Book Review: Needful Things by Stephen King
Are you for sale? Probably not if someone comes right out and asks you for your price. Suppose you enter a quaint little shop full of wares? You behold that object…that thing…that needful thing that piques your interest. After inquiring about the price–none of the items are marked–the merchant lets you name your price. You are shocked and pleasantly surprised at your good fortune. That needful thing can be yours for the low, low price of…whatever you can afford. You think the sale is done until the kindly merchant asks you to play a harmless prank on someone. It is just a favor to the merchant–all in good fun–and the second installment of payment to solidify the purchase.
“Everyone loves a bargain. Everyone loves something for nothing…even if it costs everything.”
Leland Gaunt, that kindly stranger, sets up this business model for the new shop he opens in Castle Rock, Maine. Castle Rock is the quintessential small town peopled with the usual characters. There’s the Andy Griffithesque sheriff, smart and wily. There are the religious folk. In this case, two factions: the Catholics and the Baptists. There are the healthy batch of ne’er-do-wells. There are the Opieseque little boy characters. They become pawns in Leland Gaunt’s sinister, bedlam inducing game. And oh, he is the master of it as if he’s been doing it since the word was formed.
At a whopping 736 pages, King’s novel is not for the faint of heart. You have to persevere. There are a plethora of characters to keep up with, but that’s okay. It serves to illustrate the unwieldy scenario King sets up. Leland Gaunt is sowing seeds of evil, hate, obsession, greed, perversion, jealousy–a veritable seed bed or cesspool–and he needs a large, fertile soil and many seedlings. It all becomes one tangled mess. I was drawn in by King’s layering and character development. I gave myself over to it. That’s what you have to do.
The story begins with the adolescent Brian Rusk who enters the shop first. He is charmed into “purchasing” a 1956 Sandy Koufax baseball card for a nominal price and the promise to play a prank. Leland Gaunt places Brain under a trance that makes his acceptance easier. Once Brian leaves the shop, Leland Gaunt becomes a sort of inner voice that reminds him of his obligation and the penalty for not keeping the promise. Unfortunately, Brian is filled with both an insatiable need for the baseball card and an intense fear of loosing it. He can’t even share it with his friends so consumed he is by paranoia of it being taken. He obsessively checks on and admires it in the solitude of his room. It becomes a secret that gains more power in proportion to the depth it is buried as secrets are won’t to do. In effect, Brian becomes a slave to Leland Gaunt. The baseball card is the chain.
This scenario replays countless times with each person ensnared by the merchandise. The chaos ensues when the pranks are played. The prankster is ignorant of why he or she is playing the prank. In most cases the person has no close relationship to the person on whom the prank is played. However, that person, the “victim”, is sure of the prankster’s identity. Without any investigation, they assume the prankster is their nemesis. For example, Brain Rusk plays a prank on hot tempered social pariah Wilma Jerzyck who incidentally has been embroiled in a dispute with another woman, Nettie Cobb. When Brian soils Wilma’s freshly cleaned sheets with mud, she immediately assumes it is the work of Nettie Cobb. Leland Gaunt is so smug about human nature. He uses a simple calculation: hubris + anger + suspicion — compassion = chaos.
Soon you know where this is going. Everything becomes tangled and twisted at the hands of, well the ultimate evil one. Leland Gaunt is no amateur at this. He is the CEO and the townspeople are his workforce. You want to believe that someone will resist or at least listen to the better angels of their nature to see what Leland Gaunt is up to. You, the reader, are screaming out for godly intervention. Sheriff Alex Pangborn begins to sense the presence of something untoward, but Gaunt steers clear of him for fear of being found out. This is not because the sheriff is law enforcement. Apparently, Gaunt can sense that Pangborn has some special evil filtering sight. Neither of the clergymen from either major religious faction venture into the shop. It’s not necessary. It seems that Leland knows he already has them on his team. There is a dispute brewing between the Catholics and the Baptists over an upcoming Casino Nite. The religious folk–the primary fighters of the devil one would argue–self-destruct with little stoking from Gaunt. They are far more concerned with the dogmatics surrounding gambling than with the evil right under their noses.
I wish more characters would have possessed the strength to fight Leland Gaunt. However only three of them fight against him in the end. It’s obvious that he knows human nature far too well. But these three do fight despite their brokenness. Had this book been set in the 2000s instead of the early 1990s, Gaunt would only have to stock our electronic (de)vices However, it’s not really about the needful thing. The bondage comes in what the thing masks as Polly Chalmers says, “He makes you buy back your own sickness, and he makes you pay double.” Which brings me back to that question. Are you for sale? According to Needful Things, we all are. “The devil’s voice is sweet to hear.” Does good triumph in the end? You’ll have to read it for yourself.
This book is highly entertaining. The drama builds to a fever pitch. The violence is extra grisly. There are many secrets. I remember seeing the movie version, but I don’t recall much about it other than the shopkeeper as a stand in for Satan. I looked at the movie reviews and they were lackluster. It would probably do better as a made for TV movie because of all the characters. Read it and prepare to steer clear of shopping for awhile.