Needful Things

Needful Things - Stephen King Stephen King’s approach to horror is much less about the supernatural than I think his reputation suggests. Before approaching his work back in high school, I was vaguely aware of books like Cujo, Pet Sematary, Christine (mostly due to their movie incarnations), and based on these, I assumed that King was all about the thrills and chills of the unexplained or just plain weird. It turns out the real horrors of his books are quite easy to explain, but no less frightening for this. Human nature is really all there is to it; there may be a homicidal clown on the loose in a small town, but you can bet it will be the people of that town that demonstrate the most monstrosity. A little boy is raised from the dead by a supernatural force, but is it the force that is frightening, or what it does to people who should leave the dead well enough alone? A teenage girl exhibits frightening telekinetic powers, but would these abilities have turned to destruction without the impetus of cruelty and isolation? The truly horrific is always human in King’s best works; everything else is just the trappings of the tale.

Needful Things is very much a story about people and the horrors they inflict on each other, with little or no help from sinister forces. Don’t misunderstand me, there is a very sinister force involved here, but he’s really just working with something that is already there. Leland Gaunt, a charming man with a sixth sense for a deal (and some strange physical attributes), blows into the tiny town of Castle Rock to peddle his wares. Gaunt’s shop, the titular Needful Things, is ordinary and nondescript, and only in a town as small as The Rock would it cause much of a sensation. Well, make a sensation it does, and only King could create such an odd mixture of small-town life and big-time evil working in perfect conjunction with each other.

The fictional Maine town of Castle Rock has made several appearances in King’s earlier novels; it was the setting for Cujo and The Dark Half, as well as the short stories “The Body” (which became the film Stand By Me), and “The Sun Dog.” Also, the protagonist of The Dead Zone stopped by just long enough to catch the Castle Rock Strangler, twenty years before the events of NF. Needful Things is billed as “the last Castle Rock story,” so from the very beginning it’s almost certain that something pretty sinister is going to go down. Castle Rock is a highly believable community, full of characters that successfully tread the line dividing people from morality tale archetypes. Some of them are “small town types,” but most of them have their own stories and idiosyncrasies, which is imperative to the story, as the psychology of Castle Rock’s inhabitants is the basis from which everything springs.

Leland Gaunt offers amazing merchandise for a steal. Brian Rusk, a fairly typical eleven-year-old boy, collects 1956 baseball cards, and when Mr. Gaunt offers him a valuable Sandy Kofax card, signed to a boy named Brian no less, for ninety-eight cents, how can Brian say no? It doesn’t really matter that the rest of the payment is to be made by way of a “harmless prank” on another inhabitant of the town. And it doesn’t seem all that strange that when Brian holds his beloved card, he can see Kofax, smell the grass and dust of the diamond, and hear the long-dead pitcher’s voice clear as day. As Mr. Gaunt meets more of the Castle Rock folks, and sells them more of his astounding merchandise, some strange and sinister events begin to unfold, much to the consternation of Sheriff Alan Pangborn.

Alan, like Castle Rock, has made a previous appearance in King’s oeuvre (The Dark Half). Sheriff Pangborn is like many of King’s protagonists in that he is almost too good to be true. He carries some typically heroic emotional baggage (dead wife and son), but his character is essentially untarnished by his suffering, and even a little unnatural. Alan is an amateur magician; when he’s nervous or stressed, he makes elaborate shadow puppets and pulls collapsing bouquets from his sleeves, and he has almost frighteningly good reflexes. He is a bit odd, but in the way that only charming and highly conscientious men can be. He is also the consummate gentleman, as his love affair with the mysterious Polly constantly illustrates. While a character like Alan is usually irritating in a book so fundamentally free of optimism as Needful Things, there is also something very basic and natural about the White Knight Alan facing the sinister Gaunt for the souls of Castle Rock. Alan and Gaunt don’t even meet until the last few chapters, but their face off is inevitable from the start.

While Good vs. Evil is a big theme in Needful Things, I think Leland Gaunt’s character could have used a little more subtlety. It is pretty obvious from the start that there is something not quite right about him; he’s up to something, and his plan seems subtle at first, but soon becomes as nuanced as a slap in the face. While the set-up of playing people against each other and their baser instincts is not new to horror, King does take an interesting sort of domino approach to the overall plot, setting up seemingly unrelated characters to force simmering, small town grudges to the murderous boiling point. I also give King credit for using the inherent (and believable) selfishness of the characters to his own advantage, keeping the plot rolling through over 700+ pages. And he is rarely kind to his characters; even the most innocuous and kindly characters are subject to some pretty gruesome stuff. While it’s painful to watch a character you like suffer, it also gives a whiff of realism to an otherwise over-the-top story.

There is one element of the story I find a little confusing. About two-thirds of the way through the story, Ace Merrill, an aging hood who works for Gaunt, runs across a bit of bizarre graffiti. Spray painted on a rundown old garage is the phrase “Yog-Sogoth Rules.” I’m not a huge horror fan; in fact, Stephen King is the only horror writer I read with any regularity. I have never been able to slog my way through Lovecraft (though god knows I’ve tried), but I am vaguely aware of the Cthulu mythos, and the association of the name Yog-Sogoth with said mythos. The thing is, I’m not quite sure what this has to do with the story King is telling. After a little research (thank you Wikipedia), I was able to draw a couple of possible conclusions, but they’re foggy, as the name is only mentioned twice in the whole book, and is never satisfactorily tied to Gaunt or any higher power Gaunt may be subject to. Yog Sogoth is also known as “Aforgomon,” (in works by Clark Ashton Smith, whoever that is) and this character/creature/what-have-you is known to only reveal himself to those who anger him. There are moments in the book when Gaunt becomes enraged by his customers, and when this happens he does have a tendency to “reveal” himself, which usually consists of a crack in his “kindly old gentleman” façade and the occasional shift in eye color. So there is a connection, but it is either just an interesting bit of horror trivia, or you would have to be a much more informed Lovecraftian than myself to understand any deeper meaning. (If anyone can clarify any of this for me, feel free to comment with your theory.)

I was pretty thoroughly immersed in Needful Things, though I can’t rank it with my favorites by King (It, The Dead Zone, Carrie, Firestarter, The Talisman, The Stand, Pet Semetary, The Shining and ‘Salem’s Lot are all superior, I believe). Oddly enough, this book reminded me of Jane Austen, and no, I’m not losing my mind or trying to make some high flown literary allusion. The two incredibly disparate writers simply share a rare talent for creating highly believable communities that are integral to their storytelling methods. Austen’s Emma relies heavily on the neighborhood surrounding the main plot, and Needful Things has a similar structure. If these were just a few unrelated characters living in proximity to one another, the whole thing would never have held up with any success, but the community feels very real, so it is both sad and terrifying when the whole thing essentially implodes and neighbors show their true colors to one another.

Ok, this could go on forever, so I'll wrap it up. This was a top notch read, really. As I said, not the absolute epitome of King’s abilities, but very solid and enjoyable.