Needful Things by Stephen King

Needful Things book cover
Rating 9.5/10
From each according to his vulnerability, to each according to his greed

After receiving some very grim news, my lady and I knew we’d need something distracting, something truly engrossing and unputdownable which we could lose ourselves in. Our readings together have spanned some pretty amazing authors, however, looking for that specific “keep going or else!” quality, of course we thought of the name Stephen King. We knew, as one always knows when going into a Stephen King novel, that we wouldn’t be in for a comfortable ride, and that we might have to go round and about to get to where we are going; especially with Needful Things being one of King’s earlier works. Then again, one thing we could be certain of, is that King would be absolutely, completely and utterly compelling, and we weren’t disappointed.

Needful Things takes place in Castle Rock, the small American town we’ve seen previously in several Stephen King novels; notably The Dark Half and Cujo. Welcoming us in with a folksy introduction, King gives us a word or two on the foibles and gossip of the town residents, nothing earth shattering of course, just the loves and hates and rivalries you’d expect in such a small community, like the local bully Wilma Jersyck setting her sights on the sweet natured but unstable Nettie Cobb, the increasingly high handed behaviour of first selectman Danforth Keeton, (don’t call him Buster), or the ongoing rivalry between the Catholics and the Baptists over the Catholics plans to hold a charity casino night; all in a day's work for Sheriff Alan Pangborn you might think. But a new shop is opening, Needful Things, a shop whose proprietor Leland Gaunt prides himself on selling everybody just the thing they want. Gaunt doesn’t ask much in return, just that people aide him in playing a few little tricks on the town’s residents, like pushing a note through someone’s door or slashing the tires of a car; minor misdemeanours but nothing really bad, and after all, it’s worth it to get such a bargain. Yet, as Castle Rock’s residents will discover, there is far more to the items Gaunt sells than simple trinkets and curios, and far more to the prices Gaunt asks than just harmless pranks.

Alan, a man already caught between the death of his wife and son in a tragic accident, and the guilt he feels about his blossoming romance with local seamstress Polly Chalmers will see Castle Rock disintegrate around him, and those small town concerns explode into an orgy of murder and violence.

One extremely odd thing I found about the first two thirds of Needful Things was its pace. Like The Tommyknockers, It or Under the Dome, it’s very much a book about a community. Though Alan and Polly are arguably the principal protagonists, we spend as much if not more time with Castle Rock’s other residents, the good, the bad and the incredibly ugly. Like Mr. Gaunt’s merchandise, this is something that changes according to how you look at it. Seen one way, the pace moves extremely slowly, indeed the hole 24 hour doorstop of a book takes place over just one week. Likewise, much of the basic setup of the individual narratives we get is at least superficially repetitive. Someone sees something they want in Needful Things, Gaunt sells it to them, then coerces them into pulling a prank on someone they don’t know, a prank which they find strangely pleasurable. After which the person comes down with a severe case of golumitis over what they bought, and thus becomes a prime target for someone else’s prank.

In another sense however, Needful Things’ very deliberation is a mark of just how carefully it is written. Rarely can I think of a book with such a large cast where even the most minor characters are fully realised people, or where even the less pleasant characters often have a tinge of sympathy about them. For example, when we first meet Huw Priest the town’s alcoholic, he’s as nasty as they come, cursing an eleven year old boy for biking too close to his truck and speculating on running the boy down. Then however, when he sees a fox tail in Gaunt’s window, it reminds him of what was possibly the last good day he had, driving around as a teenager with his pals; a jaunty fox tail tied to the car aerial, a time before he became a slave to the bottle.

Of course, not all characters are entirely sympathetic, but even where characters are one note loathsome, King’s style insures that they’re never entirely dull, and even his villains like the vindictive Wilma Jersyck, the already abusive and paranoid Danforth Keeton or the petty crook Ace Merrill have that Stephen King touch of added colour to keep them interesting.

That isn’t to say that all of King’s character decisions are necessarily welcome. Where eleven year old Brian Rusk, the first of Gaunt’s pawns comes across as a genuinely decent lad whose corruption is both out of character and tragic, his mother Cora, and her best friend Myra are very much one note icky. Indeed, the description of Myra’s sweaty orgasm in front of Gaunt and her desperate longing for a picture of Elvis started to cross a little too far from demonic to demeaning.

Likewise, conservatively Christian and complacently pretty 24 year old Sally Ratcliff and her boyfriend, the all American muscle head Lester, King depicts as almost contemptuously stereotypical, even down to Sally’s group of bitchy lady friends who seem to delight in Sally’s misfortune.

Then again of course, since Gaunt’s hoodoo specifically targets human greed, it makes sense that those affected by it tend to show their worst sides, something which is just as true of such likable characters as Alan’s deputy Norris Ridgewick, or Danforth Keetan’s sweet and long suffering wife Myrtle, as it is for the likes of Sally, Wilma or Ace.

In style, King manages, as he did in It to use a masterful change in authorial voice, altering things just slightly with each character, each experience, even each encounter with the loathsome Gaunt to suit each person’s situation. Indeed Gaunt himself is fascinating in how he changes from charming to chilling, and the different ways he threatens, cajoles and gains power over his victims.

Interspersed in the various damnation games Gaunt plays, we get several stories of characters who are simply decent. With Polly, King manages a similar feat to Dan in Doctor sleep, letting us judge her personal demons from her own perspective rather than ours, whether the brutal discussion of her battle with arthritis, or her fears about the truth concerning the child she had at 17. Indeed, whilst Polly’s behaviour (especially under Gaunt’s influence), can be less than pleasant, at the same time we always understand why she acts as she does, which makes none of her actions or attitudes, even her less pleasant ones feel petty. Polly is also very much an adult woman, and thankfully avoids the trap that some other of King’s female characters like Franny Goldsmith and even Beverly Marsh fall into of becoming what my lady describes as “wet tissues.”

Alan is in some ways a slightly simpler character, particularly since his involvement with Gaunt’s machinations is generally much more peripheral. I will admit with Alan, King’s slower pace was less welcome, since even though we follow Alan’s investigations along with his personal story, given the large number of characters we need to see and the fact that Alan is mostly playing catch up to the reader, Alan’s part in the plot, and the depiction of his relationship with Polly often feels slightly more side-lined than it might have done. I also did not like the way King dismisses the events of The Dark Half which Alan was involved in, and casually drops poor Thad Beaumont off the map with a needlessly cruel fate.

Whilst the first two thirds of Needful Things is mostly setup, King does however stop off for a few shocking moments. Some of these are the jokes Gaunt encourages people to perform, never asking any resident to play a joke on someone they personally know. All of these jokes have both the petty vandalism quality of the nastier kind of thuggery, and yet a calculated sense of unpleasantness. For example, letting down someone’s car tires is at most an inconvenience, letting down the tires on a beloved classic car, not to mention giving the paintwork a good scratch into the bargain is another matter. It is also notable that the reader can see exactly how each joke is calculated to inflame emotions, especially of people who are falling under Gaunt’s spell. I also liked the way that those who perform the jokes often get a guilty pleasure in doing so, a pleasure which only enhances their longing for the items Gaunt sells, though I do wish that perhaps not all of these jokes were quite as crude, or that King had saved the crudity only for where it would do most good, such as in the ongoing Catholic/Baptist feud, then again, artful crudity has always been King’s stock in trade, and even if he occasionally doesn’t quite know when to let the pressure down on the shit storm, at least most of the shit will hit the correct filtration devices.

Speaking of the Catholic/Baptist divide, I was extremely impressed (especially these days in an era where Christianity tends to get very one note negative depictions), that King managed to show the rivalry with such care. It would’ve been easy to have both sides be as bad as each other, or to have one side obviously the aggressors, rather King depicts the Baptist priest, William Rose as a purely nutty hell fire merchant, whilst the Catholic priest, Father John Brigam is a man who probably would’ve been fine in other circumstances, but doesn’t take insults lying down.

King unfortunately didn’t do as well with some other depictions in the book. It is mildly off putting that his one briefly seen black character is a raging racist, albeit we only ever see him under Gaunt’s influence, whilst King’s only gay men are two paedophiles. Then again, whether the lack of black and openly gay characters simply reflects the state of small New England towns in the nineties I’m not sure (I gather Castle Rock isn’t the most liberal of communities). King also does something with the paedophiles I wouldn’t have thought possible, and turns them into actual comic relief to provide some much needed levity to the book’s climax.

Whilst the build up is extremely slow and gradual, the final third of the book is absolutely high octane explosive! After a hint earlier of just how much Gaunt can twist people to his will, I was wondering just how far to hell things would go, and the answer is all the way. The body count for this one was staggering, particularly with most of the murders being up close and personal, with each murder (just like the jokes and sales that got us there), having an especially unique brand of horribleness to it. King even succeeded in doing something I wouldn’t have thought possible and crossing a line I genuinely didn’t think he’d cross, a line which actually shocked me. Indeed, whilst crossing this line wasn’t a pleasant experience, I will give King a lot of credit in managing to go so far as to make even a hardened horror veteran like me take notice.

It was also in the book’s conclusion that we finally see the heart-breaking attempts people make to break away from Gaunt, some of these particularly heroic struggles which make us care more for the characters involved, indeed Polly’s own journey here is a particularly compelling one, and whilst Gaunt and Alan do not meet until the conclusion, the way Polly plays her part in helping Alan fight Gaunt’s influence is an absolute moment of awesome, particularly with how it ties into the Sheriff’s own history.

The final conclusion is appropriate, although slightly abrupt. Whilst I enjoyed the call backs to some earlier King books like The Dark Half, Cujo and of course The Dark Tower, at the same time I was a little disappointed that though Alan initiates the final defeat of Gaunt, his character got slightly subsumed in the ending. There are some instances (especially in horror novels when everything has got so dark), when having the mysterious power of light sweep in and save the day can actually work, and as I argued in my Stand review, King is a master at employing them. However, though the Alan who evokes the power is very much the Alan we’ve known and liked through the book, the Alan who literally starts shouting “I cast thee out demon!” seemed to have become someone else, which was mildly disappointing. Then again Gaunt’s final exit, and what he actually took from the residents of Castle Rock was both fascinating and otherworldly, indeed I’m a little sorry Gaunt didn’t show up later in King’s cosmology, since the ending implies he’s just as much a peripatetic pestilence as King’s main villain Flag, albeit with a slightly different modus operandi.

In some ways Needful Things is the almost typical King. It possesses a good many familiar patterns from other books, there is the evil Henry Bower’s type greaser, the unsettlingly charming villain, mentions of the wider cosmology, the weird dream sequences (often featuring character connections), the bitchy mother, the good natured guy with the appealing down to earth romance trying to do his best, the citizen with the stash of dirty magazines, even a fight with a spider and an explosive conclusion. Likewise, the techniques King uses in writing aren’t new, the style which flows from descriptive, to brief to ghoulishly ironic, the repeated words, the uses of voices from characters’ past to reveal conflicts in their present, even the extended length and detailed character study. The thing is though, a typical Stephen King novel is still a bloody good read! Indeed, whilst I recognized some of the Lego bricks King built this one with, the ways he put those bricks together still surprised and shocked me, kept my attention and added up to something pretty all around awesome!

That is why while I agree with those who regard Needful Things as a fairly run of the mill King novel, that doesn’t stop it being a pretty wonderful run through a magnificently malevolent mill, and thus a trip definitely worth taking.
Dark, 8.9/10

There is a new shop in town. Run by a stranger. Needful Things, the sign says. The oddest name. A name that causes some gossip and speculation among the good folks of Castle Rock, Maine, while they wait for opening day. Eleven-year-old Brian Rusk is the first customer and he gets just what he wants, a very rare 1956 Sandy Koufax baseball card. Signed. Cyndi Rose Martin is next. A Lalique vase. A perfect match for her living room decor. Something for everyone. Something you really have to have. And always at a price you can just about afford. The cash price that is. Because there is another price. There always is when your heart’s most secret, true desire is for sale…

This constitutes the third and final Castle Rock series, with The Dark Half and Cujo being the first and second with Sheriff Alan Pangborn. (But, this book could be read separately, without reading the others as prerequisites).

Since, my rating is a Perfect score (5/5 or 10/10), I’ll describe only those wired connections—according to Mr. Leland Gaunt’s terminology that equals caveat emptor—comprising the plots twists that were the finest in terms of excitement, power and craftiness.

Proprietor, Leland Gaunt, opened his store called fittingly enough: Needful Things. But, he was actually the devil (incarnate) who’s offering their most prized goods in exchange for a nominal fee, but with a trick (or two to boot) to be played on their fellow townsmen. These seemingly harmless tricks themselves reaped havoc and caused massive counter retaliations with violent deaths usually between two adversaries like crazy Nettie Cobb and Wilma Jerzyck, the wild Cusack. They both called each other (down) on the phone; first, in order to convey their meaning straight and that there wasn’t any wild ambiguities. But, when they finally left their respective houses, they were both armed to the teeth: Nettie had a meat cleaver and Wilma had a knife. Then after their bloody, arduous, duel in the middle of the street, they both dropped dead. (Then they had to barricade the area with yellow don’t enter tape before CID arrived in order to take three hundred pictures and to trace what had happened). However, the assailant that had actually committed the crime wasn’t even remotely connected: an eleven year old, Brian Rusk. Hence, ultimately, their souls were stolen, but Gaunt didn’t even mention it.

Gaunt’s first fatal (encounter) customer, Brian Rusk, purchased his favorite Topps baseball card: Sandy Koufax. By holding it, he is able to commune directly with Sandy via virtual reality. He’s talks with him briefly at the Pitcher’s mound. He said, “In order to be a Professional Pitcher, one must practice the fundamentals.” The card itself was signed with Brian Rusk’s name on it. But, he must play two tricks on Wilma: throwing mud on her clean sheets and throwing rocks with attached notes (with rubber bands) on them that smashed through her windows and the TV set. (For the second trick, however, Gaunt said, that dealing wasn’t done until he said so—and that only he knows what’s best.) But, Leland Gaunt had somebody else kill Nettie’ dog: Hugh Priest. He had purchased a fox tail fur just like his father’s, attached to his car’s antennae. But, first, he used his skeleton key set to unlock the door. Then when he petted Raider’s stomach, he killed it with his cork screw knife. (But, he left his finger prints, inadvertently, on the door, which was incriminating).

Later Brian was questioned by Panghorn, but he didn’t admit committing it, but later, he shot himself with his father’s hunting rifle because he felt guilty. But, before that, he asked his brother, Sean, not to visit Needful Things and swear on his own name. Then he said not to swear by their mother’s name since she had already been compromised with the King’s (Elvis Presley’s) personal sun Glasses from Needful Things, which meant that it was trash, since she saw a virtual reality trip with it.

Nettie Cobb purchased some carnival glass, but her trick was to put notes all over Selectman, Buster Keaton’s house. It was signed by Officer Norris Ridgewick (not Nettie). So, later Buster, hit Norris’s BMW with his Cadillac as retaliation at the municipal building’s parking lot. But, Norris had purchased his father’s old fishing pole, a Bazim, which was the best for fly.

New Norris

Norris’ ex girl friend new boyfriend (Coach Pratt) beat him with his fists, at the Police station, because somebody stole his wallet with his incriminating pictures and placed it inside of Pratt’s car, just visible on the seat’s edge. (It was a picture of Norris with his ex-girlfriend at a bar, but a kid told him that they were sucking faces when they kissed, but of course, it was a lie).

But, when Norris started losing the duel like battle, the dispatch Officer, Sandy, had to intervene by killing Pratt with a shot gun butt. He then died from a mortal head wound. (At this instant, Allan was arriving via car at the scene, but he believed that the assailant was Hugh Priest, so he was wrong).

Jewett

Then Pratt’s girlfriend tore the locks off from the middle School’s principle (Jewett’s) desk drawers with a huge pair of scissors, which were about two feet long, but she had to do it twice (in order for it to come free) where he had stashed his incriminating, Porno collection. (She had acquired a sacred splint of wood from Noah’s Ark for her troubles). Then she threw around inside his office like confetti but the interior window panes were made of Glass. So, when the cheerleaders walked through the hall, they saw it all from point blank range, wearing long red and white stockings. Also, a note was left by the woodshop teacher demanding a monetary payment—by an old friend who had shared similar amusements.

Then somehow, Jewett was able get inside the woodshop Teacher’s (George T. Nelson) home because somebody had left a window ajar. Then Jewett finds a large amount of cocaine inside of a sealed plastic bag, which seemed as if he were dealing due the extreme amount. Then Jewett tore it open with a knife, poured it down a toilet and then flushed it. Then he took a shit on his hallowed mother’s picture. Then he started to play games with his beloved Parrot, (Tammy Faye), by pocking it with a knife through the cage bars—and many feathers were flying around inside the kitchen. But, as soon as he grew bored, he skewered it, dead with his trusty knife.

Then Jewett who was armed with a gun and knife waited for (George T. Nelson) to return for retaliation by hiding behind the living room couch. But, when he does return shortly, he sits on the couch in such a way that Jewett can’t use his gun or knife—and in fact, he’s having an extremely tough time just breathing fresh air; he nearly suffocated. During this time, however, George T. Nelson called a friend on the phone and then complained that someone had just killed his beloved, Tammy Faye. So, the man on the other side of the conversation said that he should get a new one at Needful Things. Then he departed and went there, but I believed he bought a lethal automatic pistol from Gaunt.

Norris

But, in actuality, Norris’s fishing pole was a bamboo pole, since he had failed to hang himself with a rope since he felt guilty thinking about his trick: slashing Hugh Priest’s tires. So, he finally decided to get even with Gaunt at the very end, by Assisting Allan Panghorn.

First, he deals with Ace and Keaton who were driving around town planting dynamite sticks with timer caps. But, when Norris (who looked like Barney Snipe), orders them to Stop, and put your hands up. Then Norris is shot a few times by the Hells Angel (Ace) and (Buster) Keaton, but they were superficial wounds. Then Norris returns their fire, but he hits Keaton in the stomach, but Ace shot Buster’s brains out in order to put him out of his misery.

Then Norris asked that deputy, Seat Thomas, drive him with his patrol car to Needful Things in order to meet with Allan Panghorn. But, when they arrived, Norris noticed that, as they got closer from their rear that he could see that Ace was holding Poly hostage with his arms holding her throat and a gun aimed at her face. But, Allan was facing them, a few feet away from Poly. So, he told Seat to drive forward, but not to stop until he had tapped his foot. So, when they got closer, they stopped, punctually. But, Leland Gaunt decided to leave via his front door at the same time. Then Poly fell on the ground, which made it possible for Norris to shoot Ace with his pistol just in time, saving her. Since, Ace didn’t see them coming. So, when this happened, Allan ran quickly to block Gaunt’s way, but he had a hyena skin bag that bulged and sagged, repeatedly, in and out, as if it were an obscene bellows. Then he heard an eldritch screaming sound emanating from inside of his mind.

Then Allan snatched the bag away from Gaunt, with his lighting quick reflexes.

Then Gaunt said that he had bagged as many souls as possible—and since it was free trade, not communism that he had had a right to his property. The souls cannot survive without his aid.

So, Allan pulled out his Nuts and snake magic trick that used to belong to his son, Todd. Then the Fake snake, turned into a mystical snake, which was about ten feet long, with diamond eyes, and huge fangs that punched a few holes in Gaunt’s face. (But, after finishing, it became a Fake snake again, with springs and cloth).

Then Allan did his appearing flower trick, which turned eventfully into a spiritual, white light, which even spoke and said get thee hence where you belong: Hell.

Then the souls in the bag turned into spiritual steam and they were thus freed.

Then Gaunt, who looked like a gargoyle with hideous demon red eyes, got into his car: The Tucker Talisman.

But, slowly it starts to metamorphose its shape with demon eyes for lights. As he walks by Allan, he feels a magnetic (tingling) force in the opposite direction. Then Flames started to pour out everywhere, which made the asphalt street melt, as if it were cheese. Then when he mounted on his giant demon horse with demon nose, snorting plumes of fire, it started to fly off at an obtuse angle toward the burning memorial building. Then it morphed again into a wagon and receded.
August Profumo, 10/10

This Needful Things book review was written by and August Profumo

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