I have always had an up-down reader relationship with Stephen King. His best book in my view (and I have not read many of his classics, so they’re not in the running here), is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. His worst was, hmm, maybe the Outsider? I liked much of Needful Things, and much of The Stand, and maybe Mr. Mercedes too though I have no real memory of it, but I didn’t get the appeal of The Dark Tower. I realize the following criticism is going to annoy King fans, so to speak to that:
King is obviously a great writer and much beloved. His ideas have shaped the zeitgeist and influenced everyone, including me, for decades. But that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t criticize the things I didn’t like.
So stop reading his books? Yes, probably. I picked up The Outsider looking to get some lessons from the master. And there are lessons within it, but there are far more caveats. Here is my opinion:
The Outsider has three main problems.
First off is the way King uses the paranormal to undercut everything that made the story gripping and intriguing. To explain, let’s look at the story, with SPOILERS. It is essentially a murder mystery story, with a young boy viciously raped and murdered, and the killer at large. Early scenes grippingly interweave witness testimony of the killer after the crime, covered in blood, with scenes of the police going to arrest him. Terry Maitland, he’s a respected local teacher.
This beginning is exciting. Maitland seems like a good guy. We’re muddled by the contradiction with the brutal crime. So the story develops, until the first killer twist, which was spoiled on the back of the book jacket so I was really just waiting impatiently for it to transpire – Terry couldn’t have killed the boy, because he was in another city at the time, with his colleagues, on videotape at a conference. Except how could he be, because there is his DNA evidence, and fingerprints, and so many witnesses at the scene of the crime?
That is a fascinating conundrum. It raises all kinds of impossible questions. We’re naturally thinking it’s a setup, but how did anyone set him up on that scale, with prints and DNA and the witnesses? What a puzzle! Even more, if someone went to all that trouble to set him up, how did they not realize he was going to be at a conference on videotape at the time?
Fantastic. What a tangled web. I’m very keen to see how King is going to cut through this Gordian knot of impossibilities. Will he pull a Tom Gordon and actually play this one out following the rules he’s set in the first half? Will it obey reality, or will he cut the Gordian knot with his standard fallback position of ‘paranormal’?
I read the book fearing he’d just go paranormal, but hoping he wouldn’t. I read through pages and pages of detailed discussion of the evidence, trying to figure out how this happened, getting invested in a real-world solution, though all the while I had a growing suspicion that none of it would matter at all, because there’d be a magical solution that made it all unimportant. Why get invested in the gritty detective work if the rules are about to get thrown out the window completely? What does DNA matter, or whether there’s a fingerprint on a book at the conference center, if ‘magic’? I had to restrain myself from reading a plot summary online – just to find out if King was going to resolve the story fully, or fall back into old habits.
He falls back into old habits. The killer is. (of course) some kind of psychic vampire doppelganger who eats pain. He turns himself into a copy of an innocent person, does crimes and gets witnessed, then feasts off the misery to follow. Not only the original crime, but the innocent man going to jail too, and his family getting raked over the coals.
It’s a good idea, I suppose. But given this lengthy execution, with such focus on the folksy detail of witness testimony and such a deep dive into the convolutions of the evidence chain, it only annoyed me. It sidesteps the entire question of how the real-world crime happened, what a real-world human’s motivation might be to commit this kind of crime, and just says – well, he’s evil, and he’s got super powers. It makes me feel like a sap for reading along with all those convolutions, and trying to figure out the puzzle, when really there’s no puzzle.
Learn to solve the Rubik’s cube? Ha, no. Just take all pieces off and stick them together fully assembled. Magic!
I suppose this is always my issue with King. Not in Tom Gordon – where the girl self-rescues using her own initiative. No magic there. Not in The Shining, where the madness is perfectly natural, and all the more terrifying. Not in Misery. But definitely in Needful Things. In The Stand, along with a huge dose of deus ex machina help.
Sigh. What can we say except that King wrote the first half of one type of book too well, then followed it with entirely a different second half? Without a doubt, this can work, but not for me with this execution. Going to ‘magic’ just undercuts any sense of reality, slapped me in the face for following the clue trail, and yeah…
Secondly, there’s the folksiness. This is King’s bread and butter, and he is good at it. Old folks spinning out a tale. Young folks talkng smack. A couple of racial slurs. Accents and patois. A lot of Americana. Deep dives into all the principal characters’ lives, kind of like Broadchurch, but without the constant rattling left to right of cycling through different suspects.
There is little reason to do a Broadchurch-style dive into all these peoples’ lives, because there is only one suspect throughout. The evidence only ever points toward him, away from him, toward, but simultaneously. So we get all these extra characters just as emotional backstory, and I found it exhausting. I started skipping. I don’t need this level of detail, weighing down such a thin line of tension. Like a lot of fat on a feeble skeleton.
It felt bloated and trudging. You could cut the book in half and lose, for me, nothing. The brief moments of folksiness would pop. The plot would zip along, and make the dive into magic less drawn out, and probably less annoying.
Again, probably King is not for me. He’s earned the right to write exactly what he wants. If that means going deep, yeah. People love it. Etc…
Thirdly, there’s the flip to Holly Gibney. Who is Holly Gibney? Well, as noted above I have read Mr. Mercedes (though I barely remember it) and in that there’s a detective hero called Bill. There are two sequels in which Bill gets a sidekick called Holly, who seems a bit of a New Age Miss Marple with an annoying fussiness, and then dies.
Now Holly Gibney comes into this story. Halfway through. Bringing the baggage of her backstory, which I don’t know, because I’ve never seen her before. Making this the fourth book in a series? Except there was no reference to that on the cover. It’s a stealth sequel. But she keeps talking about events from previous books. I have no idea. She keeps thinking about poor dead Bill, but how can I care about Bill when I don’t care about her?
Basically, she’s annoying. At this stage I was certainly annoyed by the flip over to magic anyway. Maybe I didn’t give her a fair shake. But I’m not sure what she really did other than come in and tell everyone to start thinking about magic possibilities. Insisting they believe. So yes, even though she turned out to be right, I didn’t want her to be. She represented the cheater’s answer to the interesting puzzle – a monster did it.
Well well, you might be saying to yourself. What did I expect, reading a Stephen King novel? Of course it went magical, because that’s what he does best! But as aforementioned, he does write real stuff sometimes. Shining. Tom Gordon. Misery. I think those are some of his best work. I love IT and also the spawn it created, like Stranger Things. But this is those with a kind of genre switch baked in. The novel opens so gritty and real, it seemed like it would be one of the reality-based books for him, a kind of King-infused detective procedural? And who wouldn’t want to read that? I bought it on the strength of that, fascinated how the puzzle would unknot.
But it didn’t. It was really just IT by another name. I suppose King’s tired of writing this style himself (hunting down the monster in its subterranean lair at the end), so that’s why he stuck on the procedural stuff in the first half. It doesn’t work for me. Go the whole hog, Mr. King!