Book Review: Needful Things by Stephen King

“If we take responsibility for the things that cause us pain, we can inoculate ourselves against the temptation towards malevolence.”

After eating Christine’s dirt in the last episode of The Constant reader podcast, I’ve been invited back by host Richard Sheppard to do an episode on Needful Things, which I’ve just finished. I’m looking forward to having a proper conversation about it soon, as it is a tremendous book. But for now, here’s my take on his 1991 novel Needful Things.

The first thing that’s worth considering when reading Stephen King’s Needful Things, his thirty-first (thirty-first!) novel, is that it was the first book that he completed after sobering up. King in the 80s was a blaze of novels, prescription pills, alcohol, insane publication deals and more novels (nineteen in total), and it was only after his family staged an intervention against his increasingly unhinged behaviour that he managed to get himself straight and sober. The theme of addiction, alcoholism and recovery is a constantly recurring motif throughout King’s oeuvre, from The Shining through to Doctor Sleep and stopping off at various points in between. It’s not overtly there in Needful Things (NF), but it serves as a useful contextual note. Firstly, one can almost hear the gleeful laugh of King as he realises that he can weave a reasonably complex web of plot strands without the need for over-the-counter (or over-the-street-corner) stimulation. Secondly, while NF isn’t overtly about addiction, it is about the surrender of one’s personality to something useless and destructive, which is pretty close in all but name in my estimation.

A quick recap of the plot. A new shop going by the name of Needful Things opens in the bedevilled Maine town of Castle Rock. The owner, a well-dressed, urbane stick insect of a man d’un age certain going by the name of Leland Gaunt, attracts people in with a seeming cornucopia of oddments, trinkets and bric-a-brac. But amongst the mostly tatty and outdated stuff, every customer who enters beneath the shop’s frilled green canopy can’t help but spy something so irresistible that they’ll do anything to get hold of it. And when they find that the dollar price is just within their means – no matter who they are – they can’t believe their eyes.

“He charged them what they could afford – not a penny more, not a penny less. Each according to his means was Mr Gaunt’s motto.”

But there’s a second price to pay for the item. A little task. An errand. No more than a harmless little prank on somebody from the neighbourhood. But soon the pranks pile up, and exacerbate already-existent threads of enmity and discord within the community, until the final firecracker is lit by Mr Gaunt, and…

Well, to say that this is one crazy book would be an understatement. The first half is a house-of-cards act, with King setting up various crossed plotlines and laying metaphorical and literal sticks of dynamite in various parts of town. The second half, when the fuses are lit, is so batshit, balls-out crazy that it almost descends into farce, but is kept from becoming so by King’s prose, which is as deft and crisp as anything from his eighties novels. It’s frightening, funny, and absolutely nutso. Maybe the fact that this was intended to be the final Castle Rock story has something to do with the almost apocalyptic scenes that accompany the end of this novel. Like It did for Derry, NF shows the necessity of voluntarily confronting the malevolent thing that’s destroying you in order to be able to purge it, recover, and grow. Which to me seems the very essence of addiction recovery.

The book’s major motif is the bargain. Ostensibly a critique of consumerism, King makes the unconventional decision to use a modest, unassuming mom-and-pop-style Main Street operation to act as the conduit for the idea that personal happiness is only a single purchase away. This is in contrast to most eighties critiques of consumerism, which focused on that new invention of the era – the mega mall (Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead is probably one of the most famous examples of such satirical critiques). In that sense NF isn’t a critique of hyper consumerism per se, but our propensity to project our need onto other things. Thus the “needful things” of the book’s title are not the items in the shop, but the residents of Castle Rock. They are spoilt, needy creatures, all carrying a sense of lack that cannot be righted by a mere trinket, but maybe can be temporarily filled with an illusion, which is all the time Leland Gaunt needs to secure their souls.

There’s another aspect to the bargain. While Leland Gaunt’s identity is shrouded in mystery for the majority of the novel (and even in the denouement it is not revealed in its entirety; only a further sliver of the truth is revealed) in my mind it’s fairly clear that whatever his actual identity, he is representative of the Devil, who has a long history of notorious bargains. Doctor Faust, Robert Johnson, and even God have all dickered and bartered with the Devil on occasion. And as the characters dicker and barter with Gaunt, it seems that they’re really dickering and bartering with their own Devilish side. Gaunt isn’t overtly tagged as the Devil, however, and in fact King plays with ideas of his identity throughout the book. One of the first things we hear him say (to eleven-year-old Brian Rusk, his first customer) is, “Come in, my friend. Enter freely, and leave some of the happiness you bring!” Which is, coincidentally I’m sure, the very first line uttered by Count Dracula. There is also, as is common in King’s work, a strong undercurrent of Lovecraftian horror. We see some droll graffiti in Boston which reads YOG-SOTHOTH RULES, while Mr Gaunt provides Ace Merrill, a no-good petty crook up to his eyeballs in debt to some real bad guys, with some cocaine procured “from the plateau of Leng”, Leng being a place in Lovecraftian folklore where the Elder Ones built one of their cities. Leng was built in Anarctica, so I’m not entirely sure how they produced the horticultural conditions necessary for growing cocaine, but… we’ll blow over that. There is some evidence, then, that suggests that Gaunt is, or is somehow acquainted, with the Great Old Ones. He bears many resemblances to Nyarlathotep, the only one of the Lovecraftian Great Old Ones to take the form of a human, and who used propaganda, trickery, fakery to manipulate humans, and took great enjoyment in deceiving and torturing them, all traits which are evident in Mr Gaunt.

But really he’s the Devil, a charming, ancient, malevolent trickster. He doesn’t suck his customers’ blood like Dracula; instead he sucks away a little of their soul by getting them to chip away at their own ethical framework by having them carry out these malevolent pranks. And he’s intent on causing the greatest possible harm for the smallest possible reason.

“He had begun his business many years ago – as a wandering peddler on the blind face of an ancient land… who carried his wares on his back, usually came at the fall of darkness and was always gone the next morning, leaving bloodshed, horror and unhappiness behind him. Years later, in Europe, as the plague raged and the deadcarts rolled, he had gone from town to town and country to country in a wagon drawn by a slat-thin white horse with terrible burning eyes and a tongue as black as a killer’s heart. He sold his wares from the back of the wagon… and was gone before his customers… could discover what they’d really bought. Times changed; methods changed; faces, too. But when the faces were needful they were always the same, the faces of sheep who have lost their shepherd, and it was with this sort of commerce that he felt most at home.”

The cast of NF is among the most colourful and bonkers of any King deploys in his work. The plot dictates that this is an ensemble piece, and so King unleashes a real motley crew of people, each one carrying their own barely-suppressed damage, prejudices, mania, hatred, pain and secrets, just waiting to be exploited by the right sequence of events. As such, there is a sense that the items that Gaunt sells – a supposedly rare baseball card, a carnival glass lamp, a Bazun fishing rod, a mechanical horseracing game, a picture of Elvis, or the sunglasses he supposedly wore on stage – represent lack on the part of the buyer; more than mere trinkets, they are symbolic of something that is either missing or has been lost from their own identity. The psychoanalyst Lacan would have identified these objects as Das Ding (The Thing), the object of desire that must be continually re-found and provoke uncontrollable waves of desire in the subject.

The tragedy of the story is that, once each customer has purchased their perfect item, they are compelled to keep it in splendid secrecy – to reveal it (or to externalise their fantasy in Lacanian terms) would expose their role in the chaos embroiling the town. So the people have to cleave to their secret objects just as much as they did to their secret desires before, and perhaps even more so; in allowing themselves to get hold of their desire they now have to keep it hidden more than ever. This is most keenly felt with Brian Rusk, who becomes distraught at becoming an accessory to horrific acts of violence, and yet still clings desperately to his beloved baseball card, because it’s all he had gotten out of the deal. In the end he sees his folly, but it’s all too late.

So the damage escalates, from embezzling town selectman Danforth “Buster” Keeton, to slightly goofy Sherrif’s deputy Norris Ridgewick, to meek and mild Nettie Cobb, to the mad-as-hell, foam-flecked nuthousery of Wilma Jersyck, an unhinged Polish cross between Miss Trunchbull and The Red Queen, whose end is as spectacular and gruesome as it is expected. Entire subsets of the community – Baptists, Catholics, crooks, cops – are set against each other, with nobody suspecting the spider at the centre of the web, Mr Gaunt.

Two of the most interesting characters in the book are Polly Chalmers, a woman who runs a haberdashery and whose past took her away from Castle Rock to California, where death and tragedy followed, and Alan Pangborn, the Castle Rock Sheriff and King veteran, being also a main character in The Dark Half. Polly’s pain is twofold; she suffers from crippling arthritis in her hands, and it’s this pain that drives her to buy an azka, a necklace that miraculously relieves the pain from her hands. Yet the azka holds a secret that Polly has to face. But I feel that Gaunt miscalculates; Polly’s other pain – her real, deeper pain – is the one that relates to her time in California, and which might have buried her if Gaunt had sold her an item that exploited this more fundamentally damaged part of her character. But as it is, Polly’s azka relates to physical rather than soulful suffering, and so she is able to overcome the manifestation of evil that attacks her late in the novel more easily than most other characters manage.

His power is over need, not will. Take [the azka] off, [Polly]. Break his hold on you.

Polly is in a long-term relationship with Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who carries his own baggage with him; his wife and son died in a road traffic accident some years earlier. Unresolved questions relating to the incident continue to plague him. Nevertheless, he’s a good man who does his best to protect Castle Rock and its inhabitants, and keep the barely-there peace between the various bickering parties. More importantly, he’s the one person in Castle Rock who never falls prey to Gaunt’s tricks. This is partly because he’s something of a trickster himself; he’s an amateur magician, with a bag of shadow puppets, prestidigitation and visual gags up his sleeve. He’s frequently compared to a panther; he’s agile, lithe, and somewhat predatory. And he’s a cop, a man who’s symbolically on the side of good, order, and protection. So maybe, as a trickster on the side of good, he’s difficult for Gaunt to ensnare. Gaunt himself calls Alan a “tough sell”.

But there’s more to it than that, and ultimately where the final word on NF can be found. Alan, being a cop, has responsibility baked into his character; he’s the only character who does take responsibility for things in his town; everybody else just shuts down their conscience and does their deal with the Devil. Alan (and, eventually, Polly) are the only people who are able to voluntarily face Gaunt and drive him away. Maybe that’s the lesson; that if we take responsibility for the things that cause us pain, or lead us away from where we feel we ought to be, then we can to a greater or lesser extent inoculate ourselves to the temptations of the destructive and malevolent. I feel the majority of people in NF know they’re bartering with the Devil. But as soon as you enter into that transaction, it’s very hard to walk away as the one who got the better deal. Instead they think that the bargain they’re getting is too good to be true, which it of course it is. Yet in the end they think, “to hell with it” and go through with it.

And “to hell” is exactly what happens.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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