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.
"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.
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.
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.
YOU'VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.