Stephen King’s The Outsider is a master-class in plotting

outsider.jpgStephen King often cites the influence of crime/mystery authors, from brutalist Jim Thompson to classicist Agatha Christie. He has also showcased a career-long interest in the intersections and tensions between genres, often pitting disparate modes against one another (consider the Western/high fantasy/horror fusion of his Dark Tower series). Hell, even his most explicitly horror-specific work is often working within the conventions of “literary” (or non-genre identifying) fiction.

It’s no surprise, then, that his latest novel The Outsider plays out as a police procedural narrative that gradually succumbs to the infection of supernatural horror. The author tried a nearly identical maneuver to less successful effect in 2016’s End of Watch, the final entry in his Bill Hodges trilogy. To that end, his meta-reflective doppelganger riff The Dark Half (1989) showcases another variation on this theme. As such, The Outsider reads not as some unprecedented betrayal of genre-defined rules, but as another iteration of a career-long M.O.—to oversimplify, novels like The Shining (1977) and Pet Sematary (1983) are basically domestic dramas invaded by horror conventions, so why not apply similar principles to the mystery genre?

The Outsider is absorbing as a pure exercise in plotting: King explores his “immovable object against unstoppable force” concept with great aplomb. He writes in his typically minimalist late-career prose style, which lends to compulsive reading but arguably less immersive effect than his early masterpieces (I must admit, I really do miss the intensity and imagery-laden excesses of novels like It [1986], The Tommyknockers [1987] and even Insomnia [1994]). Granted, The Outsider’s debatable lack of total immersion should not be attributed solely to King’s relatively recent change in style. The novel’s generally surface-level and lightly quasi-omniscient characterization is necessitated in part by mystery conventions: the author cannot fully disclose his characters’ deepest secrets and reflections, because (A) it could result in premature plot revelation, and (B) it would be counter-productive to what is essentially plot-driven fiction.

As with Revival (2014), I would have loved to read a longer and more fleshed-out version of The Outsider, allowing for the kind of richly descriptive language and wide-spanning social diagnosis that bolsters King’s best novels. While I ultimately think this is a pretty “minor” book, that’s not so much a slight as it is a tribute to the author’s phenomenal body of work. It’s not without its faults, but it’s engrossing and well-crafted fiction just the same.

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