Warning: this review contains spoilers and should be read after having read the novel it discusses.
For more about why I don’t just review brand new books, see Is that an Old Book?
Some years back I wrote an essay on Jack Ketchum’s Off Season, in which I shared some thoughts on his descriptions of coastal Maine. This invited comparisons to Stephen King’s portrayals of Maine, and how I thought King wrote about “small town” Maine, as opposed to Ketchum’s portrait of a certain kind of “wilderness.” It led to calling King’s descriptions “Norman Rockwell paintings with vampires.” Since then, I’ve wanted to write about a King novel and go into more detail about what I think really gives his books their power, namely his ability to present that which is not real in a way the feels like it is real, a kind of supernatural realism.
At first, I considered writing about the novel It. I thought It a good candidate because I grew up in Bangor, Maine, the locale on which much of fictional town in King’s novel is based. The barrens, the bridges, and the library were all familiar places. I don’t recall ever looking into Kenduskeag Stream and seeing a fanged clown poking out of a drainpipe, but I do remember as a young teenager occasionally running into a guy accused of throwing someone off a bridge. This is one of the violent incidents touched on in King’s novel as part of fleshing out the evil underbelly of the small American town (though for a more in-depth treatment of the incident of the murder of Charles Howard, I would suggest reading Dwight Cathcart’s Ceremonies).
In King’s It, Pennywise the clown becomes the symbol of all that is violent and cruel, and his image ‘photo bombs’ every scene where dirty deeds are going down. Pennywise is a vestige of a nastier ancient creature that lives in the sewers, something few in the town have dared to confront until a ragtag band of friends, the “Losers Club,” comes along and gets up the nerve to hunt it down. Because of this setting, I thought this might be the best book to represent King’s use of supernatural realism. After consideration, however, I decided it isn’t the right candidate, and may even be the opposite. The problem is that the aforementioned “Rockwell factor” is quite strong in this novel, and the nostalgia, however one feels about it, serves to obscure the true power of the supernatural imagery.
Though there may be attempts at a kind of grayness in the book’s morality, to my mind, good and evil ultimately come across as a bit black and white with the gang of “good” kids who ride bicycles and like movies and clubhouses, versus the “bad” kids who play with their parents’ guns and act like bullies.
In my experience, life in Bangor, Maine, wasn’t quite that sweet. I can remember walking downtown Bangor at around age 16 with a friend who liked to wear a jean jacket with a Madonna patch on the back and little silver studs. I looked more like a hippy, but the pair of us were perfect fodder for the shirtless dude working on nearby construction scaffolding who wanted to take a break and threaten violence. I won’t repeat his exact label for the two of us, but it wasn’t “Hey fanboys!” I can still picture him clearly, one sinewy arm extended to the scaffolding, blond eighties hairdo like a character out of Stranger Things (except it actually was the eighties), eyes glaring, beginnings of a wicked grin on his lips.
And this is where we depart from the novel It’s portrayal of good and evil. Because when this guy made his threat, my buddy Rick (name changed, of course) said, “Keep walking.” But at first, I did not keep walking. I stopped and stared back at the dude. I had reason to. Because even though we were supposedly the proverbial ‘good kids’ on our way down to meet other misfit-but-good kids at the coffee shop, I was ready to inflict far more damage on our assailant than anyone would have estimated, and in a manner that would have more resembled the evil characters from King’s novel. I didn’t think the asshole had a right to threaten us, nor was I at the time running late for a baseball game, nor was I going to pick up a rock to throw, and most of all, I definitely wasn’t aiming to engage him in an honorable round of boxing. At the risk of alarming kin still living up in Maine, the ethic inherited from my old man’s extended family more resembled Ketchum’s tribe of coastal cannibals than the nice (if a little awkward) members of King’s “Losers Club,” and I wasn’t going to have what Captain Scaffold was dealing out.
I glared back at the dude long enough for him to lose his smile, though he certainly wasn’t going to back down. If I had not changed my mind and heeded my friend Rick’s advice, Captain Scaffold might have dealt me some real newsworthy wounds. Or even worse, instead of moving on downtown to play guitar and hangout with pretty girls, I could have succeeded damaging him instead, which could have led to profoundly bad and life-changing consequences.
For better or for worse, I opted for the first, gentler decision. I was likely leaning that way all along, but not nearly as much as one might think. And this is why I couldn’t quite relate to the good-guys-bad-guys rock throwing battle in It—our group of friends resembled both sides of the battle. Themes of small-town nostalgia just didn’t ring true for me. The indictment of the rot underneath the town did not go far enough in this particular story.
Instead, I found a more recent work closer to the mark. Normally, I would argue King’s earlier work, e.g., Pet Sematary, The Shining, has a certain rawness and stark honesty in its depictions of America’s evil underbelly through its supernatural realism. But 2018’s The Outsider revives not just the motifs, but the style, of the earlier works. Although the story retains some of the Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia, The Outsider tempers it—even interrupts it—with a certain stark clarity in the descriptions of its supernatural villain and the terror it wreaks upon its victims. It may also help, for me personally, that it is one of his works that takes place outside of the northeast, as I ultimately feel that, while he does write with an authentic appreciation for New England and its culture, something which has its own value and beauty, in the end, such is not the author’s primary strength.
Ralph Anderson, The Outsider’s flawed hero detective, begins his quest with a devastating mistake. He arrests a much-loved local little league coach during a baseball game for the murder and sexual assault of a child. The novel’s technical prowess, the characterization presented through witness interviews and professional forensics, begins delivering tension by inserting an I.V. drip with accuracy as its active ingredient. As the story progresses, it presents the supernatural villain, a kind of vampiric doppelganger after which the book is named, to a reader already primed by the detailed rendering of police procedures.
So intent is the narrative on making the detectives, lawyers, and uniformed cops realistic, there are moments where the equivocating becomes almost too much. The investigators pursuing the creature repeatedly state their disbelief in the supernatural, and even when Holly Gibney, a P.I. more amenable to the possibility of the otherworldly, enters the story, she qualifies her hypothesis with so much research as to appear to be questioning her own sanity.
The descriptions of the supernatural activity are what tip the balance in favor of the novel’s effectiveness. While having a care not to slip into the gratuitous, King always delivers a full view of the unreal in the language of the real. Unlike authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, whom I feel receive far too much credit for leaving the supernatural details to the imagination (a device that I often hear presented as original and clever, but in my opinion, is just miserly), King inserts throughout the narrative full-on portraits of things that do not exist but are described in a manner the tempts one to believe they do.
In the case of The Outsider, we witness these descriptions in a scene where the half-transformed doppelganger arrives at murder scene outside a courthouse and reveals a glimpse of its distorted face. We see it when the shape-changer appears beside a young girl’s bed and not so subtly wears two faces at once. We see it in the descriptions of its “straws” or “prongs” for eyes and its “doughy” features. The vocabulary draws less on dripping blood than it does on distortion. The details of this distortion are what lend the realism to what is otherwise so hard to believe.
This skill, more than any other, separates King’s work from so many others and allows it to be one of the major translators of American culture’s dark side. The “good” Americana that appears in his books, the baseball games and the bicycles is just as authentic, but I would argue it would be intolerably sweet if it weren’t for the author’s unusual talent for presenting the unbelievable in a manner at which even the skeptics will take a second look. While I once wrote an essay championing the way in which author Jack Ketchum presented the feel of Maine’s “wilderness,” no one comes closer than King to getting mainstream America to begin examining its dirty underbelly. I may remain a little too much of long-haired guitar-picker to engage and comprehend the full symbolic importance of America’s favorite pastime in King’s work, yet I am still vulnerable to the potency of seeing two faces at once. Whether it is The Outsider’s “prongs” for eyes, or Christ in Night Shift possessing a “vulpine” visage, King’s message about American evil fashions the right words with a realistic warp so that they always ring true.