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Book Review: No one can beat Stephen King in the art of building suspense

BooksBook Review: No one can beat Stephen King in the art of building suspense

In his latest novel, Stephen King shuffles between the natural and supernatural worlds, concocting a clever mash-up of crime fiction and horror genres. Abhijeet Loreng finds the book unputdownable.


The Outsider by Stephen King


Pages: 576

Price: Rs 699

The debate between the natural and the supernatural is as old as time itself. It is never-ending. For most of us, the natural world around us forms the limits of our perception and understanding of what constitutes the real world. But what if the natural world is unable to give answers to some of the questions that confront us? Do we make the leap and look for answers in the supernatural world, or do we simply dismiss it as a figment of the imagination of some un-enlightened souls?

These are the troubling questions that confront Detective Anderson, the protagonist in Stephen King’s latest novel, The Outsider, who is investigating a rape and homicide of an 11-year-old boy. All the evidence point towards a popular baseball coach Terry Maitland, who was seen by several witnesses with the victim near the place of crime and blood over him on that fateful day. His fingerprints and DNA match those found at the crime scene. It looks like an open-and-shut case, but is it? Maitland himself has a rock-solid alibi and several witnesses to corroborate that he was in another city at the time of the crime, which, even the police grudgingly admit, seems to be true. So was Maitland at two places at the same time, and if so how? Or is there something else to the puzzle that the police have missed out?

The brilliantly conceived opening scene of The Outsider sets the tone for a compelling story which shuffles between what the eyes can and cannot see and what the heart believes but the mind does not. The author smartly cuts between scenes from the present and the recent past as King introduces us to the different characters and sets the ball rolling on a compelling read.

The Outsider is set in a fictional small town, Flint City in Oklahoma, and it takes us down the dark alleys on the “other side” which we call the supernatural and forces us to confront our own inner demons. King weaves a clever plot that starts off as a police procedural story slowly and cleverly moving towards the horror genre. What else would one expect from the master of horror and suspense? The transition from a murder mystery to a horror story is so smooth and natural that one is almost tempted to believe that supernatural forces really exist among us and are responsible for some of the happenings to which we might fail to find a logical answer. 

The Outsider also introduces us to life in small-town America where everyone knows everyone and the whole community lives like an extended family; where nothing much happens but when it does it can shake the very foundations of society and turn friends into foes as easily. It also shows the fragility of our times when television visuals tend to play such a dominant role in our lives, numbing our ability to think and analyse and getting easily swayed by what we see on our television screens. 

The Outsider also tries to tackle a number of issues from our day-to-day life. For example, the fragility of our relations in this superficial world. What starts off as a gruesome murder which can shake anyone to the core leads to the portrayal of the difficulties that policemen face in the discharge of their duties.  One small misstep by the police can often derail the wheels of justice, leading to unforeseen tragedies; these are things which can weigh heavily on the conscience of policemen who are first and foremost human beings. That’s what happens to Anderson, who finds himself confused between two sets of two absolutely airtight sets of evidence which contradict each other. 

Even when he is presented with a more “logical” explanation by Private Detective Holly Gibsney, about the presence of some supernatural being whom she prefers to call “The Outsider”, and mounting evidence around him of the presence of such a creature, Anderson finds it hard pressed to believe that such a thing could be committing these gruesome murders. But not knowing what to do, he goes along with this trail reluctantly. King shows us how we humans like to limit ourselves to believing only those things which seem rational, little realising that there is a world beyond the “real world” which does exist, only that we cannot see it or refuse to see it. But when these two worlds collide it generates so much heat that it threatens to burn everyone, believers and non-believers, and everything that comes in touch with it.

Anderson must put aside his lack of belief in the supernatural and join PI Gibsney in trying to stop this monster before he gets his next victim. As they race against time we are treated to a nail-biting climax that will leave you wanting more. 

The Outsider may not be King’s best work till date, but it is good enough to merit mention alongside his other more popular works. The suspense and the build-up to the exciting climax is the legendary King at his very best. The Outsider will keep King’s fans happy and is sure to add a few new ones to his fan base as well. The novel is surely a page-turner which one finds hard to put down as one starts reading it. The horror element does not have the shock value but it is sure to give you the goosebumps, especially when you read it alone. Above all, The Outsider is worth a buy. 

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