Darkness at the Edge of Town

Whenever I’m reading something online I always appreciate the kind souls who write in bold capitals: WARNING! SPOILERS! There are some mean-spirited folks out there who seem to delight in spoiling a movie or a TV series or even a book. Some butthead online ruined an episode of The Walking Dead way back in season 6 and I stopped watching the show. It was ruined.

So when I heard Stephen King was coming out with a new book titled The Outsider, I was hesitant about reading anything about it online. But being me, I went online because I had no idea what the book was about. The first word in an article about the book that caught my eye was ‘crime procedural.’ My gut sank. I may have even switched to YouTube to watch clips of cats falling off stuff.

I didn’t want a King book about crime and murder. Well, yeah, I wanted the murder part but what I wanted to read about was a monster. Give me a little of that old something’s-hiding-under-my-bed-and-is-reaching-out-to-touch-my-foot. The Outsider didn’t seem to offer up anything supernatural but hell, it’s a Stephen King book. And in the words of Misery’s Annie Wilkes, “I’m his number one fan.”

Set in the small town of Flint City, Oklahoma, The Outsider opens with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Frank Peterson. Horrible things have been done to him. Throat ripped out, violated with a tree branch. The stuff of every parent’s nightmare. Detective Ralph Anderson begins pulling in eyewitnesses who all describe seeing the same man in the vicinity of Frank Peterson: Terry Maitland, teacher and Little League coach. In fact, Terry is a well-known and well liked citizen and has coached hundreds of children over the years. He even coached Detective Anderson’s son back in the day.

The evidence is stacking up against Terry Maitland and when the DNA comes back from samples collected from the Peterson boy it’s a match for Terry. With a few other officers in tow, Anderson decides to arrest Maitland during a huge Little League game. With the stands filled with nearly 1,500 spectators, Anderson approaches the dugout, handcuffs Maitland’s hands in front of him, and reads him his rights. Now, I know what you’re thinking (and no, I haven’t been drinking): of course this guy is guilty as hell. He tore the throat out of a child, raped him, and left enough physical evidence behind to send him to death row to ride the needle.

As Terry pleads his innocence, a little niggling worry started in the back of my mind. And I think everyone is guilty of something. But something about Terry Maitland comes across as innocent. Detective Anderson has seen many horrors during his career. He knows a child rapist and killer could be beloved by the town, attend church every Sunday, and still be a predator. Anderson thinks he has this case closed and solved, eager for Terry Maitland to go to trial and get the needle.

Then the unexpected happens and throws a wrench in Anderson’s case. At the time of Frank Peterson’s murder, Terry Maitland was 200 miles away attending a conference which had the author Harlan Coben as a guest speaker. Not only was Terry with several other teachers, the event was taped. During the question and answer period of the talk, a camera shows Terry stand up to ask a question. There’s no way Terry Maitland killed Frank Peterson. But all that DNA….how is that even possible? I went down several rabbit holes trying to think of a way that could happen. I got stuck in one rabbit hole thinking maybe Terry had a twin he didn’t know about and the twin shows up exacting some kind of ancient twin revenge. Detective Anderson is spinning his wheels, wanting Terry to go to trial and death row but also having heavy doubts.

DON’T WORRY! NO SPOILERS AHEAD.

Remember how I said I wanted a monster, something supernatural? I wanted a good old Stephen King book that was like his first dozen books? Well, he delivered. I’ll give you this little morsel. Picture it: a man with a lumpy, misshapen face and straw for eyes. That is all.

The Outsider is like a comfortable old sweater that fell in the back of your closet and is discovered only when you turn 40 and crawl into the back of your closet to cry and eat a sleeve of Oreos. Not that I do that. Often. King has created memorable characters (I was at work the other day and suddenly found myself thinking about one of them and wondering what they would do next with their life) and a plot so fast and full of action that I was saddened when I reached the end. If you’re looking for a return of the old King (Return of the King! See what I did there?) where he indulges all your dark obsessions and fears, The Outsider is a book to pick up and devour. But keep your feet from dangling off the end of the bed.