Review: The Outsider, by Stephen King

July 12, 2018 Featured, Reviews Comments (0) 346

Stephen King is really proud of It. He’s so proud, he’s written that book three times: In 1986 under the original title, again in 2001 as Dreamcatcher, and now a third time in 2018 as The Outsider. That might sound like a criticism, and with Dreamcatcher it might be, but King’s latest book reads almost like a reinterpretation of It through the eyes of a more mature narrator, who recognizes–and suffers from–more adult fears and emotions.

With The Outsider, King turns from his recent literary bent to his pulp-horror roots. It’s a move that will satisfy many long-time fans, but King–still one of America’s finest writers, despite the genre stigma–brings some new tricks, maturing as an author and a citizen of American society.

For roughly its first third, The Outsider reads like a procedural murder mystery, with almost no hint of any supernatural elements–an effect that is undone, unfortunately, by the book’s evocative cover. The story concerns Terry Maitland, a mild-mannered youth sports coach in a fictional Oklahoma town, who is arrested for the rape and murder of a young boy. The police have damning evidence of his guilt, including a number of eyewitnesses, which deepens the mystery when it turns out Terry also has an airtight alibi and absolutely could not have committed the crime.

With the police and the town convinced of Terry’s guilt, we follow an investigation that eventually leads to the supernatural being, the titular Outsider, depicted on the cover.

I’ll save the spoilers for now, but tell you that Stephen King fans will not be disappointed. In addition to delivering the fast, entertaining read we’ve all come to expect, The Outsider includes almost all of King’s hallmarks: The mysterious evil that gradually comes into focus; the ragtag group of friends (the Ka-tet) who must first convince themselves the supernatural evil is real, then set off to fight it; the long, vivid descriptions of terrible, unpleasant deaths; the patsy villain recruited into service by the evil monster, with a grudge against the heroes and a body progressively decaying; the eventual Campbellian descent into a literal cave; and the too-long, irrelevant conversations full of pleasantries that you somehow still enjoy because these characters are just so damn folksy.

What’s different is the way King moves the camera away from the monster almost entirely, instead exploring the rippling consequences of brutality and murder. Much of the story follows the relatives and friends of the dead, which serves both the plot and the book for the better. King also makes no effort to hide his political allegiance: Trump’s name appears in graffiti at the scenes of murders, and at least once a protagonist thinks disdainfully that another person “probably voted for Donald Trump.” The story integrates Mexican-American characters, Tex-Mex settings, and Mexican mythology, which might not be a political choice, but in the current era and coming from King–whose work usually centers on white New Englanders–it seems a clear embrace of the people Trump rejects as Americans.

King’s fans will find The Outsider treading familiar ground, but in a new and interesting way. The creature spends most of the time off-screen, and is ultimately somewhat disappointing when we encounter it, but that is also typical for King, whose terrifying amorphous evil influence often turns out in the end to be a really big spider. There are similarities to Pennywise (intentionally, I think–more on that in a moment) and to Randall Flagg, but moreso even than other of King’s work, the monster really isn’t the point. The point is how the monster stirs our characters to examine their reality, and how even in our age of advanced technology, we’ll never understand the world as well as we believe. As becomes a sort of mantra by the end, “There is no end to the Universe.”


** HERE THERE BE SPOILERS **

As a reader, I have an odd relationship with Stephen King; he’s one of the first authors I really fell in love with, and yet I go long periods without reading his work. As soon as I do pick up a King book, I’m a superfan. I want to read another, and another, and I find myself on the Stephen King Wiki, reading fan theories and connections to the Dark Tower.

For those who are unfamiliar, King’s books have always shared certain commonalities–towns and characters who would appear, sort of coincidentally, in multiple books–but since the early 2000s, and the publication of the last few Dark Tower novels, those connections and confluences are much more frequent and intentional. In the Dark Tower series, King made clear that all of his stories take place across “The Multiverse,” parallel universes stacked like wheels with the Dark Tower as their axle.

Fans who study the Multiverse will immediately question whether the titular Outsider, AKA El Cuco, is related to the It/Pennywise creature, or to Dandelo from the Dark Tower. First off, I think the idea of a psychic vampire, however literal, is just something Stephen King finds upsetting and likes to write about. Many of his villains, even those that don’t literally feed on human emotion, retain a sort of ability to perceive the thoughts or feelings of their victims. If King had never formally declared his Multiverse, I think we’d call this a theme. But he did declare the Multiverse, so let’s talk about that.

I do believe the Outsider, AKA El Cuco, is a variant of the same “Todash monster” species, as fans have termed it, to which It/Pennywise and Dandelo belong. All share the practice of psychic vampirism, “eating” the emotions of their human victims, and all shared some ability to shape-shift and to read minds. I believe the term “outsider” refers to a being from Todash Space, or “outside,” although the characters don’t know that–just as it did in the off-hand mention of “an outsider” in Bag of Bones. I also think (though I’m not certain) the term is used to describe beings from Todash Space in the Dark Tower series.

I think King tips his hand when The Outsider uses the term “Ka” as a synonym for soul or life force, when he’s explaining himself to Holly and Ralph. This marks the creature as knowing something, at least, of the Dark Tower. As to its question about whether Holly had seen others like it, I’m not sure if that was a wink to the reader about It/Pennywise and Dandelo, or an in-canon line meant to illustrate that it suspected itself alone.

Assuming the Outsider is some variation of the Todash monster, I suspect Holly didn’t just enrage it when she called it an ordinary child rapist and pedophile, I suspect she also weakened it–much the way Pennywise, which fed on fear, was weakened by defiance and courage, I suspect this creature, which fed on sorrow and victimization, was weakened by confidence and judgment.

All that said, I also want to go on record that I’m not convinced King’s comment that It/Pennywise and Dandelo are “the same species,” was meant as seriously as fans have taken it. The whole thing might have been a hand wave, an off-the-cuff comment that has been treated as a Rosetta Stone to King’s Multiverse. So ultimately, who the hell knows?

Either way, to me the direct reference to “Ka” means this book is definitely connected with the Dark Tower, and King very intentionally wants us to see that. For whatever it’s worth.

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The Big Short is my favorite movie of this year’s awards season.

January 15, 2016 In The News, Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (1) 1653

bigshottrailerThe Big Short is my favorite movie of the 2016 Awards Season*. I feel a little bad saying that, in light of yesterday’s Oscar nominations and their slate of white, white (blonde) faces, and the fact that The Big Short is, well, short on both women and minority actors. But the fact is I watched it through twice, and would happily sit through a third viewing. The film is alternately funny and gutting, the cast is pretty much universally brilliant, and the directing–from Adam McKay, who brought us films like Anchorman, Anchorman 2, and Funny or Die’s The Landlord–is impressive, avant-garde without being distracting, and making a complicated subject accessible.

* Okay, it’s tied with Mad Max: Fury Road, but since that came out over the summer it doesn’t really feel like an Awards Season movie.

Not too accessible, mind you. Despite the sidebar scenes in which celebrities like Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, and Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath) break the fourth wall and explain complicated financial structures in layman’s terms–one of the film’s more unique and amusing contrivances–I frequently found myself leaning in so I could follow the fast-paced dialogue about derivatives, mortgage-backed-securities, credit swaps, and so on.

The Big Short is far from the first film about the 2008 Financial Crisis, but it might be the best combination of sweeping and accessible. Too Big to Fail captured the moves and conversations happening inside the banks and the Federal Reserve, and films like 99 Homes capture the human cost across the nation, but The Big Short takes a wider scope and time period to show the viewer what happened, through the eyes of a handful of professionals who predicted the crash. Continue Reading

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Book Review: Neal Griffin’s “The Benefit of the Doubt”

June 25, 2015 Books, Reviews Comments (0) 825

Neal Griffin’s debut novel, “The Benefit of the Doubt” is a page-turner of a thriller by an author with clear expertise in both police procedure and police culture, unflinching in its presentation of violence, racism, and vice. Set in small-town Wisconsin, the book explores the reality of small-town policing and the way crime and corruption go unchecked; think Fargo meets Copland. The book does not turn around a twist or reveal but relies on solid pacing and storytelling to hold the reader.

The story follows two men on intersecting paths. Ben Sawyer is a former big-city cop, used to dealing with gangs and violence but banished to rustic Wisconsin after his temper gets the better of him and he nearly kills a suspect. Harlan Lee is a felon on parole with a laundry list of scores to settle. As their lives gradually entangle (unbeknownst to either man), other characters are pulled in: The precinct’s dirtiest cop and corrupt new chief, a young lady cop fresh out of black-ops in Iraq, and Ben’s own wife and stroke-disabled father. Continue Reading

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HBO’s Game of Thrones: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken (S5E6)

May 18, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (1) 849

sansa-thrones

As usual, I’m playing fast and loose with spoilers from the show, from all the books (including sample chapters, and even from interviews and apocryphal material. You have been warned.

The writers on HBO’s show have one, and they’re going to play it over and over again.

As a fan of the book series, one of the more difficult things to accept from the TV is the reduction, to the point of near-elimination, of magical elements. In the books, magic steadily grows as an influence as Dany’s dragons age, but on the show we get dragons and White Walkers, and that’s about it. Even where magical plotlines seem to be set up–Berrick Dondarion, for instance–the show shies away from the supernatural. There’s no Coldhands, no Horn of Joramun, no glass candles, no Quaithe or Azor Ahai or any other prophecies, no glamour, and no Lady Stoneheart. At least, not yet.

The show runners have talked about magic, and their sense that it takes away from the realism of the show; that asking viewers to accept an undead Caitlin Stark or a magical door through the Wall is asking them to go a step too far. Instead, we get rape, and more rape, and–oh yeah–just a little more rape.

Rape is the go-to peril for any female character on the show, and while in earlier seasons the threat of rape was used with some skill to create tension–between Joffrey and Sansa, Brienne and Locke, or later Tyrion and Sansa–it’s now deployed with little art to elevate Ramsey into top-villain position. I’m reminded of that Stephen King theory about terror, horror, and revulsion. The series has devolved into Hostel territory, and like many people I found myself watching that final scene and hoping for some unexpected twist that never came. Instead we got the horrifying yet dull scene we all expected, even if it didn’t make sense for any of the characters involved.

I don’t need to go on about why this is such a weak storytelling choice; for that I’d recommend you read Laura Hudson at Wired. Hudson is particularly dead-on about how regressive this feels as a storyline; we’ve been down this road with Sansa already, and it’s just tiresome to have the writers try to re-tread. Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post is more forgiving of the choice, particularly the way it’s presented in contrast with the analogous scene from the novels; but I’d argue that if the best defense one can mount of this scene is “it could have been worse,” we’re not addressing the core problem. Specifically, that far too often when the show’s writers deviate from Martin’s source material, that deviation involves sexual violence against a woman.

If I’m honest, the writing on this show peaked with the Red Wedding, and hasn’t really been great since. Sure, there have been a few high points, but season four was basically clunky from beginning to end, and while some of the changes made in season six five are interesting and tighten up the narrative, the show is suddenly reliant on tropes and redundancies to drive the story. I know I don’t have the willpower to stop watching, from this point on I suspect I will be hate-watching.

Further thoughts are bullet-pointed: Continue Reading

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TMBG Countdown: Honorable Mentions

April 30, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (0) 600

A few songs that didn’t crack the top 26, but that I wanted to give special recognition for various reasons:

(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)

Call Connected Through the NSA (Podcast 4A, 2006)

TMBG’s response to revelations about Bush administration surveillance was a downloadable ringtone that reminded the user that every call was on a party line. It is, of course, totally irrelevant today.

Marty Beller Mask (Album Raises New and Troubling Questions, 2011)

One of the band’s most absurd songs, revealing drummer Marty Beller’s secret identity: Whitney Houston, who got sick of all the attention and really just wanted to play the skins in a rock band. The song was retired from live performance after less than a year when Whitney Houston was found dead. Continue Reading

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