Note: the following contains plot spoilers. If you have yet to read King’s most recent novel, you are advised to go rectify that mistake before proceeding.
The Outsider unfolds with the public arrest of Terry Maitland, a typical Stephen King everyman who finds himself charged with an unspeakable crime: the savage rape and murder of an eleven-year-old boy. Eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence alike link Maitland to the horrid deed, but the fact that the accused also has a rock-solid alibi sends this seemingly open-and-shut criminal case veering towards the uncanny.
As the section of the novel titled “The Arraignment” opens, Maitland is about to be transported from the county jail to the county courthouse. Upon leaving, he is subjected to the lewd catcalls of fellow prisoners, the shouted questions of reporters that sound “more like invective than interrogation,” and the ill-will of outraged spectators sporting signs blazoned with “EXECUTE THE CHILD KILLER” and “MAITLAND YOU WILL BURN IN HELL.” An ominous mood is instantly set, but this treatment will seem like a welcome wagon compared to what awaits Maitland at the courthouse.
There a jostling, surging crowd of reporters, cameramen, and angered onlookers have congregated. Spectators hurl vile accusations at Maitland’s wife, and literally spit in his face. Maitland is serenaded with cries of “NEEDLE! NEEDLE! NEEDLE!“, an eager prescription of lethal injection by a crowd “chanting like fans at a football game.” What’s worse, Detective Ralph Anderson observes, is that these aren’t just anonymous protesters, but Maitland’s neighbors: “People whose kids he taught, people whose kids he coached, people he had to his house for end-of-season barbecues. All of them rooting for him to die.” A wary Anderson realizes that the local citizens “looked ready to string Terry Maitland up from the nearest lamppost.” A few paragraphs later, a book is thrown at Marcy Maitland; King identifies the volume as “Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.” With its call for vigilance, the title alone is significant, and the astute reader will note that this is the (posthumously-published) sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s American Gothic masterpiece featuring the awful lynching of an innocent man. So those cries of “Die, Maitland, die!” might be about to prove eerily prophetic.
Unruly to begin with, “the crowd teetered on the edge of mob-ism” as Maitland is ushered towards the entrance of the courthouse. What follows, though, is not a mass lynching, but the act of a single vigilante who takes justice in his own gun-wielding hand. Horrified, Anderson watches the spectators acting “like hyenas. Everyone stood out in bright relief, and everyone was a grotesque.” Anderson’s catalog of these grotesques includes a figure toting a newspaper sack, who, it turns out, is interested in delivering more than the local rag. Ollie Peterson, the teenage brother of murder victim Frank Peterson, pulls out his weapon and unceremoniously assassinates Maitland. The killing (less than halfway through the novel) is one of the most shocking in King’s works, since readers had to assume that this likable character caught in the grip of a terrible predicament would play a central role throughout.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for Maitland’s arraignment turning into a bloody circus, starting with an inept sheriff who makes an oxymoron of crowd control. Anderson blames himself for not insisting that Maitland not be brought in through the back entrance; the detective also wonders if the district attorney foresaw and secretly hoped for such a public spectacle, “because of the wide news coverage it would surely garner.” King’s strongest censure, however, is of mob mentality, of the hastily judgmental masses prone to guilty-and-won’t-be-proven-innocent irrationality. These bloodthirsty folk are also marked by a morbid fascination: the scene closes not just with the sound of approaching sirens but the “excited babble of people who were returning now that the shooting was over. Wanting to see the body. Wanting to photograph it and put it on their Facebook pages.” And as if all this didn’t make for enough natural horror, another turn of the screw is given later in the novel, as readers learn that events have been manipulated all along by a grief-feasting monster that relishes such violent chaos.
The King canon is filled with fiery mob scenes, but none more devastatingly effective than the author’s latest foray into this grim territory.