Written by Stephen King
Intended Audience: General Adult, high school and up.
As expected from Stephen King, Needful Things is a horror story and is set in Maine. This particular story is set in Castle Rock. Throughout the novel King jumps from one character’s point of view to another. Most episodes last only a few pages. These abrupt changes can be distracting but are probably necessary to the grand design of presenting a whole town in motion.
*****Warning: Lots of Spoilers*****
King uses this book as a farewell to the town of Castle Rock, Maine. He had previously used this same town as the setting for several of his stories but Needful Things is the last to be set there. This is one of King’s best novels in terms of characterization and plot. It takes place over a one month period. There are about a dozen storylines intertwined here and during the first two thirds of the book there is hardly a drop of blood spilled. The last third is a hurtling, and symphonic energy filled holocaust. By the end of the novel everyone in the town are on a hysterical, psychotic mass rampage that floods hospital and morgue with the de-limbed and obliterated. And then there’s a big bang super climax.
Leland Gaunt is the owner of a new curiosity store in this town. Leland is a gentlemanly stranger to this town. He calls his store “Needful Things”. The store offers unbeatable bargains to the town’s troubled citizens. The name of the shop is ironic. It sells nothing but curios, knickknacks, novelties, bric-a-brac, and whatnots. Nothing in there has any real practical use or a great intrinsic value. With this store Leland Gaunt sets the townspeople against each other. He does all this just for the fun of it. He is obviously the Devil himself disguised as a shopkeeper. As he has done for hundreds of years, he sells the citizens whatever pricks and satisfies their innermost desires. The price dehumanizes them. The low monetary price is misleading because with each purchase the draculean shopkeeper asks the buyer to play “a harmless practical joke” on one of the other townsfolk. Leland gets his customers to accept his strange terms by overpowering them with his dizzying hypnotic stare and implanting suggestions deep in their unconscious minds that make it impossible for them to disobey. Because of this the townsfolk soon vent all their aggressions on each other with cleave, knife, and gun. Gaunt opens a sideline of automatic weapons.
There are about half a dozen people in the town that stand out. Leland’s first customer is Brian Rusk. He’s an eleven year old boy who has a mother who does not pay him much attention. Brian sells his soul for a rare Sandy Koufax baseball card. The card becomes his prized treasure of his collection. Before long strange things happen to Brian. He becomes suspicious and jealous. Paranoia makes him afraid to show his new card to anyone, even his little brother and father. Brian has to throw mud at the clean white sheets that hang on a neighbor’s line and then later has to go back and throw rocks through her windows. This woman suspects that the vandal is a woman with whom she’s been feuding over a barking dog. Gaunt escalates this feud by sending another customer to the dog-owner’s home to kill the sweet-natured little mongrel in a sadistic manner. This is just the first of many deaths to come in this novel.
Polly Chalmers welcomes Gaunt with a devil’s-food cake. She is a lonely seamstress who runs the You Sew `n’ Sew shop, and has arthritis and many other pains, both physical and psychic which she must bear. Polly buys an amulet to relieve her arthritis from this shop.
Polly’s lover, Andy Pangborn is the town’s new sheriff. His wife and son recently died in a car accident. He does not buy anything from the shop but he's haunted by the deaths of his wife and son. Andy senses that something very sinister is going on in his town but could not understand what it was. On several occasions he attempts to visit Needful Things but each time the shop is closed. Gaunt is deliberately avoiding him because he knows that the sheriff is the one person in Castle Rock who he cannot entrap with his meretricious merchandise.
Another character is Ace Merrill. He is a coke dealer who’s in a bind. He becomes Gaunt’s handydevil and gets to drive Gaunt’s Tucker. Gaunt’s Tucker is a car that is faster than radar and uses no gas. The thing that Ace finds in Gaunt’s shop he “needs” is a worthless treasure map.
Two other characters that stand out in my mind are Norris Ridgewick and Danforth Keeton III. Noris is Alan’s deputy. Danforth is known as Buster, and is the Head Selectman of Castle Rock. Buster buys a toy horseracing game that apparently enables him to pick winners at the Lewiston Raceway. The head selectman becomes one of Gaunt’s most abject victims. Buster eventually is forced to order large quantities of dynamite for a grand finale of death and destruction which the reader of this book can see coming several hundred pages before it happens.
This book was nominated in 1991 for a Bram Stoker Award. The first printing of this book made 1.5 million dollars. It was a Book of the Month club selection. Publishers Weekly put this book on their list of recommendations. It has the horror and suspense that is expected of King but there’s also a deeply moving message here. The message is that what we truly need is often right in front of us but in order to have what we need we have to break down the fear that separates us from having and embracing it.