In Stephen King’s latest, “The Outsider,” out now, a police detective and a forensic private investigator track down a shapeshifting boogeyman who likes to frame people for sadistic crimes.
A local baseball coach is accused of violently assaulting and murdering a young boy. There’s equal proof of both that he definitely wasn’t at the crime scene when the murder happened and that his DNA was all over the crime scene. How can this be? Are both true? And what is “Truth”? That question is what King tries to answer in the first half of the book.
I’ve seen reviews that call “The Outsider” “an ‘It’ for the Trump Era,” and while this book does deal with what one could call the phenomenon of “fake news,” that comparison couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, the titular Outsider shares a lot of characteristics with Pennywise. Yes, a key tenant of defeating the monster has to do with perception and belief.
But more than anything, “The Outsider” is about reckoning with an evil world and finding some good among the depravity, and encouraging others to do the same. While the book never mentions religion, there is a belief system, and it basically boils down to: The world is awful, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
This is nothing new for King. Many of his books have dealt with matters of faith or belief before (“The Green Mile,” “It,” “The Dead Zone” and “Carrie,” just to name a few). Recently, he’s been delving more and more into spiritual matters.
While promoting his Hard Case Crime novel “Joyland” in a 2013 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” King elaborated on his ever-changing belief in God:
“I choose to believe it. … I mean, there’s no downside to that. If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But, at the same time, there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, ‘Well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar,’ and you have to wonder about that guy’s personality — the big guy’s personality. And the thing is — I may have told you last time that I believe in God — what I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts and I refuse to be pinned down to something that I said 10 or 12 years ago. I’m totally inconsistent.”
Indeed, the belief system that I mentioned earlier pertaining to “The Outsider” was also present in another King work, 1996’s “Desperation.” in a series of interviews with TIME about his longest books, King elaborated:
“I was raised in a religious household, and I really wanted to give God his due in this book. So often, in novels of the supernatural, God is a sort of kryptonite substance, or like holy water to a vampire. You just bring on God, and you say “in his name,” and the evil thing disappears. But God as a real force in human lives is a lot more complex than that…I always wanted to say that you can still reconcile the idea that things are not necessarily going to go well without falling back on platitudes like ‘God has a plan’ and ‘This is for the greater good.’ It’s possible to be in pain and still believe that there is some force for good in the universe. That certainly doesn’t mean to say that everybody should go out and join the First United Church of My God Is Bigger Than Your God. That’s half the trouble with the world. Maybe more.”
Religious themes have become more present in King’s later work, too. With “Joyland,” “The Colorado Kid,” (another Hard Case Crime entry) “Revival” and now “The Outsider,” King seems to be increasingly looking at how we choose to believe things to help us cope, and whether or not that is good.
In “Joyland,” much stock is put into stories about angels and ghosts. “The Colorado Kid” is a book-length palaver that probes why we seek out mysteries in the first place, and how our conclusions about those mysteries say everything about us and ultimately, not a lot about what actually happened. The antagonist of “Revival” is a jaded minister who takes his anger at God and uses it to fuel his sinister motives.
And in “The Outsider,” King takes all of that a step further, creating a villain who feeds off of duplicity and differing beliefs. Because of The Outsider, discontent is sowed. Divisions that already existed are deepened. Hearsay and stereotypes are treated as Gospel. And that’s all before finding out that the basis for the villain came from a “La Llarona”-esque Mexican fable.
But for as dastardly as the villain is in “The Outsider,” King’s solution is to simply believe in him. Because if there is evil in the world, there surely must be another force of good to counteract it.
This is shown toward the end of “The Outsider,” when police detective Ralph Anderson is discussing the existence of a supernatural being. His partner, private investigator Holly Gibney, urges him to believe.
“God, help me tell him what I need to tell him, because this is the only chance I’ll have. And let him hear me. Please god, let him hear me.
She said, ‘Every time you and the others talk about the outsider, it’s conditional.’
‘I’m not sure I understand you, Holly.’
‘I think you do,’ she said. ‘If he exists. Supposing he exists. Assuming he exists.’
Ralph was silent.
‘I don’t care about the others, but I need you to believe, Ralph. I need you to believe. I do, but I’m not enough.’
‘No,’ she said fiercely. ‘No. Listen to me. I know it’s crazy. But is the idea of El Cuco any more inexplicable than some of the terrible things that happen in the world? Not natural disasters or accidents, I’m talking about the things some people do to others. Wasn’t Ted Bundy just a version of El Cuco, a shape-shifter with one face for the people he knew and another for the women he killed? The last thing those women saw was his other face, his inside face, the face of El Cuco. There are others. They walk among us. You know they do. They’re aliens. Monsters beyond our understanding. Yet you believe in them. You’ve put some of them away, maybe seen them executed.'”
In the end, King is saying that the worst evils in the world are the ones that permeate our everyday lives, committed by everyday people. Do those evil urges come from ourselves, or from some “Outsider”? The book argues that it’s a combination of both, but we can overcome all of those evils by believing that good will win out.
Maybe, just barely.