By Stephen King, An creepy and intriguing investigation into an unspeakable crime
I mostly decided to read The Outsider by Stephen King because it seemed long overdue for me to read one of his books. The last time I read a Stephen King novel, I must have been in high school. I have no recollection of it, and I don’t exactly remember which book it was (I think maybe it was Bag of Bones?).
To be totally honest, part of the reason I’ve avoided reading Stephen King books is that they’re just so long and there’s so many of them. I had no idea where to start and the length made each one seem like a big commitment. So, for lack of a better entry point to his works, I figured I’d just pick up the most recent one and dive in.
In The Outsider, an unspeakable crime takes place involving the murder and violation of a small boy. Ralph Anderson is the detective on the case, and he arrests a local man, Terry Maitland. It’s an easy arrest and their evidence is airtight. The problem is, cracks in the case begin to appear when it seems that perhaps Maitland has an equally airtight alibi.
As tensions rise and the investigation proceeds, the bit and pieces of information Ralph uncovers are equal parts horrifying and intriguing.
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The first half or so of The Outsider was exactly what I’d been hoping for with this book. It was strange and interesting, with a mix of mystery and horror.
In this part of the book, it proceeds along so purposefully that I marveled to myself that I really should have been reading Stephen King novels all along. Each chapter moves the plot forward and introduces new and intriguing complications to the already delightfully complicated investigation.
A little past the halfway point though, things start to come apart a little. At this point, the investigation portion resolves. We understand what was happening in the first half and why, and it’s just a matter of riding out this conclusion to its final resolution. Having to ride this out for nearly 300 pages is precisely why I’ve occasionally avoided horror/thrillers in the past.
In my mind, there was only one way this could end, and predictably that’s pretty much what happens. As a result, the plot rides along more or less as you’d expect. Stuff happens, but ultimately you know where it’s all going to wind up. There’s a number of logical jumps that the characters make in the second half that don’t make a ton of sense to me, but I didn’t dwell on it.
If it was a book that had more substance beyond the plot, I think maybe it could have sustained my interest more. At this point though, I was very glad I was listening to it on audiobook instead of just reading it, since I could multitask while working my way through to the conclusion of the book.
Literary Doubles, Doubling and Doppelgängers
The Outsider is Stephen King’s take on the “double”, an idea that has been covered many times, in many different ways in fiction.
Literary Doubles or doppelgängers appear in the works of Dostoyevsky (The Double), Edgar Allen Poe (William Wilson), Percy Shelley (Prometheus Unbound), Nabokov (Despair), Saramago (The Double), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (The Autumn of the Patriarch), Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Robert Louis Stevenson (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), and the list goes on and on, and it’s generally considered a fixture in Gothic literature.
In King’s formulation, evidence of a “double” appears when the police build a case around a man where the evidence against him and his alibi seem to be equally airtight.
Even though they’re all over the place, literary doubles never get old for me, and the “double” aspects of The Outsider were probably its strongest parts.
The Outsider Audiobook Review
I listened to this on Audiobook. The book is very suitable for audiobook, since it’s plot heavy and easy to follow. The characters summarize all the evidence and what’s going on routinely enough so that even if you stop paying attention for a minute, you’ll soon be caught up.
The narration is largely pretty good, though the voicing for the character of Holly is a but all over the place. The narrator is a man, and he does like a higher pitched female voice for Holly Dibney. But it’s inconsistent (it sounds like a mix between a bad Trump impression and a drag queen voice and sort of explores the whole range of possible voices between the two) and kind of irritating.
Is an “The Outsider” Movie or Series Adaptation?
HBO is adapting The Outsider as a limited series, planned for 2020. It will be 10 episodes long. Ben Mendelsohn will star as Detective Ralph Anderson. Holly Gibney will be played by Cynthia Erivo. See the trailer here.
To see more 2020 Book Adaptations in the works, see the list of 2020 Books to Film Adaptations.
Read it or Skip it?
I had mixed feelings about this book, though much of it was entertaining. I really enjoyed the first half or so that reads like a police procedural, had great pacing and had a very well-plotted mystery aspect to it. In the second half, the book loses a lot of that suspense and runs out of steam a little.
By the end, I would say that the Outsider is a page-turner horror novel that will likely keep your interest, but it was forgettable for me. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a terrible book or anything, it’s certainly not. There just wasn’t anything about it that feels like it’ll “stick” with me, even though I enjoyed the first half of it a lot.
By the time the “mystery” of The Outsider is resolved, there’s still a few hundred pages left for the plot to play out and the “mystery” of it ends up being a lot more interesting and more tightly-plotted than what the rest of it turns out to be, at least in my mind. I would probably give this a 3, except I really thought the first half was pretty great so I’m bumping it up to a 3.5.
What do you think? Have you read this book or will you be reading it? Or, maybe you’ll just watch the HBO adaptation when it comes out?
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Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
The Arrest: July 14thChapters 1 - 12 The Outsider starts in police procedural mode. There's been a horrific murder of a boy in the town of Flint City, Oakland. On the night of July 10, Jonathan Ritz is out walking his dog and hears a car driving off. He finds the body of Frankie Peterson, who has been sodomized by a tree branch. The kid's throat has been ripped open. Ralph Anderson is the detective assigned to the case. Officers Troy Ramage and Tom Yates are working with him. They start questioning people and the evidence against a local man, Terry Maitland, is overwhelming. Evidence: Arlene Stanhope, on July 10, sees Frankie carrying his bicycle across the grocery story (Gerald's) parking lot. She sees Frankie talk to a man, Terry Maitland, and point to his broken bicycle chain. Then, she sees Terry nod and watches Frankie get into the back of a dirty white van with him. More Evidence: June Morris, a local nine-year-old girl, states that around 6 or 6:30 on 10th she saw Coach T in the parking lot of Gerald's with a bloody nose. Next, Carlton Scowcroft stated that on 7:00 on the 10th, he was with Riley Franklin when saw a white van pull into Shorty's Pub. Terry came out with blood all over. He leaves the keys in the van and drives off in a different car (green Subaru). Riley confirms it was Coach T they saw. George Czerny makes a statement that on the morning of July 13th, he saw a green Subaru with bloody clothes inside near the Iron Bridge. Terry Maitland ("Coach T") is a retired English teacher who coaches the Golden Dragons Little League team. On July 14, they arrest him very publicly during a game in front of his wife, Marcy, and kids, Sarah and Grace. Terry tries to explain that he was in Cap City on the day in question. Marcy calls Howie Gold, a lawyer. Chapters 13 - 23 Detective Betsy Riggins and Lieutenant Yunel Sablo show up with a search warrant for the Maitland house. Marcy reluctantly lets them in. Willow Rainwater is a cab driver. She was parked near Gentlemen, Please (a strip club), and says she drove Terry from there to the train station on July 10. Claude Bolton is a bouncer at the club. He says he saw Terry there. Terry had a "coke nail" where his pinky nail is longer and sharp. Bill Samuels, the Flint County district attorney, questions Terry along with Ralph. Terry refuses to answer any questions. Instead, he tells Ralph about how he had coached and encouraged Ralph's son Derek. Ralph feels momentarily embarrassed. He notices Terry doesn't have a coke nail. He also feels weird about how neat all the evidence is in this case. Howard Gold shows up to talk to his client. Next, is a report on the security camera footage from the city's public transportation stations. It shows Terry entering the station and buying a book at 9:35. He then leaves the station without boarding a train (implying that he stayed in Flint City and never left). It seems like it was all meant to lay a false trail. Some details nag at Ralph. First, Terry had referred to Willow as "ma'am" even though he should know who she is. Second, Terry had asked Carlton is there was some type of walk-in medical facility nearby. But Terry has lived in the town his whole life. Finally, he wonders why Terry would never bother to even try to hide his face at any point. The initial blood tests on the evidence comes back. Frankie was O+. There's lots of O+ blood on stuff. The rest of the blood was AB+ (a relatively rare blood type). The AB+ is assumed to be the perpetrator. The DNA results are still pending, but Terry has AB+ blood. The question starts and Terry finally explains gets a chance to explain his alibi. He was in Cap City with a group of eight other English teachers at a conference. They saw Harlen Coben speak and got signed books. They left on Tuesday morning (July 10) and got back on Wednesday. They were together all of Tuesday until late. His alibi, assuming it checks out, is airtight. The autopsy comes back. It notes that there's semen present, there's teeth marks all over and bits of flesh from the boy are missing (earlobe, nipples, etc.). It recommends leaving these details out of the press.
Sorry: July 14th - 15thChapters 1 - 20 Alec Pelley is a private investigator, retired from the State Police, hired by Howie. With the press all over the place, Alec accompanies Terry's traumatized kids home. He heads to pick up the hotel's security footage. Alec gives Howie the results. Ralph and his wife Jeanette discuss the case. Everett Roundhill, the chair of the English department, confirms Terry's story. He tells her about the overwhelming evidence on both sides. He tells her about the stolen cars. The Subaru was stolen from a nearby parking garage when the owner left her keys inside. The van is more complicated. The van was stolen from New York. Then the theory is that the thief drove somewhere nearby, and Terry happened upon it and stole it. But Ralph still thinks it's weird he would go through the trouble of stealing cars, but then show his face and leave prints everywhere. Arlene and Frank Peterson hold the wake for Freddie. Ollie, their son and Freddie's brother, helps out uncomplainingly. Arlene has a fit, faints and is taken to the hospital. Arlene passes away. Merl Cassidy is an 12-year-boy who has run away from his abusive stepfather. He's stolen four cars to get away from his dad. The first one was a van. Howie calls the Maitlands with good news, they tell Terry, and then he forwards the evidence to Bill. It's a video of the conference and Harlan Coben's talk. You can see Maitland in it in random shots throughout the whole thing, including a close-up when he asks a question. Ralph admits to Bill that their case is toast, but they're in too deep to back out. Ralph goes to Cap City and asks around. He's looking for forensic evidence. He has no leads until he gets to a bookstore. He finds a book that Terry touched. He runs fingerprints on it. They're Terry's, which is bad for his case. Bill suggests that they get rid of the evidence, but Ralph says no.
The Arraignment: July 16thChapters 1 - 4 The morning of the arraignment is a zoo, with media everywhere and an angry crowd calling for Terry's death. Ralph and Bill could have led him around the back, but they lead him through the front. Howie refuses to have Terry wear a bullet-proof vest because it makes him look like a criminal. Ollie Peterson hides in the crowd and full of grief and in a rage he shoots at Terry three times. He misses once, grazes him once an gets him the last time before Ralph takes him down. In the process a cameraman's camera gets shot.
Footsteps and Cantalope: July 18-20thChapters 1 - 16 The cameraman ended up with glass in his eye and might lose it, Terry died and Ollie is dead. Ralph gets put on administrative leave. He hears about the 12-year-old boy who initially stole the car. The boy drove it from New York to Ohio. More DNA tests come back and everything still points to Terry. The semen, the DNA on the stick, everything. Gracie wakes up screaming, saying she saw a man with straw for eyes, but Marcy tells her it was a nightmare. Then, Frank Peterson hangs himself in grief over his family. Before he passes out, he sees a man with straw eyes outside on the patio. June Gibson hears his body fall and saves him, but he's badly brain damaged. There's an image in Ralph's head of the day of the shooting of a girl sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders with her yellow bra strap sticking out. Something about it bothers him though he can't put his finger on why. Ralph goes in to inspect some evidence. He sees a piece of a menu that ended up in the van that the boy drove. He identifies it as being from a restaurant called Tommy and Tuppence Pub and Café in Dayton. Terry was in Dayton in April, but he flew. Ralph wonders if Terry had an accomplice. Jack Hoskins takes over the case. He's older and experienced, but Ralph has always considered him an incompetent detective. At a ranch outside Flint City (a place called Canning Township), a boy Dougie Elfman, 17, tells his father Clark to call the police. He's found some clothes he thinks is connected to the Frank Peterson case that's been on the news. Hoskins goes to check it out as well as Yune (one of the officers). Chapters 17 - 21 Ralph begs Marcy to talk to him. She initially says no, but asks Howie for advice. If the killer's not found, everyone will think it was Terry. She asks Howie to set up a meeting with him and the two of them. Alec goes too. When they talk, Ralph asks about Terry's family in Dayton. Terry's father, Peter, lives in Dayton but has Alzheimer's. Terry was an only child. Peter cheated on Terry's mother Melinda and left her for his secretary, Dolores. Sarah (on of the daughters) cuts in and mentions a cut that Terry got. At the hospital visiting his father, he bumped into someone, helped them up but got a cut somehow in the process. She also mentions that Tommy and Tuppence was down the street from the hospital. Jack gets to Canning Township late at night. Something grips him in the bar, a shadow long and thin. He's unable to move. It grips his neck and then disappears. He leaves with a throbbing on his neck.
Yellow: July 21-22ndChapters 1 - 8 Yune reviews the stuff they found with Ralph. It's the clothes Terry had been wearing in the public transportation security footage. There's weird black stuff everywhere, but the yellow shirt he'd been wearing is not there for some reason. There's also a bunch of weird blurry fingerprints. Ralph remembers what bout the yellow color was bothering him. The day of the shooting, there was a scarred man wearing something yellow on his head. He reviews the footage with his wife Jeannie, but he's not there. Jeannie really starts to wonder if something supernatural is going on. Yune tells him a story about a Mexican boogeyman. It was a man with tuberculosis who was convinced that drinking the blood of kids and eating their flesh would cure him. Ralph tries not to think about it. Yune, Ralph, Alec, Jeannie and Howie meet to discuss all the discrepancies. Ralph shows how the burned man is not in the footage. They agree that the next step is to figure out what happened in Dayton, and Alec suggest someone he worked with up there once, Bill Hodges. Bill has passed away, but the business is now run by a woman named Holly Gibney who he hires.
Holly: July 22-24thChapters 1 - 11 Holly first visits Tommy and Tuppence. She learns they left the flyer/menu on the van on April 19th of that year. (The Maitlands visited Dayton on the 21st.) She checks with the police and they say the car would have been impounded by the 20th. She then pays a visit to the hospital that Peter Maitland is at. It leads to her discovery that there was another murder on April 25th. Two girls, the same ages as Terry's daughters, were murdered in a similar fashion to Frankie. A man named Heath Holmes arrested. Like Terry, he was never tried. He committed suicide on June 7th. Heath Holmes was an orderly at the hospital. She questions a woman that worked with him and finds out that Heath Holmes had physically bumped into Terry Maitland at the hospital. Heath's mother had killed herself soon after his death. When she updates Ralph, he asks her to fly back so they can chat.
Visits: July 25thChapters 1 - 12 After strange Jack's encounter, a figure visits him. It has the word CAN'T tattooed on its hand. The figure tells him he has cancer and that he gave it to him, but he needs to do what he's told. Jeannie gets a visit from a shadowy figure in the wee hours of the morning. It tells her to tell her husband to stop his investigation or they'll all be killed. On his knuckles are the words MUST. She tells Ralph who insists that there's no way someone could have gotten in. Given the connection with Terry and "Holmes" meeting and resulting in a cut as well as "Terry" and Claude meeting and resulting in a cut, Ralph wants to talk to Claude. He shows Jeannie a picture of Claude and she says he was the man who threatened her. Ralph talks to John Zellman, the manager of the club where Claude works as a bouncer. John says that Claude got in early on July 10. He's currently on vacation. His mother lives in Texas and her name is Lovie. Ralph drives to his mom's place and finds Claude there. Ralph wasn't the one who initially questioned Claude, so he pretends to be someone else so as not to alarm Claude. He acts like he's just here to inquire about Terry. Claude is the one with the CAN'T and MUST tattoos. But the situation is not straightforward. Jeannie says she saw him at 4 AM. Claude's mother talks about him making her breakfast at 6 that morning. There's no way he could've done both since the two places are too far away to drive in that time frame. Jeannie says it's just like Terry all over again with Claude being in two places at once.
Macy's Tells Gimbels: July 25thChapters 1 - 17 Howie, Alec, Jeannie, Bill, Yune and Marcy and Holly meet up in Flint in Howie's office. They review the Heath Holmes case which is very much a deja vu of the Terry Maitland situation. There's DNA evidence that matches up, he's seen talking to the girls, etc. They also review evidence that shows that some of Heath Holmes's fingerprints are on "Terry's" things, like the van and the belt buckle. Holly then shows them a clip from a movie. It's about the Mexican booeyman that Yune had talked about. It's called "Mexican Wrestling Women Meet the Monster." (It's a luchadora movie, which is sort of a Mexican version of a superhero movie, except all the superheros are attractive female wrestlers.) In Spanish, the monster is called "El Cuco" and in Spain he's known as "El Hombre con Saco" (the Man with the Sack). In Portugal, he's Pumpkinhead. Holly also shows them how El Cuco is depicted as having straw for eyes. They theorize that the Outsider is a grief-eater that lives off the sadness of others. They also think that when El Cuco replicates into someone, it has access to their memories as well. When he replicates, it's a process that takes time and he can look like he's "blurry" or "burned" since he's transforming (hence the burned man who doesn't appear on tape and the blurry fingerprints). The transformation process also produces the black goo they've all seen. They decide that since Claude is clearly the next person he's going to replicate, they need to go down to see Claude in Texas. Meanwhile, Jack gets more visits from the figure, who reminds him that he needs to do what he's told to get rid of the cancer.
No End to the Universe: July 26thChapters 1 - 7 Before they head off, Holly stays with Ralph and Jeannie. When Jeannie tells her about seeing Claude in her kitchen, Holly takes a UV light and scans the chair that Jeannie had seen him in. There's a yellowish splatter, confirming that he was really there. Holly theorizes he wasn't entirely there -- it was a semi-physical projection of himself. She also theorizes that projecting itself is tiring for it and uses up its energy.
Bienvenidos a Tejas: July 26thChapters 1 - 16 Jack travels to Texas to hunt them down. He's been told to kill Ralph. In Texas, the group meets with Claude and his mother Lovie. They are both welcoming and friendly. Lovie believes them, even about the supernatural stuff. Lovie and Claude know of El Cuco as "Farnicoco" (the Hooded Man). Knowing that El Cuco can likely read Claude's thoughts, they ask Lovie to send him away. Claude goes to pick up food. They tell her about this vampire-esque creature, which Holly thinks is currently weak. They are trying to figure out where it might be resting while to regains its energy. ("The outsider hibernates in or near places of the dead, preferably those associated with the bloodline of the person he’s changing into or out of.") She tells them about Claude's uncle and cousins who died in a cave collapse at the Marysville Hole. The group plans to go there the next day. When Claude gets back, they continue hiding their plans from Claude.
The Marysville Hole: July 27thChapters 1 - 27 Jack continues tracking the group, and arrives at the Marysville Hole before the other people. When he sees them he starts shooting, but gets bit by a rattlesnake and has to stop. In the end, Alex, Howie and Yune are shot. Yune is seriously injured, but the other two men are dead. Ralph finds where Jack is and when he tries to shoot Holly, Ralph fires three shots into Jack which kills him. They head into the cave, which is had been boarded up since it is still in danger of collapse. They are in the Chamber of Sound which has weird acoustics. They see The Outsider. His face is a mix of Claude and Terry's. It warns them that if they shoot, the cave will collapse. Holly pulls out a sock with ball bearings in it and clubs The Outsider with it. Its face caves in and wormlike things crawl out. She keeps bashing him until he's just a nest of worms. The worms try to follow them, but are unable to. Holly and Ralph escape the cave. Afterwards, they talk to everyone like Lovie and Claude and formulate a non-supernatural version of the events that make clear that Terry is innocent. They need to make sure everyone's story is straight.
Flint City: AfterSamuels has to explain the police department's actions now that Maitland has been cleared. Ralph is still haunted by dreams of maggots. He reminds himself that the creature never touched him. The book ends with Holly reassuring him that they're fine and them saying goodbye.
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