Friday, March 9, 2012

Random Stephen King-ness: Needful Things (Viking, 1991)

Needful Things has always held a special place in my heart because it was the first Stephen King book I ever read. Well, it was the first one I ever read all the way through - I was about 11 years old when I tried to read Pet Sematary but soon gave up on it because of immature frustration. Since then, Needful Things has remained one of my favorites of King's novels. According to the top ten list I made for David over at Talk Stephen King, it is number 4, and I think that is the perfect place for this under-appreciated novel.

Needful Things is the last major story in King's string of tales taking place in the sinister fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, where there have been many horrific occurrences that continually add to the town's evilness. The latest foe is a demon disguised as a man named Leland Gaunt who opens a new store in Castle Rock called Needful Things. Gaunt seems to have just what each resident wants the most, and he'll give it to you for a fair price. Somehow knowing all the townspeople's deepest secrets, Gaunt pits one person against another by having them play pranks on random people, until the seemingly innocent fun turns nothing short of deadly.

The first thing I love about this book is the prologue. The first page only has a single sentence on it - "You've been here before" - and then reads as if an old-timer resident is telling a new-comer a bit about the town and its people, and the new store that's opening up on Main Street. The reader is introduced to the backgrounds of some residents and their rivalries and lets them know that things are about to get bad in this town, that "a storm is on the way" - which proves to be true both figuratively and literally. The epilogue reads the same way and begins with the same phrase. Gaunt has been defeated and run out of Castle Rock, but according to this, he's starting up new business in Junction City, Iowa (and mentions Sam Peebles - the main character from the horrifying novella "The Library Policeman").

"You've been here before." It took me a bit of thinking to figure out the meaning behind that, and what I get from it is simply that people are the same everywhere. Gaunt has been peddling his wares and stealing people's souls since the dawn of time basically, but the people of Castle Rock are nothing special to him because he's probably seen it all before. Their trivial fights with one another may seem unique and specific to certain people but at the core it's the same old story - jealousy, greed, revenge, prejudice.

The second thing I love about this book is the characters. Needful Things is one of those King novels that has a ton of characters to keep straight and get to know. By this time, though, I think King had become a master at organizing his novels in a way where each character could have his or her story told and not make it confusing to the reader. It's easy to pick who the really important characters are in this story - Alan Pangborn, Polly Chalmers, Danforth Keeton, and Leland Gaunt are the ones that I would identify as the most central to the story. Pangborn is one of two Castle Rock natives who make a reappearance from two previous King stories. Sheriff Pangborn is the successor of George Bannerman, who first appeared in The Dead Zone, utilizing John Smith's psychic visions to capture the Castle Rock Strangler, and then came back again in Cujo only to be killed by the rabid dog at the end. Pangborn's involvement in the unusual case of Thad Beaumont in The Dark Half may have messed with his head a lot, but it no doubt made him stronger and more able to deal with the evil Leland Gaunt. In fact, Thad's sparrows and Cujo the rabid dog are tools that Alan uses against Gaunt in their final (if rather anticlimactic) battle - in the form of his famous shadow puppets. This was one detail that I really enjoyed about Needful Things, and thought it brought a real finality to the Castle Rock saga - along with the fact that most of the town was blown up at the end. The other Castle Rock townie to return is the resident bad boy Ace Merrill, now older but definitely not wiser. Though he plays a big role in carrying out Gaunt's master plan for Castle Rock, his character is no different than what you remember from "The Body" and he never changes and then he dies, so that's it for Ace.

I think what I love most about Needful Things though is the originality of the story and the appeal of Gaunt's sadistically fun plan for people to plan pranks on others. I can just imagine Stephen King standing in front of a corkboard with push pins and strings - constructing the web of who's fighting with who and who plays the pranks that set them off. The supernatural element of the novel is somewhat downplayed, so that the story can focus more on the characters and the effect that Gaunt's tricks are having on them. Yes, Gaunt is a demon who steals souls, and seems to know just about everything about everybody in town, and has eyes that frequently change color, and is able to repulse anybody with just a touch, but that is the real extent of the supernatural that we get. It's the characters that are really at the forefront here, and what is brought out in them when their biggest fears are shoved in their faces, and I love the way that King chose to present that with this story. It's a highly original idea and it completely works with what King was trying to say. His writing style in this book is also what most people refer to as "vintage King" - like he's slightly sophisticated but still naughty and nasty at the same time.

So what did we learn from Needful Things? Obviously, the main one is "Caveat Emptor!" You may think you are getting exactly what you want, but what are you sacrificing to get it? And what are you willing to do to keep it? Pride is a good thing to have sometimes, but remember that it is also one of the seven deadly sins. Grief is a necessity, but it's okay to move on. Questioning a loved one's death can only do more harm than good to your sanity. And finally, and maybe most importantly - drugs are bad. But you all knew that.


1 comment:

  1. Gonna be rereading that one at some point this year. It wasn't the first one I ever read, but it was the first one I ever bought as a new hardcover.

    I like the movie, too -- hopefully the extended edition (which is even better) will get released on DVD one of these days.