Stephen King’s Reign of Terror Continues in a New Novel


By Stephen King
560 pp. Scribner. $30.

The first time I wrote a short story I ripped off Stephen King. His first collection, “Night Shift,” came out in 1978. I didn’t read it then; I was only 6. But I picked it up and devoured it at some point, reading and rereading until the cover wore thin and fell off. By the time I’d turned 12 I felt sure I wanted to be a writer — a horror writer — and “Night Shift” became my template.

The second story in the collection, “Graveyard Shift,” is about a guy who gets work at a textile mill in a small town in Maine. One night his boss commands a crew of men to help him clean out the basement of the mill, a place that hasn’t been touched in decades. The men descend to discover that rats have turned the basement into their kingdom; the farther they travel into the bowels of this underworld, the bigger and weirder the rats become. Finally, they discover the mother of these mutations, a rat as big as a cow. Things don’t go well.

Cupid might as well have hit me with an arrow. I immediately set about plagiarizing the thing.

In my version of the tale, called “Rat Patrol,” a group of men work for a vicious boss in a furniture warehouse in Queens. The boss demands these men go into the long unused basement where they discover … cockroaches. The roaches have grown large and predatory and in the deepest corner of the basement they discover, well, you get the idea. At some point my grandmother, cleaning our apartment, threw the story away. I felt furious with her then, but now I see she probably saved me from a lawsuit. Thanks, Jaja!

I’ve got a few reasons for sharing this anecdote. The first is the purest: I want to tell you how much of my life has been spent reading Stephen King. The second is to acknowledge the nature of his influence on me. “Graveyard Shift” is a horror story about mutant rats, sure, but it’s also about the power dynamics of the working class; the men in the story can’t say no to their tyrannical boss, not if they want to keep collecting a paycheck. King’s work often underscored such political realities in ways that mattered to me. They reminded me of the struggles of my mother, a secretary working like a dog in New York City. And the last reason for my anecdote is that I want to talk about the difference between inspiration and appropriation.


King’s new novel, “The Outsider,” starts out as a crime story. Ralph Anderson, a detective in Flint City, Okla., orders the arrest of a popular local English teacher and Little League coach, Terry Maitland, at a baseball game packed with cheering families. Anderson directs the officers to handcuff Maitland in front, instead of behind his back — and when an officer protests that’s against protocol, Anderson is adamant: “I know, and I don’t care. I want everyone to see him led away in handcuffs. Got it?” Anderson has clear evidence that Maitland raped and mutilated a child. The crime is awful but the proximity — the sense of trust that Maitland enjoyed — is what truly horrifies the detective. So the officers arrest the coach in front of everyone, announcing the charges loudly. As he’s led away, Maitland insists, just as loudly, that he’s innocent.

It seems for a while that this will be a story about a crime and its prosecution, but that’s not where this book is headed. I refer back to that story from King’s first collection. A rough but regular day — cleaning out a basement — eventually transforms into a battle with monsters. I don’t want to spoil anything, but come on, this is Stephen King. Monsters of one kind or another are what the man does best, and “The Outsider” delivers a good one.

The novel begins in Oklahoma, but eventually winds its way to Marysville, Tex. The trip south allows King to show his hand and reveal exactly whose crate of myths he’s been digging into. King makes generous use of a tale from the region, and the larger cultural context of the place as well. Along with the creature we get riffs on las luchadoras movies from Mexico and a parade called the processo dos Passos that offers vital insight on the Maitland case.

The cultures of the Southwest, both Mexico and Texas, play a vital part, but it’s Anderson and a character named Holly Gibney — a private investigator readers may remember from “Mr. Mercedes” — whom King follows most closely. They are, crucially, not Texans. In a nice play on the title, they are outsiders who must ask questions and learn alongside the reader. King doesn’t presume to be an insider, either. There is a cop of Mexican descent, Yune Sablo, and an Anglo woman who grew up in the area, Lovie Ann Bolton, but neither is the protagonist; King doesn’t inhabit them as he does Anderson and Gibney. He doesn’t imply that he knows them with the same authority, yet he writes them as vital members of his cast. This strikes me as a fine definition of the difference between appropriation and inspiration: presumption versus humility.

When writers appropriate the stories of others they do something like what I did when I was 12. It was imitation without insight. King falls on the right side of the divide and his book succeeds, in part, because of it. He’s clearly inspired by the Southwest, but he’s not fool enough to pretend ownership.

Midway through the novel two characters discuss the films of Stanley Kubrick. One says, “Young artists are much more likely to be risk takers, in my opinion.” It’s played for a laugh — the character prefers “Paths of Glory” to, say, “The Shining” — but it is worth taking the essence of the statement seriously. King is an industry and has been for my entire reading life. He could easily churn out “monsters in Maine” tales until his life ends, and he’d remain well compensated for it. But he doesn’t do that. He isn’t writing mere imitations of himself. More than 50 novels published, and he’s still adding new influences to his work. I can think of a great many literary writers who are far lazier about their range of inspirations and interests.

This expansiveness allows King to highlight the idea that whether we’re talking about Mexico or Maine, Oklahoma or Texas, people the world over tell certain stories for reasons that feel much the same: to understand the mysteries of our universe, the improbable and inexplicable. As Holly Gibney muses at one point: “‘Anything is possible,’ she said to the empty room. ‘Anything at all. The world is full of strange nooks and crannies.’”

Here’s to mutant rats in the basement and Mexican myths; here’s to the strange and to Stephen King. Still inspiring.


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