First published in 1991, Needful Things tells the story of a new shop opening up in Castle Rock, Stephen King’s fictional perennial small town/personification of Murphy’s Law. The store, which serves as the book’s title, is run by Leland Gaunt, and he sells just about anything and everything your heart desires, from a splinter of Noah’s Ark, to a pair of Elvis Presley’s sunglasses, to a mystical cure-necklace for your arthritis. All he asks for in return is whatever change you got on you, and a promise to play a prank later on, and it is from this premise that we get the story of a town destroying itself from the inside out.
Though Mr. Gaunt, who is eventually revealed to be something more (or less, depending on your perspective) than human, make no mistake, this isn’t a story about supernatural monsters or serial killers on the loose; the horror and terror of this story comes from the normal, everyday town residents, who wind up committing all the atrocities in this book. This review will consider how King successfully pulls this off and the resulting reading experience, all within the context of plot, characters, and narrative. There will be spoilers (though I’d still encourage you to give this book a shot).
At its core this is a deal-with-the-devil story, with a small little twist. Gaunt isn’t just interested in your soul, he wants to see the world burn (before Heath Ledger did, mind you). The pranks that he asks for as payment seem childish at first, but they begin to escalate in nature and, in the end, are deliberately calculated to rub the wrong person in just the right way. Using various characters’ weaknesses and playing on their fears, Gaunt turns the townspeople on one another, pushing them past the boiling point and into the land of homicidal insanity.
And you know what? It was perfectly believable.
Not only does King give us realistic, down-to-earth characters, but he has placed them in realistic, down-to-earth situations that serve as tipping points for morality and sanity. What does a gambling addict do when he’s in charge of the town’s public funds? What happens to a runaway pregnant teenager who has nothing but her pride? Desperation, mistakes, and tragedy is the answer, but Mr. Gaunt’s store has just what you need to stave off the nightmare for just a little longer…
I must note here, however, that while the build-up and climax were great, the ending was a disappointment. I can totally see how some people will hate both the final showdown and the ending, but the former didn’t bother me. I like the corny good-vs-evil magical stuff, when it’s done right, and Pangborn’s magical talents were adequately foreshadowed throughout the book, as well as the significance of the weapons/tools he uses against Gaunt. The problem with the ending was that it was basically a “they drove off towards the sunrise and lived happily ever after” type of thing, while the entire town laid in smoking ruins behind them. It felt abrupt and incomplete, despite the vanquishing of Gaunt and the retrieval of his all-important valise, and I wish there was something more, or some form of redemption for the town and its people. As is, we are only told that they came to their senses just in time to see the last building crumble, and that’s all. The lack of closure sticks out like a sore thumb.
Sheriff Alan Pangborn is virtuous, level-headed, and a good man, the perfect model for a protagonist. He is held back, however, by a terrible event in his past, made all the more worse because that chapter in his life still hasn’t ended for him yet. Polly Chalmers has skeletons in her own closet as well, and her struggle isn’t just with her past, but also with the physical pain induced by her arthritis. King expertly uses these aspects to create characters who suffer, trudge on, and lean on each other for support.
These two protagonist aside, Castle Rock is, once again, filled to the brim with unique and life-like caricatures. Eleven-year-old Brain Rusk has a crush on one of his teachers, Ace Merrill is a forty-year-old delinquent who returns to his hometown depressed and disillusioned, Danforth Keeton is the Head Selectman backed into a corner once the law catches up with him, and Nettie Cobb, the most tragic character, is a recovering mental hospital patient whose best friend is a dog named Raider. Though the novel has so many things going on, King uses each supporting character’s limited space to maximum effect, and in that Dickensian way we end up caring about a whole lot of characters in a short amount of time, both the good and the bad.
The antagonist Gaunt is initially mysterious, unsettling, and somewhat of a clown, but that changes steadily as the corruption from his store spreads throughout the town. King sacrifices malignity and malevolence for mischief and pettiness, and I’m not sure if it works (or fails). I personally love it when villains go all out on their evil deeds and are no-nonsense about it. Gaunt takes delight in his actions, and savours their effects, and this makes him more realistic, but in terms of villains I prefer the Pennywises and the Crimson Kings: embodiments of pure evil who just want to eat you or end you. This is just my personal opinion, however, and the story is still pretty solid and creepy as it is.
King’s style is in full form here, love it or hate it. I just happen to love it. He writes with an illuminating and brutal honesty. Character thoughts and dialogue always flow naturally, whether they’re talking about the weather or their innermost thoughts. Much can be revealed in what characters say and how they say it, and King has always been excellent at making use of this technique.
His metaphors, similes, and overall imagery is also pretty unnerving and exhilarating. I honestly believe King may be the best storyteller of our generation, if only for the consistently new ways he keeps describing a character who is experiencing fear. His narrative seems effortless while achieving maximum feels, and it’s like he never uses cliches, but invents them. King’s prose isn’t poetic, artsy, or profound, it’s just consistently easy to read, and easy to be affected by.
This one ain’t about things that go bump in the night, but rather the morbid things going on in your neighbourhood behind closed doors. It’s about people being devoured by their greed, and losing their minds. This isn’t a particularly horrifying premise, as I’m pretty sure I felt sad more often than scared during my reading, but drama is another great story genre, and King has filled this one with many tragic heroes (and pedestrians).
Highly recommended for King fans, but maybe not so much for those expecting something truly dreadful and scary. It’s a story about needful things, and those things are not always material.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.