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Literature / The Outsider

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The Outsider is a 2018 novel by Stephen King.

A child's violated corpse is found in the park. Eyewitnesses and DNA evidence quickly point to Terry Maitland, Little League coach, who is promptly arrested. As the case unfolds, Maitland insists he was out of town, something that is backed up by video footage. Could Maitland have been at two places at once or is something more sinister at work?

Preceded by the Mercedes Trilogy: Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch.

If you are looking for the acclaimed work of literary philosophy by Colin Wilson, that's a different book entirely and the tvtropes page hasn't been attempted yet.

Beware of unmarked spoilers.


The novel provides examples of:

  • Adult Fear: The idea that a person that you’ve known for years and trusted your children to be around could secretly be a child rapist and/or murderer. This is repeatedly mentioned, by both Ralph and people who saw the Outsider disguised as Terry in their statements to the police.
  • Agent Mulder: Ralph Anderson's wife, Jeannie, is very quick to conclude they must be dealing with something supernatural, since no natural explanation can be given for how Maitland could be in two places at once. Due to her experiences with Brady Hartsfield, Holly also has no trouble believing that something supernatural might be at work.
  • Agent Scully: Anderson himself however is quite skeptical, and keeps trying to find a logical explanation before finally realizing Jeannie is right.
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  • Almost Dead Guy: Between Anderson and Maitland after the latter gets shot. Ralph tells Maitland he won't make it, and urges him to confess now while he still can. Maitland, however, uses hist last breath to once again state his innocence, and ask Anderson how he's going to clear his conscience.
  • Anti-Hero: Detective Anderson starts the story off this way, presented as something of a gung-ho Cowboy Cop whose ethically-questionable arrest of Terry Maitland causes catastrophic damage to the lives of almost everyone involved in the Frank Peterson case. At the same time, he's also a loving and devoted family man, and the aftermath of the colossal fuckup in question is what pushes him to become The Atoner, as described below.
  • The Atoner: Detective Ralph Anderson becomes this after Maitland's death, as it very likely could've been avoided, or at least not been such a fiasco, if he hadn't made Maitland's arrest such a public affair to begin with.
  • Blackmail: The outsider seems to give officer Jack Hoskins skin cancer when he investigates a barn the former had been using as a hideout, and orders him to kill Ralph Anderson and the others for him in return for getting cured. In reality, it's not cancer but a skin rash.
  • Call-Back: Due to Holly's presence, the events and characters of the Bill Hodges trilogy are brought up. Most notably, the Happy Slapper is utilized to great effect.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Ralph has one near the end of the book, in which he sees the worms that were in the Outsider's head come out from under a fingernail and then flood out of his mouth.
  • Cell Phones Are Useless: There is no cell phone reception at the Marysville Hole, or miles around it. Hence why the protagonists can't call for help when they are under attack by Hoskins. The Outsider knows about this, and thus doesn't believe Anderson when he claims that they called for backup.
  • Cool Old Lady:
    • June Gibson, the Peterson's elderly neighbor, who saves Fred Peterson after his Bungled Suicide by performing mouth on mouth resuscitation.
    • Claude Bolton's mother, who not only provides Ralph, Holly, and their other cohorts food and company but proves key to them finding the Outsider's hideout.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: While Frankie Peterson's murder is not shown on-page, police interviews and autopsy reports make it horrifically clear that his death was a brutal, gory mess. Later on, another case that is eventually connected to the Outsider comes to light, involving twin girls who may have had it worse than Frankie.
  • Decoy Protagonist: In amazingly similar fashion to Janey in Mr. Mercedes, Terry Maitland is shot and killed halfway through the novel. Just as it happened all those books ago, his place as Deuteragonist is taken by Holly.
  • Destroy the Evidence: When Anderson finds a book in Cap City that has Maitland's fingerprints on it, DA Samuels tries to coax him into destroying it (which woud be easy since Anderson examined the book at home, and hasn't filed it as evidence yet). However, despite this new evidence even further undermining their case against Maitland, Anderson refuses and officially files the book as evidence.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Even in the context of the universe of the Mercedes Trilogy, the Outsider is freakish, monstrous, and unknowable.
  • Emotion Eater: In addition to eating flesh, the Outsider gains sustenance on negative emotions.
  • Evil Twin: The Outsider effectively functions as this to whoever he is impersonating.
  • Eye Scream: When Anderson is forced to shoot Ollie Peterson, his first shot misses because someone bumps into him at the last moment. The bullet instead strikes a shoulder mounted camera, resulting in the lens exploding and glass shards ending up in the eye of the camera man.
  • Facial Horror: The Outsider does this in different ways. Its face resembles something like putty with straws for eyes before it starts taking on the form of its next target, which is how it first shows itself to Terry’s younger daughter. Earlier, when Ralph sees it at the courthouse before Terry’s arraignment, it appears to be someone with a badly burned face.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Although she saved him, June Gibson quickly comes to regret her heroic deed and believes it would be better if she had let Fred Peterson die. He already lost his entire family, and now he's in a coma from which he might never wake up, and if he does his life will never be the same again due to the brain damage he suffered from near-suffocation.
  • Genre Shift: Within the novel, the story starts as a detective story, then gradually shifts towards a horror story involving a monster. For the Mercedes Saga as a whole, this story completes the gradual shift from hard-boiled detective stories set in a realistic world to more paranormal stories, by introducing the first Eldritch Abomination whereas the previous books all had human villains.
  • History Repeats: Holly once again bashes a terrible villain's brains out with the Happy Slapper. Not so lucky as Brady Hartsfield is the Outsider, though; Holly dead-out beats him to death with it.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Outsider can pass as human right down to the DNA, but he is clearly something quite different. He wields a variety of outright supernatural powers, and between transformations he looks human only in general shape, with poisonous, burned-looking skin and "eyes" that look more like bundles of straw than anything. It's never even made clear if "he" is the right word to use for a creature like that.
  • Identical Stranger: Discussed: Ralph Andersons' wife, who loves detective novels, suggests they might be dealing with one of these, hence why Terry Maitland could seemingly be in two places at once. Ralph counters her argument with that a lookalike would still have different fingerprints and DNA, to which she offers the theory that maybe it was the double who went to the writer's conference in Cap City while Terry stayed in Flint City and committed the murder. Ralph also dismisses this since that would mean the double successfully fooled 3 of Terry's colleagues who went to the same conference.
  • Knuckle Tattoos: As the Outsider takes on Claude Bolton's form, it manifests his "CANT" and "MUST" finger tattoos. It also twists their purpose; while Claude gave them to himself in prison as a self-enforcement of his vow to stay clean, the Outsider uses them for intimidation, especially to Jack Hoskins.
  • Laughing Mad: Arlene Peterson, Frankie's mother, finally loses it after a busy day of people coming to their house to remember her son, console her, and celebrate that the killer has been caught. She goes into frenzied, hysterical laughter, starts throwing leftovers around, and dumps a tray of lasagna one of the visitors brought on her head while laughing how Frankie may be gone, but she won't have to cook for months. She finally stops when the excitement gives her a heart attack, and is able to apologize to her husband before passing out.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: If you haven't read all three novels of the Bill Hodges trilogy, you will be spoiled on nearly everything of importance.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: When the protagonists track the Outsider to Marysville and learn he has chosen Claude Bolton as his new appearance, they are forced to keep Claude in the dark about their plans since everything Claude knows, the Outsider knows. Claude realizes this danger and willingly allows himself to be locked out of the loop.
  • The Lost Lenore: Holly misses Bill Hodges and frequently thinks of him.
  • Masked Luchador: The Outsider is a kind of boogeyman in Mexican folklore, called el Cuco, and references are made to an old, extremely cheesy series of films about a team of luchadoras, one of which features them fighting the creature.
  • Missing Reflection: The Outsider does not show up on camera. Anderson first notices this when he can't see a severely burned and disfigured man on any of the news footage about Maitland getting shot, even though he clearly remembers such a man being present.
  • Not So Different: The Outsider tries to justify his behavior by comparing himself to humans eating cattle. Holly and Ralph have none of it however.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Averted during the shootout between Hoskins and the protagonists. Officer Yune Sable is shot in the elbow, breaking it and dislocating his shoulder from the whiplash of the impact. Ralph lampshades how in movies Yune would just shrug it off and continue, but in real life, even though no vital organs were hit, Yune is out of the game due to his injury.
  • Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: Discussed. After his arrest, Terry naturally demands his lawyer, to which officer Yates responds that Terry wouldn't need one if he were innocent.
  • Poisonous Person: When the Outsider is in the process of changing form, his skin becomes poisonous to touch, though it only results in a severe skin rash like poison ivy or a sunburn. He uses this against Jack Hoskins.
  • Psychic Link: The Outsider links his mind to the person whose appearance he copied, allowing him to access their memories and knowledge.
  • Rape as Drama: The Outsider rapes and murders children.
  • Rapid DNA Test: Justified; in a letter from Dr. Edward Bogan to Detective Anderson, the former admits that usually DNA tests take weeks or even months to be performed due to the long line of samples waiting analysis, but given the nature of the crime and the apparent solidity of the case against Maitland, they will put the ones connected to the Frank Peterson case at the head of the line.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Holly gives the Outsider this in response to his claims that he kills to survive, pointing out he doesn't need to hurt children and could just feed off adults, and is nothing more than a petty pedophile or sexual sadist.
  • The Renfield: The Outsider blackmails Jack Hoskins into becoming his bodyguard. Holly even compares him to Renfield from Dracula.
  • The Runaway: Merlin Cassidy, a 12 year old kid from New York who ran away from home to escape from his abusive stepfather, stealing money and cars along the way. The police encounter him in El Paso while investigating how the white van that the Outsider used to capture Frank Peterson ended up from New York in Flint City.
  • Shoot the Fuel Tank: Jack Hoskins ends up shooting the gas tank of the SUV that Ralph, Holly, Howie, Yune and Alec used to get to Marysville hole when he fails to kill them all from his ambush. It takes several shots, but eventually the SUV goes up in flames.
  • Skinwalker: What the Outsider is is never fully explained, but it comes very close to the historical description of the infamous Native American skinwalker, a manipulative demonic shapechanger with the capacity for telepathy. It also takes at least one element of the Wendigo, being a monstrous cannibal.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: When footage that proves Terry Maitland was in Cap City at the time of the murder shows up, Anderson insists on trying to get forensic evidence from the hotel Terry stayed at, to which DA Bill Samuels points out how unlikely they are to get any since it's a big city hotel and it's been almost a week since Terry's visit. Later, Howie Gold proposes the exact same idea to Terry and his wife Marcy, to which Marcy likewise points out how unlikely it is they could find any, citing the exact same reasons why. The novel even lampshades how her words echo those of Samuels without her knowing it.
  • Take That!: Holly mentions that she likes Kubrick's earlier films, definitely better than The Shining (Stephen King several times mentioned that he didn't like Kubrick's adaptation of his novel).
  • Trauma Conga Line: For Fred Peterson. First his youngest son Frank is brutally murdered. Then his wife succumbs to a heart attack. Then his second son, Ollie, goes to the courthouse and kills Terry Maitland, resulting in Ollie himself getting shot as well. This becomes too much for Fred, and he decides to hang himself, but his attempt fails and only results in him ending up in a coma. His fate is left ambiguous.
  • The Un-Reveal: What the Outsider is or what his origins are are never explained.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out if Fred Peterson awakens from his coma but given his condition, it's probably unlikely.
  • The Worm That Walks: Mysterious red 'worms' come out of the Outsider's head after Holly bludgeons him.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Outsider kills children by tearing out parts of their flesh and drinking their blood.
  • Your Head A-Splode: Howie Gold suffers this fate when being shot by Hoskins.


Example of: