Ok…first post in awhile, I’ll try to be more regular about this.
Just lately I mowed through Stephen King’s most recent novel, The Outsider, and while it was quite the page-turner for the most part I would still say it’s essentially mixed. The overall thematic development is consistent and compelling throughout but sort of chokes on itself. With the pointed Dracula nods at the end, I can’t help but be reminded of Bram Stoker’s own botched ending.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Fairly early on Stephen King establishes clear parallels with an Edgar Allen Poe story called William Wilson. The wife of the main character even brings the story up with him, and in the same exchange we hear an Arthur Conan Doyle quote, which can be reasonably paraphrased as ‘when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains must be true, however improbable’. Ralph Anderson, our main character, when discussing the Poe story remarks on the “damn good psychology” for “the nineteenth century”. Here he’s referring to the story’s ending when William Wilson commits suicide, after being psychologically destabilized and overwhelmed by the lifelong presence of a doppelganger. Anderson’s wife says that, when you look past the psychology, you’re left with the supernatural. William Wilson had a deadly psychological reaction to something that, as far as the story is concerned, seems to have been physically happening.
This is the central thematic thread that I think Stephen King has trouble with. Not long after Anderson has this conversation with his wife, the story makes a hard shift to supernatural fiction. Holly Gibney, a character from King’s Mr. Mercedes books, enters the plot fulfilling the role of Dr. Van Helsing, which I actually thought was pretty cool. Since I finished The Outsider, I’ve read Finders Keepers and I’m currently halfway through Mr. Mercedes largely because I wanted more of Holly Gibney. Gibney even has a talk with Anderson and company about the need to overcome their assumptions about reality and the limits of the human mind, sorta like how Helsing prefaces one of his explanations by pointing out things in the natural world that, at that time, seemed improbable (like extremely old turtles). Holly Gibney is also a film-buff and has a tendency to bring movie and book references into casual conversation (when they find out that the vampiric title character has a human servant, Holly refers to him as a “Renfield”).
While I’m going on about the iffy transition halfway through the book, I’d also like to add that it adds substantial depth to Ralph Anderson’s character arc. At the very beginning, Detective Anderson directs a very public arrest of Terry Maitland, a high school teacher and little league coach, in the middle of a game because he is absolutely convinced that he raped, murdered and mutilated a young boy (a crime that we later learn was the work of the Outsider, or el cuco, a Latin American variation of the vampire myth with more emphasis on shape-shifting). Anderson feels like he knows, beyond any possibility of a doubt, that he has the right man, chiefly because of DNA traces and eye-witnesses before and after the killing. The fact that Maitland’s reputation and alibis are squeaky clean makes him even more convinced, since an immaculate public front looks like careful denial or misdirection when paired with evidence that he did something monstrous. Not to mention everyone has heard of the serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer, whose friends and neighbors were shocked after the arrests and said that they always seemed so nice.
I find it easy to think that, with this sort of beginning, the reader is going to assume that either Maitland did it or that Anderson is dangerously off-base and arrogant. Personally, Anderson made my skin crawl early in the book. At least part of that had to do with certain genre conventions, though.
A central conflict is hardly ever resolved at the very beginning. If something looks all-important early on, then it cannot be. At least, it cannot be with a lot of successfully written stories (if I ever write something on this blog about Final Fantasy XV, I’ll probably bring up the romance between Noctis and Luna as a huge problem for a similar reason). With that in mind, I found it easy to assume that Maitland’s incrimination was simply a set-up for the bigger plot and that he is probably not guilty…which makes Anderson’s certainty appear repugnant.
It also doesn’t help that we hear Anderson trotting out the brutal death of the child to inspire fellow cops and the District Attorney to work for a conviction more than we hear about the actual killing. I know that’s a bit of a technicality, and with stories that exploit subjectivity we are naturally shown perspectives of events rather than events themselves. So, within this sub-genre, it’s a totally legitimate thing to do. Just sayin’, it doesn’t make Anderson look any more sympathetic or justified. What it does do, though, is prove to us that Anderson himself believes it, which makes it all the more compelling when he is forced to acknowledge that he’s wrong. It also helps the reader connect with him when he and Holly Gibney are talking about the need to acknowledge that something is happening that transcends what Anderson is initially willing to consider. In the end, when Holly and Ralph become the central heroes, we have seen Ralph Anderson go from someone on the brink of convicting an innocent man to a truly sympathetic protagonist. Stephen King doesn’t always handle morally gray characters very well, but when he does he nails it. (My favorite anti-hero of his being Roland Deschain…more on that if one or more Dark Tower posts happen).
Having mentioned the essential quality of Ralph’s arc, though…the story becomes glaringly plot-driven once we discover the real nature of the Outsider, which both Holly and Yunel Sablo (a supporting character) compare to a shape-shifting, folkloric monster called el cuco. On one hand, it’s nice to see people from the two opposing sides of the Terry Maitland fiasco working together (Anderson and Sablo manage to enlist the help of Howie Gold, Maitland’s lawyer, and a P.I. who works for him named Alec Pelley).
On the other…the tension and drama of the first half of the book hinged on the reasons for the starkly opposing pictures of whether or not Terry Maitland was guilty. In other words, it was psychological tension. Then the first half comes to a head and we hear Anderson’s wife remark, while talking about William Wilson, that, once you drop the psychology, you are left with the supernatural. This is where the plot is supposed to really thicken. But the dramatic momentum of the first half just isn’t matched in the second. I don’t think the second half is essentially bad, but it does feel a little bit naked compared to the first.
The involvement of the alcoholic detective who turns into the Outsider’s “Renfield” is interesting until he dies in a gunfight. Like Snakebite Andi in Doctor Sleep, I was kind of left wondering what exactly the “Renfield” brought to the story (other than another character death in said gunfight). When the snake that bites the alcoholic got it’s own sub-chapter, I thought it was gonna tie in with el cuco….maybe he can telepathically manipulate snakes, kinda like how Dracula can manipulate wolves? In which case, is he simply bumping off his “Renfield” because he’s ceased to be useful, or is something else going on? Is the “Renfield” going to get transformed into another vampiric creature or something? When you use a specific sub-chapter for a snake that’s about to bite someone, you’re naturally prompting the reader to wonder about it’s significance. If the significance is simply to provide a slow death to a character you don’t know what else to do with and make him shoot badly, then it’s kind of underwhelming.
If I wanted, I could get really snarky and say that these problems with the second half and ending are also halmarks of Stoker’s influence, since in the original Dracula Van Helsing flips the lids on the coffins containing Dracula and his brides before nightfall and just stakes them all. I remember reading that book when I was sixteen and I thought it was one of the biggest anti-climaxes I had ever read. Then there’s this little chapter at the end with everyone having families which, for sixteen-year-old me, just made it all the more fake and unsatisfying. It’s like Bram Stoker just got performance anxiety at the end and choked.
While the Outsider’s death happens abruptly, there is one interesting detail. In most vampire fiction, vampires are portrayed as formerly human with many aspects of their human identities and feelings still intact. Since the Outsider changes shape so often and can create a ghostly avatar that creates the appearance of teleportation, we are tempted to think of him as fundamentally not human. No more human than Pennywise. One of Terry Maitland’s daughters even catches a glimpse of him without a disguise and sees him as having “straws for eyes”, which almost sounds like eyes on stalks.
But when Holly is talking to him in his cave, she says that without the memory altering (he can do that via telepathy) and shape-shifting, he is just a pedophile and a sexual sadist. The Outsider loudly denies this, saying that he targets children because their suffering provides the most nourishing psychic sustenance for him, and that he leaves semen on the bodies of his victims (we learn earlier that he didn’t just do it with his most recent) in order to provide a DNA link to his chosen patsy (while assuming someone else’s shape, his DNA is also a perfect match for theirs, hence the DNA evidence against Terry Maitland). Holly points out that there are other ways to do that, like with saliva, sweat or even his own blood. Holly insists that he’s a sexual predator, provoking him into a sloppy attack and providing a chance for Holly to kill him.
While we were initially prompted to think of the Outsider as fundamentally non-human, the fact that Holly got him wound up by accusing him of being a pedophile and a sexual sadist is telling. In the natural world, animal predators do not seem to have complicated and messy feelings about their prey that they are compelled to misrepresent. Not that we have any way of knowing this, but shame and denial don’t seem to be in the equation with species-to-species predation. The implication is that the Outside actually was formerly human and was transformed.
There are a few other satisfying aspects to the ending, such as Ralph and Holly’s conversation at the very end. In general, though…the book is just lopsided. Not as lopsided as Doctor Sleep, but still lopsided. I also gotta admit that it’s more re-readable than Doctor Sleep.