Stephen King’s latest horror/mystery novel The Outsider is in many ways standard King fare. It’s fast-paced, disturbing, and horrific, although he does give us some good guys to root for. Where the novel surprises is in its connection of folklore to religious themes.
A basic description of the book’s plot almost requires a trigger warning in and of itself. A young boy, Frank Peterson, is found in the woods, dead and brutally raped. The crime would have shaken the small Midwestern town on any occasion, but doubly so in this case, for all of the evidence points to the little league baseball coach Terry Maitland, a man respected by everyone in town. Things grow as confusing as they are twisted when the presence of Terry’s DNA all over the scene, combined with multiple eyewitness accounts, runs into conflict with Terry’s seamless alibi, including video evidence.
It should be of little surprise that King then introduces a supernatural element, given both King’s penchant for such stories and the fact that the novel is, in fact, called The Outsider. King injects mucho f his own creativity into the development of the sinister character, but he also draws from folktales, particularly that of the Latin American lore of el cucho, a terrifying incarnation of the boogeyman. The fact that he is a boogeyman is not lost on the book’s characters. Ralph, the detective originally assigned to the case and the closest thing the book has to a main character, finds this an especially hard pill to swallow. While his wife suggests the possibility of a supernatural villain a la Sherlock Holmes (“once you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth”), Ralph resists. Why? Because, put simply, he’s a naturalist.
Not in the strictly philosophical or scientific sense, mind you. It’s not as though he goes around quoting Sam Harris. But when his wife brings up his regular attendance in church, he says he goes there not because he believes in God, but because he likes the feeling of it all. The whole enterprise that the novel forces him into – being willing to accept a supernatural villain – itself runs contrary to every fiber of his being. He insists that there must be a natural explanation. Or even that if he can’t explain it, that doesn’t mean the supernatural explanation should be accepted. Sometimes weird stuff happens. Predictably, that idea doesn’t last through the book.
Within this framework, the novel is a thrilling story with tremendous forward momentum, and surprisingly effective character development, given the large cast of characters. In addition to Ralph and his wife, we also have Terry, Terry’s wife, their lawyer Howie, city D.A. Bill, and P.I. Holly, among others, most of which receive some degree of introspection. It also spares no details of the crime’s depravity, nor of its effects. The gruesome details of the rape, the depression and self-loathing of the victim’s father, all of it is explicit, gruesome, and dark. As it should be. When tackling an evil this profound, stories should show us all of its ugliness. That may make it difficult to read (and this book is nothing if not that), but it also fills the reader with a sense of the injustice, immorality, and vile cruelty of it all. It gives a face to absolute evil, one of the most valuable aspects of the horror genre.
But most intriguing for a horror story is how it connects to actual religion. I’ve already mentioned how the question of theism connects to the existence of el cucho. This is brought up multiple times, and is explored implicitly as well. Investigating supernatural evil is not terribly dissimilar from examining miracles, each requiring belief in something outside of our world.
Dark though it is, The Outsider invites the connection of supernatural evil to supernatural good. I don’t pretend to think it will cause naturalists to seriously rethink their position, but it may make this valuable aspect of horror more clear to Christians. In both looking at evil in all of its vile ugliness and balancing that with a strong sense of right and wrong, The Outsider is a valuable novel, and one of my favorites that I’ve read this year.