The beginning of The Outsider always makes me feel like I’ve just stepped into a John Grisham book by accident. I’m expecting a hungry young lawyer connected to the Maitland family somehow to come into town and prove Terry’s innocence by some combination of brilliant lawyering and hiring a smart (and pretty, probably) young local detective. The twist will maybe be that Terry actually is guilty, or that his wife framed him, or it will be some other character we get to know and trust over the course of the book — it almost certainly won’t be someone random. Unless that’s the twist, somehow.
That’s not how it goes, of course. There’s no supernatural in the Grisham books I’ve read. And King’s written enough books about cops and detectives (and Holly Gibney and her Finders Keepers agency) by this point for those not to feel too foreign coming from him either. But this really does feel like it wants to take a turn into that “hero lawyer saves the day” genre of books in the beginning, doesn’t it? Is it just me?
Anyway, it wasn’t Terry, and there wasn’t some dramatic twist — if you haven’t already figured out that Terry is innocent, we know it by the time we get his ironclad alibi, and because we also have fingerprints and DNA that implicates Terry, and we’ve double-checked the cover and confirmed that yes, this is a Stephen King book, we know we’re dealing with something otherworldly. Then, of course, Holly Gibney shows up to cement that.
I don’t think Holly is really necessary to this story — though it makes a neat explanation for how she can figure things out in the space of short story format by the time we get to If It Bleeds. But we could have done without her; a local character could have decided to expand his mind far enough to accept an unnatural explanation without her help if he’d wanted to write it that way. I like it because I like both Holly Gibney and the connections between supposedly unconnected works, and I certainly don’t think she’s hurting the story any, but I guess I understand why some people may not like it. Her connection to the plot in the first place feels a bit tenuous, even though she’s useful once she’s there.
The actual outsider is an interesting villain because I’m not entirely sure what he is or why he is. We know he wanted to find other things like him, though. That’s interesting. Have we seen other things like him? Maybe in another world? Or have we seen another world that he could be from? Wherever things came from in From a Buick 8, maybe… something about the way The Outsider broke down makes me think of the way those things broke down. It’s not the same, but… nothing like him came through the trunk of that car, either. Maybe if something had, it would have turned out to have been a bunch of little red worms in the end. Maybe he’s some type of walk-in. For whatever reason, the idea that all the monsters that inhabit the stories that seem to take place in our world (the keystone world) are some type of walk-ins or invaders from other levels of the tower just works for me. It always gives them a reason to be there, at least. And since travel between levels doesn’t always seem to be intentional (or understandable) it makes sense if some of them wind up there without really knowing why themselves, what to do (other than monster things), or how to find other things like themselves, even if they want to.
There’s a section here that I think totally explains why people write books like this and why we read them. I’m going to quote it here:
“Let me ask you a question,” she said. “Suppose it had been Terry Maitland who killed that child, and tore off his flesh, and put a branch up inside him? Would he be any less inexplicable than the thing that might be hiding in that cave? Would you be able to say ‘I understand the darkness and evil that was hiding behind the mask of the boys’ athletic coach and good community citizen. I know exactly what made him do it’?”The Outsider, Stephen King
The answer, of course, is no. No. Of course not. Most of us really don’t understand the real-world monsters that walk among us. I know for sure that I don’t. I actually usually want to believe that no one’s really a monster, that everyone has a story, a reason, that everyone is redeemable, or at least was at some point in their lives if the opportunity could have been given in time. I think that is usually the case. But every now and then, I’m forced to acknowledge that there do seem to be actual monstrous people who were just always going to be this way and will always be this way out there walking around like normal people. People who don’t seem to have a story or a reason other than this is what they want to do. And I don’t understand. And I assume most people don’t. I think one of the main ways we have to process such a thing is through the lens of… monsters. Things beyond human comprehension, things we should really never see or encounter. This book is fictional, I have no reason to believe any of it was based on anything real, but the crime… well, this stuff does happen. And I have no idea how. Monsters make as much sense to me as anything.
Unrelated (until I relate them in a second here), but it’s worth pointing out that the monster killed the boy, and the monster framed Terry Maitland, but it was people — good people, no less — who are responsible for Terry Maitland’s death. That’s interesting too. I feel like we’re back to that recurring King theme — the monsters aren’t really the monsters. The monsters are people. The monsters are metaphors for people. People are ultimately the monsters. Not all the people all of the time, but it’s just inescapable — where there are monsters, they’re people. Sometimes the monsters are even people who are not usually monsters.
I’m going to end this with another King quote because I think it’s my takeaway from this book.
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”Stephen King