Where the Stephen Kings Sing

Both Stephen King’s The Outsider (2018) and Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing (2018) begin with a similar (and common) premise: the cops’ efforts to solve a murder committed in a small town. These two books start to diverge in the gruesomeness of their central crimes. In The Outsider, a young boy has been brutally slaughtered and partially eaten after being sodomized with a tree branch. In Crawdads, a young man has fallen from a fire tower in what could conceivably have been an accident. The books also diverge in the classic genre-versus-literary distinction of being more plot-based than character-based, or vice versa. The Outsider is all plot and little character, while character development is central to Crawdads–primarily of its isolated protagonist Kya Clark, but also of the setting of the marsh where she grows up, which does in a way become characterized as fully as any human.

In The Outsider‘s plot, all the evidence points toward respected Flint City Little League coach Terry Maitland being the murderer of Frank Peterson; several eyewitness statements place him at and around the scene of the crime, as well as the seemingly incontrovertible DNA of his fingerprints and semen. Yet video footage also definitively places Maitland in a different town at the time the murder occurred. To quote the book’s promotional copy: “How could a man be two places at once?” 

Perhaps King acolytes might argue that Ralph Anderson, the detective tasked with solving the case, is an example of strong character development. Anderson is so sure he has an airtight case due to the initial evidence that he doesn’t question Maitland himself to see if he has an alibi before he arrests him. Incensed that Maitland coached and thus had close contact with his own son, Ralph arrests Maitland in front of the entire town. When Maitland is taken to court for initial proceedings, Frank Peterson’s brother shoots Maitland and kills him. Put on paid leave according to normal administrative policy, Ralph continues to look into aspects of the case that indicate something more was going on than meets the eye. With Maitland’s death, the book takes a turn from the traditional thriller into King’s métier–the supernatural. Maitland’s daughter sees and has a conversation with a “man who has straws for eyes,” and Ralph’s wife Jeannie also encounters a strange man in their house–even though the doors are locked and the alarm is on–who tells her to tell Ralph to stop looking into the case. Despite Jeannie’s pleas for Ralph to consider that something supernatural could be going on and that he should leave the case alone, Ralph continues to dig deeper, getting Maitland’s lawyer to hire a private investigator, the eccentric but effective Holly Gibney from King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy, who could be considered the book’s other main character even though she doesn’t appear until halfway through the book. 

Holly, who has some OCD and social issues, uncovers evidence of a similar crime as the Peterson murder occurring in Dayton, Ohio: twin girls gruesomely murdered, DNA evidence clearly pointing at one man, who then dies before going to trial. The accused man was an orderly at a facility where Maitland’s father was a resident, and shortly after the murders, Maitland ran into him there, where the man–accidentally it seemed–scratched him, drawing blood. Maitland also scratched someone after committing the Flint City murder–local bar bouncer Claude Bolton, who happens to resemble the mysterious man Jeannie saw in her living room. 

Another cop, Yune Sablo–whose Hispanic heritage is repeatedly reinforced by his use of the words “amigo” and “ese” and the catch phrase “of course I am just the son of a poor Mexican farming family”–notes that the crimes remind him of a legend his abuela told him about a “Mexican boogeyman” who would collect kids in a bag and drink their blood so he would live forever. The idea that there’s any legitimate relevance to this tale, however, doesn’t gain traction until Holly Gibney shows Ralph and some others an old luchadora movie with the same plot after reviewing the evidence she uncovered in Dayton; the monster in the movie is able to make himself look like other townspeople so that they’ll take the blame. Ralph’s character development from then on is predicated on his willingness to accept the outside-the-bounds-of-reality premise of this “outsider.” Holly basically convinces him to in time for the climactic confrontation with the outsider in a Texas cave, after a rogue cop who’s come under the outsider’s influence shoots the rest of the group Holly and Ralph came with. The outsider is hiding in a place where people once died because he feeds on grief in addition to children’s blood, and he has to hibernate between transitions. To quote my hands-down favorite Goodreads review of the book by a user named Becky, “this latest [big baddie] was defeated with a few impotence jibes and a weighted sock. I wish I was joking.” 

After the confrontation in the cave, Ralph has definitively had his worldview changed to encompass supernatural possibilities. But that reversal feels more based on a type–Ralph is a detective and has to go where the evidence takes him, rationally and within the bounds of circumscribed reality–than any carefully developed personality traits. As for Holly, she has the challenge of convincing hard-headed men to open their minds to these unlikely possibilities, and while she rises to the challenge, it doesn’t feel like a significant change in her character actually derives from her success in doing so. In a lot of ways she feels like little more than a sieve for a competent woman–or perhaps I should say a shockingly competent woman. Goodreads reviewer Becky aptly points out the “casual sexism” of the “regular backhanded ‘compliments’ tossed Holly’s way (that she’s EVER SO GRATEFUL FOR, but also modestly embarrassed by).”

In contrast, while a murder mystery is integral to Crawdads‘ plot, the real heart of the novel is the development of its protagonist Kya Clark. The novel alternates chapters detailing the murder investigation that takes place in 1969-70 with chapters that track Kya’s development from child, starting in 1952, to adult, at which point her story catches up with the murder. 

Kya is defined by her isolation. She is an outsider, yet one the reader can identify with through the painstaking development of her history. Living in a shack in a marsh on the coast of rural North Carolina, her mother leaves when she’s seven, her only remaining sibling leaves shortly thereafter, and her abusive father leaves her completely alone a couple of years after that. A truant officer succeeds in getting Kya to attend school for one day, but the experience is traumatic enough that she escapes future efforts to get her to return by hiding in the marsh woods; she’s alternately referred to by the townspeople of nearby Barkley Cove as “marsh trash” and “the Marsh Girl.” Tate, a former friend of her brother’s who’s as fascinated with the natural environment of the marsh as she is, eventually teaches her how to read, leading to a romantic relationship that almost feels overly idealistic until Tate shatters it when he leaves for college and breaks his promise to return for visits, becoming the next person Kya loved who abandoned her. In the aftermath of that heartbreak, Kya takes up with Chase Andrews, a former quarterback and town golden boy who is also an itinerant womanizer, unbeknownst to Kya because she only ever goes into town to get groceries and gas for her boat. He tries to have sex with her on their first date, and when she manages to resist, he insists that he won’t do anything she doesn’t want him to, biding his time until, after he intimates that he intends to marry her, she finally does let him take the virginity Tate didn’t because he thought she was too young. Tate returns to warn her about Chase’s character, which Kya is eventually forced to confront when she reads of Chase’s engagement to another woman in the paper. In something close to a reconciliation with Tate–though she refuses to forgive him for what he did, or to let herself love him again–Kya lets him send some of the samples of marsh detritus that she’s made a lifelong habit of cataloguing and illustrating to a publisher, securing her a book deal that ensures financial security so that she’ll no longer have to “dig through the mud for her supper,” unearthing the mussels that she sold in town for a meager amount of grocery money. Just when Kya’s life seems to have hit its stride, Chase, now married, returns and tries to rape her, but she manages to fight him off. At this point the narrative has just about met up with the point of Chase’s death. Kya is arrested for his murder. 

Once the investigation thread of the cops tracking clues segues into Kya’s trial, we still get a couple of chapters capping off the previous thread following Kya, which should, theoretically, show us what Kya was actually doing the night of Chase’s death. But specification of Kya’s guilt or innocence is maddeningly withheld, reminiscent of the manner in which Tony Earley withholds his point of view character’s mysterious plans in his short story “Backpack.” The closest we get is the chapter from Kya’s point of view of the trip she was on to meet her editor the night Chase was killed: 

…the bus, which seemed as long as the town, drove out of Barkley Cove.

Two days later, at 1:16 in the afternoon, Kya stepped off the Trailways from Greenville.

The prosecution has attempted to poke holes in the alibi of her trip by positing that in this two-day gap, Kya could have taken a bus back to Barkley Cove the same night she left, killed Chase, bussed back to Greenville by the next morning, and then returned on the bus that everyone saw her return on at 1:16. It’s impossible to tell whether Kya’s version of events is supposed to refute the idea that she did this; the patent lack of her own description of what happened in that two-day gap seems to imply that something important did happen in that gap that we’re as yet being denied access to. 

What this means is that as readers we experience the trial in the same state of ignorance as the townspeople who make up the jury, though by this point we’re prejudiced in Kya’s favor rather than, as the jury is, prejudiced against her–if she did kill him, we’re thinking, he would have deserved it. Kya’s lawyer, who took the job pro bono, makes a strong case that the prosecution’s version of how the murder must have occurred is highly circumstantial, and that, based on the existing evidence, it might not have been a murder at all, but an accident. The case is strong enough that the jury, prejudiced though they are, has to acquit Kya. Shortly afterward, she sees the cops pick up Tate in what looks like an arrest, and his imminent long-term absence makes her realize she does love him. It turns out he’s being notified that his father died, which means he’ll stick around for a whole-cloth reconciliation. They get married and essentially live happily ever after in the same (renovated) shack Kya’s lived in her whole life, minus her stint in jail awaiting trial. 

At this point it’s become clear that solving the murder mystery isn’t the be-all end-all goal of the narrative, that the real drama of the trial is not to definitively establish Kya’s guilt or innocence, but to understand its deeper relevance for her character, as is elucidated by a conversation she has with her returned brother after her acquittal: 

“Kya, don’t let this horrible thing drive you further from people. It’s been a soul-crushing ordeal, but this seems to be a chance to start over. The verdict is maybe their way of saying they will accept you.”

“Most people don’t have to be acquitted of murder to be accepted.”

“I know, and you have every reason in the world to hate people. I don’t blame you, but . . .”

“That’s what nobody understands about me.” She raised her voice, “I never hated people. They hated me. They laughed at me. They left me. They harassed me. They attacked me. Well, it’s true; I learned to live without them. Without you. Without Ma! Or anybody!”

Kya’s real emotional hurdle is trusting other people after having been repeatedly abandoned by those closest to her. It’s a nice plot twist that Tate losing someone close to him (his father) compels Kya to finally do something about her love for him, thereby hopping her primary emotional hurdle. Another big aspect of Kya’s character is her study of science, which leads her to try to look at the world more rationally than emotionally:

She knew from her studies that males go from one female to the next, so why had she fallen for this man?

So when she gives in to her emotions and lets herself trust Tate again, it feels like a victory.

But then, after Kya dies of natural causes exploring the marsh when she’s sixty-four, Tate discovers some boxes Kya was hiding beneath the shack’s floorboards–the poetry of a woman who frequently published in the local paper who turns out to be Kya herself. The poem Tate pulls out sounds an awful lot like it’s describing her murder of Chase, so that when he discovers in the boxes the definitive piece of evidence tying Kya to the murder–Chase’s shell necklace–he’s not surprised.

Honestly the book might have been better if it never definitively answered the question of whether Kya killed Chase or not. Because of the narrative stance of having chapters in Kya’s point of view, the fact that her guilt is patently withheld from the reader feels like cheating. And it means we don’t get any development of her character re: how is she coping with having killed someone even if he deserved it? It also means she didn’t consider herself close enough to Tate to tell him the truth about it, which undermines her hopping of that emotional hurdle. Saving the big plot development for the very end ends up undermining the character development in a disappointing way.

Aside from Kya, there’s also the character development of the marsh, which is to say that the marsh feels as developed as a character, if not that it actually undergoes the significant development of a change over the course of the narrative. It plays a pivotal role in being the setting that defines Kya’s character, and in also being the site of the murder. The first two paragraphs of the book establish the marsh as a focal point:

Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace—as though not built to fly—against the roar of a thousand snow geese.

Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.

The concluding formulation here is a nice setup of the larger conflict of Kya having to kill Chase in order to live.

In these opening paragraphs Owens also uses a trick she’ll use often to establish the character of the marsh–she’ll give it human attributes, as she does by referring to “its muddy throat” above. Elsewhere she’ll refer to the water as “muscular,” or to the sky wearing a “frumpy sweater” of clouds. The character of the marsh is part and parcel of Kya’s character, since it’s a defining trait of hers to see the marsh this way. It makes sense that she would start to formulate it as human since it’s the one companion she can claim that she can trust not to abandon her.