and cinephiles, while the rest of the world finds itself forever pushed on into the future.  In that regard, the bibliophile and film fanatic are as much a necessary part of the preservation of the past as the academic historian.

Even within this small collective (of which I count myself a part, along with others) there is still a minor debate going on about which books mark King as working at the height of his creative powers, and which are either middle of the road, or else just low on the totem pole.  So far as I can tell, the basic consensus among both bookworms and what King refers to as his Constant Readers, is that his early works (roughly from about 1974 to near the end of the 80s) is often cited as the peak years of King's creative output.  The 90s span what may be considered his middle of the road period.  At the moment, the post-millennial era is what might be called the Late Stage of King's career.  I've listened in on chat rooms where the consensus is that King's writing isn't what it used to be, or that he's lost a creative step.  I'm willing to admit that books like Under the Dome, or Doctor Sleep represent the lowest artistic point that King can reach, while stuff like Sleeping Beauties is at best passable for the most part.  In spite of this I maintain that King can still hit a home run, even in what is arguably the final phase of his career.

A good example of King's ability to still tap into the well of his imagination is 2011's 11/22/63.  It's a rather simple time travel love story that manages to hit all of the high notes that King was praised for back in the day.  So far, it stands as, and probably will remain the high point of King's late stage.  Even here, though, I'm willing to argue that there are still a lot of gems that have unexplored, or underappreciated.  I'm willing to list books like Revival, Lisey's Story and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon in this category of works that deserve a closer look, as well as a second chance.  I'm also willing to place The Outsider in this same category.  The reasons why can understood once we take a closer look under the novel's hood, and see just what makes the engine run.

The Doppelganger Theme.

I think a general rule about literature, or just plain art in general, is that a lot of its value tends to come from the nature of its themes.  This is something that can be as sophisticated as Shakespeare, or as simple as an Aesop moral.  Either way, it seems like the real value of fiction is its thematic relations to real life.  The surprising thing about The Outsider is that it touches on many elements and concerns that King has examined before in his fiction.

At one point in the proceedings, Ralph's wife, Jeannie, makes an interesting observations: "She sipped her tea thoughtfully, then looked at him over the rim of her cup.  "There's an old saying that everyone has a double.  I think Edgar Allan Poe even wrote a story about it.  'William Wilson,' it was called (111)".

A few pages later, King gives the reader a basic summary of the story.  "The narrator says that when he was at school, he kind of ruled the roost.  But then this other boy arrived who had the same name."  "...then the narrator discovers that they have the same birth date, and they are going around in similar clothes.  Worst of all, they look something alike.  People get them mixed up.  Sound familiar?"  "Well, William Wilson Number One keeps meeting Williams Wilson Number Two later in life, and these meetings always end badly for Number One, who turns to a life of crime and blames Number Two."  Well, in the end, William Wilson Number One stabs William Wilson Number Two with a sword, only when he looks into a mirror, he sees he's stabbed himself."  Ralph asks, "Because there was no second William Wilson, I take it?"  Jeannie replies, "But there was. Lot's of people saw the second one.  In the end, though,William Wilson number one had a hallucination and commited suicide .  Because he couldn't take the doubleness, I guess."

"She expected him to scoff, but he nodded instead.  "Okay, that actually makes sense.  Pretty damn good psychology, in fact.  Especially for...what?  The middle of the nineteenth century?"  Something like that, yes.  I took a class in college called American Gothic, and we read a lot of Poe's stories, including that one.  The professor said people had the mistaken idea that Poe wrote fantastic stories about the supernatural, when in fact he wrote realistic stories about abnormal psychology (203-4)".

What King has given his readers in these few passages is an minor book report on one of Poe's short stories in the middle of his own novel.  The is important because the King is signalling to the reader that his novel and Poe's story share an over-lapping thematic concern.  When Ralph's wife asks him if he understands what she's talking about by even bringing the Poe story up in the first place, he nods.  Ralph knows that he and Terry Maitland are facing the same dilemma as the unfortunate Mr. Wilson.  It seems that Maitland has a double running around out there somewhere.  In Maitland's case, however, the Poe scenario is reversed.  It is Terry's double that is the trouble-maker, going so far as to be responsible for the death of a young boy.  This places Terry in the role of a victim of forces that are hard to categorize by any regular criteria. 

At the heart of both William Wilson and The Outsider lies the Gothic trope known as the doppelganger.  According to Marie Mulvey Roberts' Handbook of Gothic Literature, the doppelganger is defined as: "A term coined by the German writer Jean Paul (Siebenkas, 1796).  The Doppelganger or 'Double' constitutes a recurrent motif in Gothic and horror literature, mostly in the nineteenth century, ultimately coming from the anthropological belief in the innate duality in man.  The presence of this second self or alter ego, an archetype of the otherness and narcissistic specularity indissolubly linked to the individual, haunts innumerable literary works of Gothic and fantasy, from E.T.A. Hoffman through Dostoevsky (Dvojnik/The Double), to postmodern representations of Gothic, although the motif tends to lose its referential power in the early decades of the twentieth century, after the discoveries of psychoanalytical theory, which reveal man's complex subconscious (119)".

There is a lot to unpack about King's use of this particular trope.  It's even possible to establish a connection between Outsider and one of King's earlier books.  Before we can get there, however, there is still one other thematic element to unpack in this current novel.  If King is working with the doppelganger trope, then it could be that he's using a very specific type or iteration of this figure.  This leads to the next element of the story.

The Folklore of Shape-shifting.

There comes a point in King's novel where the author decides to spell out the name of the monster at the center of the story.  There's something ironic about the entire passage in which the monster's identity shows up.  It's one of those take-it-or-leave moments where the reader's ability to just go along with the writer could determine whether the whole show is a bust or a sale.  King lays out the nature his horror by introducing, of all things, an exploitation flick with the title Mexican Wrestling Women meet the Monster.  It is just possible that a scene with the kind prop King has chosen to use shouldn't work by any current standard of acceptable taste.  However King is able to make it work in such a way that it becomes less of a diversion from the main action, and more of a device that is able to further the plot.

The way it does so is by showing the titular luchedoras encounter a creature who is able to steal or mimic the faces of respectable members of the community.  The fictional film opens, in fact, with a kidnapper who appears to be an otherwise harmless professor at a local university.  Yet here he is, kidnapping a child, and witnessed making his getaway by several other townspeople.  King uses this device of a make-believe movie as jumping off point to discuss a few minor bits of folklore.  King's Outsider seems to be either an amalgam of two different monsters.  Or else they are one and the same, and it's abilities are just two aspects of its basic folkloric nature.  On the one hand, there is "The guy with the black bag who kills little kids and...Drinks their blood and rubs their fat on him...It supposedly keeps him young (380)".  "He's known in Spain as...The Man with the Sack.  In Portugal he's Pumpkinhead.  When American children carve pumpkins for Halloween, they're carving the likeness of El Cuco, just as children did hundreds off years ago in Iberia (381)".

King's Outsider operates by pretty stealing the appearances of others by supernatural means, thus effectively stealing their faces.  The Outsider then uses this supernatural camouflage to commit his crimes.  The faces he chooses are often those of the most normal and well respected figures in any given community.  This grants the Outsider easy access to his victims.  There's very little chance or choice for his targets to escape when they are faced with the appearance of people they've known all their lives.  The creature's overall goal isn't just the picking off of chosen victims.  It's also to feed off the negative energy his crimes can release in his targeted societies.  Like a vampire the Outsider is able to siphon off this emotional trauma in order to maintain his own existence.  This figure is also a shape-shifter.  It's his chosen technique for moving about unseen in the open.

That last detail is perhaps the most thematically important.  By making his monster a shape-shifter King is also bringing in one more familiar Gothic archetype into the mix, that one being the myth of the Werewolf.  By giving us a monster that is a hybrid of both the bogeyman and werewolf, King is sort of pointing in the basic direction of his themes.  King once singled out the archetype of the Werewolf as part of a triad that has defined the nature of modern Horror for audiences everywhere.   In order to understanding the importance of the Werewolf myth to the story of The Outsider, it will be necessary to make a bit of a detour to examine a piece of old literature, and how the influence of its themes shape the nature of the conflict at the heart of King's novel.

The Apollonian/Dionysian Conflict.

In his book Danse Macabre, King set the Werewolf alongside two Gothic types, The Vampire, and the Thing Without a Name.  The three novels that typify these archetypes for King are Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.  The author places each work beside the other like some powerful hand in a Tarot deck  As King said in the pages of his non-fiction study: "...these three are something special.  They stand at the foundation of a huge skyscraper of books and films - those twentieth century gothics which have become known as "the modern horror story."  More than that, at the center of each stands (or slouches) a monster that has come to join and enlarge what Burt Hatlen calls "the myth-pool" - that body of fictive literature in which all of us, even nonreaders and those who don't go to the films, have communally bathed.  Like an almost perfect Tarot hand representing our lusher concepts of evil (51)". 

Kings holds that Stevenson's novella is the closest thing we have to a great, modern Werewolf tale.  It's easy enough to find some validity to this view.  Like the werewolf of folklore, Stevenson's mad scientist is able to create an elixir that unlocks the monster hidden behind a veneer of social acceptability.  Stevenson's monster seems to be as much the product of Victorian hypocrisy, as he does the result of a misguided chemical experiment.   "Jekyll is the hypocrite who falls into the pit of secret sin...this seems important to the whole idea of the Werewolf (77)".  King highlights that this secret sin comes down the Victorian inability to admit its own doubles standards of living.  This schizoid standard can be applied especially to its stated ideals, and the way its actual practices played out in terms of their treatment of those deemed "the lower classes".  The hypocrisy is almost tripled, or at least compounded, when people like Jekyll refuse to acknowledge the inherent contradiction in their circumstances.  King provides a neat metaphor for this setup by examining the way Stevenson set out the make-believe landscape of his secondary world.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published a good three decades before the ideas of Sigmund Freud would begin to surface, but in the first two sections of Stevenson's novella the author gives us  startlingly apt metaphor for Freud's idea of the conscious and subconscious minds - or to be more specific, the contrast between superego and id.  Here is a long block of buildings.  On Jekyll's side, the side presented to the public eye, it seems a lovely, graceful building, inhabited by one of London's most respected physicians.  On the other side - but still a part of the same building - we find rubbish and squalor, people abroad on questionable errands at three in the morning, and that "blistered and distained door" set in "a blind forehead of discoloured wall."  On Jekyll's side, all things are in order and life goes its steady Apollonian round.  On the other side, Dionysus prances unfettered.  Enter Jekyll here, exit Hyde there.  Even if you're an anti-Freudian and won't grant Stevenson's insight into the human psyche, you'll perhaps grant that the building serves as a nice symbol of the duality of human nature (74-5)".

While I might not believe that Freudian thought is particularly convincing, it doesn't mean that Stevenson as a writer wasn't on to something.  Rather than any question of dualism, I think the most accurate reading is simply one centered around concerns about the modern disordered psyche.  As I said before, a lot of the fuel that powered the engine on Stevenson's fable is a very basic sort of ethical understanding about the hypocritic dissonance between the stated "Enlightened" values of the Victorian Compromise, and the way this effected the actual social welfare of England.  It was a simple question of a moral statement masking an immoral purpose.  When that happens the usual result is chaos of one sort or another.  It's just a price tag people like Jekyll are either willing to live with, or else they're just desperate and unstable enough to try it.  Either way, it's a foregone conclusion that sooner or later other people are bound to suffer for the failings of others.  In this sense, part of the moral of the Jekyll and Hyde story could be that disorder in the self can produce chaos in society at large.  I think King is working with a variation on Stevenson's themes when he was writing The Outsider.

The novel is working with several Horror tropes mashed and blended together.  One is the familiar idea of the Werewolf, the other is that of the doppelganger.  These ideas have been explored in the work of other writers, namely Stevenson and Poe.  King's approach to the material seems to differ from either of the previous stories in that this time the Werewolf, or Double, is presented as an external threat, rather than as a reflection of the troubles in the mind of one, single individual.  The book's villain preys upon Terry Maitland while never being an integral part of his personality.  While it's true King's approach to the Doppelganger is different from his two predecessors, what's interesting is how his title character echoes the actions and artistic effect of his Victorian ancestors.  The titular Outsider is similar to figures like Grendel, in that he chooses to isolate himself to the margins of society, the better to sneak up on it when no one is looking.  However his approach to chaos is a lot more similar to that of Mr. Hyde.

Like Jekyll's alter-ego, the Outsider displays a keen awareness of the discontents that plague whatever society or community that he preys upon.  The only glimpses the reader has of the secondary world of King's story is the small town of Flint City.  We are never allowed to see what this microcosm was like before the arrival of the Outsider.  Though there are hints here and there that it at least appeared to be the kind of place where life was placid, with not much in the way of any big troubles.  The Outsider's attack puts a lie to the appearances.  By committing his crime, the Doppelganger deliberately triggers a chain reaction in the community.  The shock of the crime leaves citizens horrified at first.  This horror begins to grow into a growing sense of anger and resentment.  While he's in town, the Outsider feeds off this increasing sense of resentment.  It's not long before this public anger grows into a sense of mob justice, and the attendant violence that always tends to trail in its wake.  This sense of outrage is spurred on quite well by the lingering presence of the social media machine, and when the novel focuses the lens on this aspect of modern it's easy enough to get an idea of where a lot of the novel's satirical bite is aimed at.  More than this, however, the reader is left with the sense that it is the very presence of the Outsider himself that is fanning the flames of the town.

The whole point of the Outsider's operation is that his attack is able to strip away the facade of small town friendliness to reveal the dark underside that exists in the town.  This metaphorical back alley is mostly a catalogue of the usual vices that populate insular communities in a work of Horror.  It's the usual history of low-lying bigotry and paranoia that translates into suspicion of anyone marked out as an other.  You'll find similar microcosms dotting the historical landscape of the Gothic genre.  Most authors like Mark Twain or Ray Bradbury have long ago discovered that it can sometimes be a great way to generate drama if the artist knows what he's doing.  King seems to be hinting that part of the reason the Outsider chose to victimize Flint City is because he knew the bad vibes lying underneath the town and its history would provide him all the "food" he needed to survive.

This idea is far from an innovation in King's works.  Tony Magistrale noted the presence of this fictional setup in the author's writing as far back as 1988.  In Landscape of Fear: Stephen King's American Gothic, Magistrale can almost be said to have pre-empted and mapped The Outsider's basic plot in the following way.  "The breakdown of interpersonal relationships in both the workplace and the family is a recurring element in King's canon.  The very real themes of marital discord, gender antagonism, and workplace alienation are avenues of access used by supernatural agents in their assault on the human realm.  In spite of the imaginary landscapes which are often the settings for his tales and novels, King is profoundly aware of the discontents and conflicts which are exemplary of contemporary American life.  The horrific elements in King's world often emerge through the cracks of societal fragmentation, made visible and inescapable.  These breakdowns are either directly responsible for unleashing the irrational forces of the underworld..., or are indirectly reflected in the shape these forces assume (31-2)".  All of which can be applied to Outsider's titular antagonist, as well as the microcosm he preys on.

King used two words, Apollonian and Dionysian, when describing the conflict at the heart of Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde.  The whole concept behind the words Apollonian/Dionysian is that of the basic struggle between chaos and order.  These are words that the author sees as applying to the great majority of Gothic fiction.  I think a case can be made that this struggle is also at the heart of his Outsider.  "What we're talking about here, at its most basic level, is the old conflict between id and superego, the free will to do evil or deny it...or in Stevenson's own terms, the conflict between mortification and gratification.  This old struggle is the cornerstone of Christianity, but if you want to put it in mythic terms, the twinning of" Terry Maitland and his murderous, Outside Doppelganger "suggests another duality: the aforementioned split between the Apollonian (the creature of intellect, morality, and nobility, "always treading the upward path") and the Dionysian (god of partying down and physical gratification; the get-down-and-boogie side of human nature) (78)".

"If you want to try and take it any further than the mythic, you come damn close to splitting the body and mind altogether...which is exactly the impression" King's Outsider gives to not just his victims, but also to those individuals who make up all the collateral damage the monster leaves in his wake.  The impression Ralph and the citizens of Flint are left with is of a man they all know committing unspeakable acts, leaving broken lives in his wake.  Except the man himself, along with the slow unearthing of the facts in the case, all point in a different direction from the cozy reality everyone thinks they know.  This discovery results in a split that in some ways is more fundamental than that facing Stevenson's double-minded Jekyll.  We are not talking about a schizoid man, the novel forces us to confront an entire schizophrenic society that is unable to acknowledge its hidden depths, and the troubles that lurk just beneath the surface.

This is, again, a theme King has sounded more than once in his fiction.  The book seems to hint that there exists some unexamined trouble at the center of modern American life.  This is an issue which has remained so hidden, that it's sort of useless to be surprised if the majority of the characters don't even have an idea that a problem exists.  It's sometimes the case that patients are unaware of an illness until they are floored by it.  The trouble in The Outsider seems to be that the community of Flint City has lost something vital in its makeup, and this has left it vulnerable to the influence of the novel's villain.  This does not mean that King sees the small town setting as a blameless victim.  Instead, it's more like the unexamined troubles of the community act as a sort of beacon call which enables the supernatural threat to manifest itself and go on the attack.  In this sense the collective fault of the town is acting like a dark signal which serves as a sort of dinner bell for the monster.  In turn, the monster himself serves as a reflection of the town's unexamined issues.  The whole point of the novel seems to be that if anyone wants to make any kind of progress , they should first perhaps sort out their own lives.  That's a lesson Ralph Anderson is going to have to see if he can learn as he follows the trail of clues to a showdown in a cave far out in the desert scrub lands of Texas.  To do otherwise, King suggests, is to invite trouble for yourself and others.

Conclusion: A Good Introductory Text.

Pop-culture writer Stephen Spignesi once asked if it was possible to define the prototypical Stephen King novel?  It's not an invalid question, by any means.  It's just one that I prefer to be a lot more cautious about.  I remember Spignesi singled out It as the perfect text which typifies everything that King's fiction is about.  He could be right.  Even if that's the case, it's still an open question of where is the best place to start with this author.  The reason for asking that question at all is because King is one of those authors like J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  These are writers who like to add depths and layers to their stories.  This approach always forces their readers to pay intricate attention to what's happening on the page.  King is no different in terms of loading his novels with complexity.  What does single him out, however, is that he has written several other volumes that can serve as gateway texts to his more complex work.  It's for this reason I said way back at the start that this review was also meant to be a defense of The Outsider as a good beginner's introduction to King's writing.

What makes this unassuming text a good place to begin has a lot to do with Spignesi's question about what defines the nature of a typical King story.  If we use stories like It, Salem's Lot, or Bag of Bones as a series of templates, then it seems like the basic underlying trope that King likes to work with is that of a community or individual under an assault from either the supernatural or just plain irrational.  The trope itself is not the plot, so much as the springboard which can help grant a cohesive shape to the events of the narrative itself.  Looked at from this perspective, The Outsider's setup really does conform to all of the major ground rules for typical King story.  We have a small town that looks normal on the surface while keeping the troubled aspects of its life hidden from the world.  There is a supernatural menace that initially acts as an external threat.  This menace is then able to transition into a more parasitic, internal danger as it finds a way to live off the town's dark side.  In Ralph Anderson we also have a protagonist who is more awake than a lot of the other characters, and who comes to a slow realization about there being "more things between heaven and earth, than are dreamt of" in his everyday "philosophy".  This is perhaps the closest I can get, for the moment, to a list of the main ingredients for a typical King story.    

I've read the charge that King is on autopilot with The Outsider.  Comparisons are made between this novel and earlier efforts like It, and Salem's Lot.  The basic criticism being that the author is guilty of writing the exact same story.  The trouble with this logic is that I'm just not certain it means the novel has been given as close a reading as it perhaps deserves.  To be fair, other critics such as Kevin Quigley have made similar comments, going so far in labeling the story "a return to the a type of novel that King hasn't worked with since 1996's Desperation".  Quigley takes the comparisons further by noting that the novel's "setup feels like an echo to early scenes in The Dark Half (ibid)".

In contrast, Bev Vincent claims that, "There will likely be a lot of discussion about what the Outsider is. An identity-stealing entity, the inspiration for a low-budget Mexican movie and myriad legends, he feeds on sadness and on the pain of his victims while they’re dying, reminiscent of a number of creatures from King’s works", with Pennywise being the one that most will draw comparisons to.  "In Bag of Bones, Mike Noonan’s late wife’s ghost tells him that Sara Tidwell “let one of the Outsiders in, and they’re very dangerous.” Elements of the story will remind readers of Tak from Desperation, too. While there are some similarities to those creatures, this Outsider is not exactly like any of them. He’s a force of nature, albeit an unnatural one, whose origins are unknown but whose motives are clear: to feed and survive. Murder is its life’s work. He is another in a long line of evil-doers in King’s mythos. At the same time King proposes that a force for good exists, too, attempting to restore the balance (web)".

For me, it all comes down to the nature of the folklore King has injected into his story.  When an author decides to use a myth as the driving engine of his novel, perhaps the question that should be focused on is not so much "isn't this the same story dressed up like another".  Instead, maybe a better question to ask is what happens when we pay attention to the lore that sometimes comes attached to a lot of the famous mythic monsters.  For instance, almost everyone can remember the mythology behind a Vampire.  However, the lore surrounding the Vampire is not the same for that as a Werewolf.  In turn, the rules that apply to Werewolf stories don't fit the rules of a Zombie Apocalypse.  The point of all these comparisons is that it is the very fact that King is working with a specific type of folklore for his monster that should serve as a distinction from the type of supernatural adversaries found in books like Salem's Lot, or It.  If King's Outsider is a variation on the themes of both Doppelgangers, and Werewolves, then the result is that we are dealing with a new type of hybrid that has an element of two sets of folkloric guidelines in its literary genetic material.  The most logical conclusion seems to be that reader must take the monster as a new creature that incorporates a few familiar elements while still remaining its own thing.  I'd argue that the idea of a new King monster that is able to sound familiar and well worn notes from his other stories is yet one more reason for why the book might serve as a good entry point into the author's secondary world.

The final reason to let The Outsider serve as a good first introduction to the writing of Stephen King is the simplest of all.  I can say that the novel is just plain fun.  That might sound like a strange selling point to recommend a horror novel.  My response to such a charge is that there's a difference between the horror you experience in real life, and that found in a work of fiction.  The trouble with horror in real life is that it tends to be narrowing and isolating.  Fictional horror, on the other hand, tends to have the goal of expanding the audience's horizons.  Granted, this doesn't always work.  Too often a lot of would-be artists will use the availability of gore as a short-hand excuse for phoning the story in.  The real artist will know, even if just by instinct, that the Horror genre works best when the writer is able to tap into the collective fears of the audience, and then find the proper artistic form of catharsis, or else find a way to let everyone both face their fears and, if possible, invite them to see if they can be conquered.  This is what King does in The Outsider.  Rather than going for the cheap gross-out scares, he takes his reader by the hand and leads them to the dark side of the street.  Once there, he does bring his creature shambling out of the shadows.  However, while admitting that monsters exist, King also suggests that they can be defeated.


  1. (1) I'd guess that the question "what Stephen King book should I start with?" varies wildly depending on who's asking the question. "Skeleton Crew" would be a good one for most people, I think. Really, though, just about every King book would be good for somebody; maybe excepting some of the sequels, although even some of those would work nicely. Fun to consider, that's for sure.

    (2) "I am now going to make a claim that can be taken as either scandalous or else just puzzling, depending on whoever is reading. My claim is that as far as this same general public is concerned, that's about all there is to King, or at least that handful of books and films is all there is that really matters." -- There's probably something to that. However, ask the same general public to name six different works by pretty much ANY author, and how many will they come up with? I think King is doing pretty well if he can get to six.

    (3) I'm not 100% sure I agree that "The Outsider" is a shining star among King's late-era output. However, I'm also not sure I disagree, and even if I do, I'm glad that it works that well for others even if it doesn't for me.

    Personally, I think the claim of King's best years and works being behind him is overblown. I mean, it's probably true -- but only because he had several periods where he was firing off one masterpiece after another, almost on a yearly basis. Sustaining that level of excellence is unlikely, and expecting it is foolish. So for me, the question is not whether his books are still as good as they used to be, but whether they are consistently good. And I think they are. Perhaps a few exceptions -- I'm still not wild about the Bill Hodges trilogy -- here and there, but by my count, King in the new millennium has published a minimum of eighteen good novels, as well as four collections. Are they as great as "Misery" or "The Shining"? No, but they're pretty good in their own right ... "The Outsider" included.

    1. For my part, I was just thinking of easy access to first timers. Like I say, most will go with whatever book gets them hooked. Granted, there may be something in what you say about the sequels not being the best place to start.

      To give a good example, one of the first books I tried to tackle was "Needful Things". It sounded interesting, yet nothing was clicking for me, so I gave it up and never came back to it till just recently. That may be a case is point.

      (2) I have to admit that luck, as well as the attention span of pop-culture, really has been on King's side.

      (3) I note what you say about "Sustaining that level" of excellence. I do wonder if that's a case of the popular perception of the writer being used against him by critics in some fashion. Who knows?


  2. (1) SKELETON CREW is a good suggestion for King entryways, but I'm intrigued by your nominating this one. And you're right, too! I hadn't considered this but having considered it - and before I even get into your post, just typing this up having chewed the matter over for a few minutes - I really do think this makes a very suitable Young Person's Guide to King. I'd even say, "Read THE OUTSIDER, then DUMA KEY, then FULL DARK, NO STARS. You're on your own from there."

    (2) That cactus photo you posted under the Coben section is perfect. Without even reading any context that'd have reminded me of THE OUTSIDER. I can't even explain why, just a mood.

    (3) How I wish MEXICAN WRESTLING WOMEN MEET THE MONSTER was a real film.

    (4) The doppelganger theme has fascinated me since having to read THE SECRET SHARER by Joseph Conrad in high school. Probably even before that, but that represents an intellectual understanding of it all, at least as literature is concerned. For teh first time I had it locked into criteria I could evaluate beyond a vague idea. I kind of want to know more about the doppelganger here; is he a "The Man trap" sort of creature, the last of his race? A boy, a girl? I don't mean I wish King had answered these, only that he set up something interesting I had more follow-up questions about.

    (5) If this is King on autopilot, I wish he'd just cruise in a circle and let the plane fly while he cranks a few more of these out. No problem by me.

    1. (1) A Young Person's Guide to King sounds like one of those ideas that makes perfect sense, even if you occasionally stop and wonder when the a Young Person is ready for a lot of King's stuff.

      Still, the basic idea is sound. My own choices besides "Skeleton Key" and "The Outsider" would be to follow it up with stuff like "The Body" or "Cycle of the Werewolf". From there, you could go on to something like "Salem's Lot", and the reader could reasonably go on from there.

      (2) Al I was thinking of was desert landscapes that looked haunted. I couldn't form a better image idea in my head than that, really. Still, happy to oblige, and glad it did the trick.

      (3) Preferably directed by Roger Corman, with commentary track by the MST3K gang.

      (4) I think when an author can raise that number of questions it's usually a good thing. I hadn't thought about it from a Trek angle, though now that you mention it, it is an intriguing approach. I always tend to approach things from a more symbolic level. In that sense its always about forgotten aspects of either the mind or the culture at large.

      (5) I think part of the reason this novel works is that he managed to find what could be called the right way into his material. I think "Revival" is another one where this same thing has happened.