HBO’s The Outsider Has Perfected The Stephen King Formula

Categories Analysis, Film Review

Stephen King fans know what to expect when approaching the Master Of Horror’s work, for better or worse. They love the verisimilitude, even when in the realm of pure fantasy. They love the gruesome nature of King’s many faces of evil. And they love having their hearts ripped out and tossed on a cold plate.

But King has his shortcomings, and many of his fans would be the first to point out what they are. Nevertheless, there has always been this nagging hope to see, for once, an attempt to adapt his fiction correctly.

There is a bit of a formula.

While King may produce experiments in terror, such as Cujo and Misery, as well as dramatic masterpieces like Dolores Claiborne, his feature presentations tend to follow a pattern. Here are a few motifs, to refresh your memory.

  1. The Big Bad’s Pawn. This is the character that is not the main villain, but ends up serving the villain due to the fact that this person is a generally terrible human being. This is Pat Toomey (“The Langoliers”), Harold Lauder (“The Stand”), James “Big Jim” Rennie (“Under the Dome”), and Henry Bowers (“It”). Usually this person turns out to have been abused as a child, revealing that they are not really the source of pure evil, but merely a victim of it.
  2. The Gifted Hero. King never presents pure evil without presenting pure good. Often heroes are granted gifts that help them evade the evil, or are otherwise exceptionally gifted in some way, such as Danny Torrence (“The Shining”), Charlie McGee (“Firestarter”), John Coffey (“The Green Mile”), Johnny Smith (“The Dead Zone”), Jake Chambers (“The Dark Tower”), and Abigail Freemantle (“The Stand”).
  3. Redemption. Many times, characters, including especially a flawed protagonist, is given the opportunity to be redeemed through their actions. This is Eddie Dean (“The Dark Tower”), Danny Torrence (“Doctor Sleep”), Father Callahan (“Salem’s Lot”), and many others.
  4. The Wisdom of the Disabled. Those with mental or physical disabilities are often the possessors of great wisdom, which proves essential to survival. This is Susannah (“The Dark Tower”), Dinah (“The Langoliers”), and Nick Andros and Tom Cullen (“The Stand”).
  5. Cult Worship. Though King’s politics seem to put Republican religious conservatives squarely in his crosshairs, his stories tend to relegate this to followers of cults specifically. In fact, he’s rather fair in his depiction of those with religious beliefs, often making them the heroes, and even making their faith the primary source of heroism. Conversely, there are those like Mrs. Carmody (“The Mist”), which exploit faith in the manner of a cult leader.
  6. Scooby Tactics. More than anything, King is a fan of letting his characters discover the nature of the evil haunting them, as if it’s an episode of Scooby Doo. Though not his first published, ‘Salem’s Lot was his first written novel, and he clearly modeled his characters’ pursuit of knowledge off of Dracula. He must have liked this exercise in the unmasking of evil so much that he’s grown quite comfortable with the strategy.

All of these ingredients are present in HBO’s “The Outsider,” but it feels very different. It comes across as the most adult version of everything Stephen King is used to writing.

I believe there are many reasons for this, but if we are to assume that King’s role is one of them, I would say that it is because King is actually being influenced by the great horror we currently have today.

No doubt, King has watched the horror of today and concluded that he needs to up his game. He may have gotten the ball rolling when it comes to marrying Cold War social anxieties to deep-seeded fears in each of us, but the world has changed. Pennywise doesn’t appear as a Red Scare era cultural icon, he presents as something else entirely.

The influence of various other contemporary horror successes is quite apparent. “The Outsider” has the ominous atmosphere and agonizing depiction of grief of “Hereditary,” the social awareness of “Get Out,” the hybrid feel of realistic fantasy like pretty much any Guillermo Del Toro film, and the playfulness and creativity of “Stranger Things.” It’s not clear how much of this is Stephen King or the showrunners, but it is painfully obvious to anyone with a refined horror palette.

But more specifically, there are things about today’s horror films that seem to act as a polish for King’s already tried and true formula.

Chief among these reasons is that the plot of “The Outsiders” follows a natural, organic progression, while still feeling like it has a point. King’s stories often feel directionless, and this is more of a feature than a bug to King’s writing process. He starts with characters and then goes from there. This works as a means to create memorable characters, but not so much if you want to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Somehow or another, “The Outsider” manages to be both an insightful character study, and a nail-biting thriller at the same time. Writers often sacrifice one at the expense of the other, but there just might be something in the ingredients of so many other horror films out there, which serve as glue to hold it all together.

The nature of the creature on this show proves to be rather tame in comparison to other creatures King has created in the past. But this is precisely another reason why the writing stands out on this show: it’s just as terrifying as ever!

The basic premise is why it works, and that is 100% to King’s credit. It presents a detective with a situation that is the very definition of unscientific.

Like any detective in real life might have done, once Ralph confirms that all the physical evidence points one way, he concludes that his friend, Terry, murdered a boy. At some point, we know that the detective — along with us — is going to realize what’s happening. But the process of him discovering this is one of the hardest-fought narrative accomplishments I’ve seen from a Stephen King work.

Along the way, everyone in town engages in the same rush to judgment that Ralph did. It’s not so much to show that Ralph did a bad job, though. Ralph is one of the most interesting heroic figures in all of King’s works because of just how hard he struggles to bridge the growing gap in his mind between reality and the supernatural.

The actual Van Helsing character, though, is Holly. She is the one that actually figures out what’s going on. There is always a Holly, but what’s unique about her is how she fails. She has a clear gift, but it is very clearly limited. She is not all-seeing, and she gets it wrong quite often. Her presentation of her findings later on in the show is such a work of art, because it’s so painfully close to how such a display would actually go down.

And by forcing these characters to go to such great lengths to explore their disbelief, we never lose sight of the reason this evil exists in the first place. Our propensity to turn on one another over a lack of information tends to create monsters that we don’t even care to acknowledge.

The conclusion of the series, without going into detail, is not as big and flashy as one might expect. But whereas King endings tend to be the least favorable aspects of a King work, the ending to “The Outsiders” is quite satisfying.

For one thing, it is not safe or cheap. There is great loss involved, few loose ends, and the lessons learned could not be clearer. It is a much more complete ending than might be expected from King, and while this creature is certainly nothing close to a Pennywise, it never needed to be. And that is why “The Outsider” succeeds.

The show manages to be timely, without being didactic or political. In fact, to King’s credit, he usually seems to go out of his way not to make is stories political. It is intentional. When “The Outsider” was alleged to be an indictment of Trump, King wholly rejected the claim. As he should.

Why does King seem to go out of his way to let the bad guy run rampant, as if on purpose? A considerable portion of “The Outsider” is devoted to an alcoholic and abusive deputy that gets turned into one of the creature’s surrogates, and the presence of such a character is not unintentional. Under the Dome, for instance, is not the story of a sadistic sheriff, it is the story of a good sheriff’s untimely death in the first chapter, which leads to greater suffering and evil at the hands of the evil deputy. Those are two completely different stories, and King is a genius for making the distinction.

The best horror is not horror that happens at random and for no reason. There is an argument to be made that this is what existential horror does, but that’s a conversation for another time. In “The Outsider,” the purpose is not random.

Such a creature could only exist in a society that is easily blinded by prejudice and willful ignorance. By telling a character-driven story that speaks to timely societal anxieties and utilizes a recognizable horror formula, those attempting to adapt the many more works of Stephen King that are in the making will continue to delight us all.

Leave a Reply