I’ve only met Stephen King once, and that was at an early Norwescon (1979, I think) near Seattle, Washington (the airport is now in the city of SeaTac, WA) at the Hyatt. I had brought my first-edition review hardcover of The Stand, issued by Doubleday, and he dutifully signed it. All I remember of him is a very large, burly lumberjack-looking guy with a beard, wearing lumberjack-ish clothes. This was fairly shortly after The Stand was issued; at the time, he was just Stephen King, and not STEPHEN KING!
In fact, I believe The Stand was only his third hardcover book; at the time he had Carrie, ’Salem’s Lot, and The Shining out (plus a Signet paperback of Rage—as Richard Bachman); he was surprised to see a hardcover of The Stand so quickly. Now, only 40 or so years later, I am reviewing his—according to Google—sixtieth (!) novel. (Interestingly enough, there are more than twenty books by other people about King and his writing!)
King appears to be a very polarizing figure, at least among readers of my acquaintance. (Very few of the people I know, either live or on social media, are not readers. I would have little in common with non-readers, I think.) When I announced on Facebook that I was eagerly awaiting the advent of this book at my house, I got nearly as many snarky, or adverse, comments as “likes.”
One friend—who admitted he hadn’t read more than four or five books by King—said King’s books were responsible for a number of dents in his wall (along with Dan Brown’s). Another cited Sid Ziff’s comment: “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.” (According to what I could find out, Bennett Cerf attributed the quote to Dorothy Parker in 1962.) Yet another friend said she hadn’t read any King—not due to his writing, but due to a low threshhold of fear on her part! As far as I’m concerned that’s a perfectly valid reason not to read King. Those who complain that he’s a bad writer rather than just saying they don’t like his writing are, in my opinion, setting their own opinions above everyone else’s.
From the dust jacket of The Outsider: “Mr. Mercedes [was] an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel… 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by the New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller… He is the recipient of the 2018 PEN America Literary Service Award, the 2014 National Medal of Arts, and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.” That seems excessive for a “bad writer,” wouldn’t you say?**N.B.**
I’ve been reading King’s fiction and non-fiction since early in his career; in my opinion two of the best “scary” vampire books are ’Salem’s Lot and Robert McCammon’s They Thirst. (P.N. Elrod’s vampire detective books are among the most fun ones. But I digress.) You want scary? He’s got scary. You want detective fiction? He’s got that in spades—see the Bill Hodges trilogy (which includes Mr. Mercedes) and Joyland. YA? How about The Eyes of the Dragon? Baseball-related? The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon will work. (Not that it’s germane, but it seems like 90% of King’s fiction has been turned into TV or movies.) Anyway, for someone who’s supposed to be a “horror” writer, he’s surprisingly versatile.
Not that he’s perfect, by any means. Early in his career, I noticed that he has at least one fairly major plot point in many of his books that is simply wrong, but he or his editor(s) didn’t bother to check it out. An example is in The Stand, where Harold Lauder leaves a chocolate thumbprint in a diary. But Lauder’s favourite candy bar was PayDay, which at that time had never made a chocolate bar (I don’t know if they still do, but shortly after the book came out they did make a chocolate PayDay.) There is something in almost any King book to upset someone. Every writer (and I include myself) makes missteps in his or her writing.
The Outsider (remember? This is a review of it) is King’s newest fiction; I will try to give my review without too much spoilage. Some people don’t even like to read the cover blurbs (I’m not one of those; on the other hand, I know at least one person who said he read the ending of this book on the supermarket shelf!), so I try not to upset other people by telling what they’re going to be reading.
It’s a grim crime novel, in one sense. It’s definitely got some out-of-the-ordinary connections in it, however. It also brings back one of the characters from the Bill Hodges trilogy, though I won’t tell you which one. If you liked the trilogy (or the limited TV series made from it, which I think was stellar), you will probably like this one, though it’s somewhat grimmer than that was in a way.
The locale is Flint City—I guess Oklahoma; King mentions that state in his afterword—and the time is contemporary, as are so many of King’s novels. It’s summer, and the local Little League team is in a crucial game which will determine whether they make the state finals. The team is coached by Terry Maitland, a schoolteacher, who is at that crucial game.
A few days earlier, a citizen, who is walking his dog, discovers the body of 11-year-old Frank Peterson, who has been obscenely mutilated and had his throat torn out; all the parents in town are frightened for their own kids and angry as hell. What the police—and Detective Ralph Anderson in particular—find out, is that the perpetrator of this brutal crime is Terry Maitland. There is no doubt about it; not only are there several witnesses who saw Maitland with the boy, but also saw the white van used to abduct him being driven by Maitland. And another witness saw Maitland with blood on his clothing, blood he said was from a nosebleed. There are fingerprints in the boy’s blood, and the police have sent out for DNA testing (and will take cheek swabs from Maitland when he is arrested).
Because Maitland is a friend of the Andersons, and because he has personally coached, and laid hands on Ralph’s son, Det. Anderson is extremely upset, and decides to make an example of Maitland by arresting him in front of (practically) the whole town—at the ball game. He does so, and a bewildered Terry Maitland is led away in handcuffs.
Bewildered, and rightly so: Terry Maitland was 75 miles away in Capital City, with several other teachers—stayed the night—in order to hear popular crime author Harlan Coben speak. Not only does Terry have several respectable witnesses, he has been caught on videotape asking Coben a question at approximately the same time this crime was committed. How can a man be in two places at one time?
The town’s witnesses are rock-solid citizens, all of whom swear it was Terry; likewise, other teachers—and the videotape—all seem to bear out Terry’s story that he was in another town at the time. The Flint police, Ralph Anderson et al., think that Terry must have had an accomplice; and they are determined to break him and his story down.
I can’t go much farther with this recounting without spoilers—one minor one: yes, there’s a paranormal element. This is King, after all—suffice it to say that there are one or two twists that none of the major characters could have foreseen, though savvy King readers might be a bit ahead of the curve. The writing here is standard King—as in Carrie, he’s gone back to some “official documents” in lieu of narrative; a small amount of the background seems a bit forced: here I’ll put in a character quirk so this person will be somewhat less cardboardy sort of stuff. A lot of writers do that to shorten the work; King’s books seem to get longer and longer.
Although, to be fair, that’s not necessarily true; they alternate, sort of, between really short, regular book length, and really long. This story ends on page 560, so it’s one of the semi-longer ones.
Did I like it? Yes, I did; as a writer, King usually makes me want to know what’s coming next. I get excited about characters and plot developments. In this book, the only standout character is the link between this one and the Bill Hodges trilogy. That’s not a bad thing; he has a way of making characters you’ll remember, like Roland Deschain the Gunslinger, Harold Emery Lauder, Nick Andros, Dolores Claiborne, Annie Wilks, and so on. I may be one of the few who eagerly awaits each new Stephen King novel (actually, my wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, does too); but that’s all right with me. Those who don’t are the ones who lose out. Four flibbets out of five! ¤¤¤¤
**Nota Bene**: None of that is meant to suggest these people should not hold the opinions they do of King’s writing; my Australian mother used to say “Chacun à son goût, as the Frenchman said as he drank his own bathwater.” (No, I don’t get it either.) There are a few very popular writers whose writing I despise; popularity is no sign of quality. I’m only using these people to show that King isn’t universally liked for various reasons. They can, as far as I’m concerned, dislike him (or any other writer) for any or no reason.
Comments? Brickbats? Compliments? Register and comment here or on Facebook. I’d love to hear from you. You don’t have to agree with me, or like what I have to say to comment, either. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next week!