Published by Gallery Books on March 20, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Horror, Supernatural
Stephen King’s underrated Needful Things is a darkly satirical novel set in his fictional town Castle Rock, Maine. I appreciated Needful Things more on my second read. The thick 700+ volume features dark humor, multiple character perspectives, critiques on capitalism and religion, and characters from earlier King books. This work is also notable because it is one of the first novels King published after becoming sober (it contrasts strongly to the chaotic Tommyknockers).
Castle Rock, Maine is also featured in King’s: Cujo, The Dead Zone, and The Dark Half. Needful Things was described as the last Castle Rock story at the time of its publication (but King has since featured Castle Rock in short stories and novellas). Leland Gaunt, a mysterious man, moved into town and opens a shop called Needful Things. The store sells a mishmash of items including antiques, baseball cards and art. Gaunt’s store is unique because there are no set prices for his wares. Instead, every sale is a negotiation between him and the customer. In addition to a monetary cost, he asks his customers to play a small prank on one of their neighbors. These pranks set the people of Castle rock at odds with each other. Gaunt especially fuels the fire between the Baptists and Catholics of Castle Rock. The story is told from the perspective of many of the Castle Rock residents. The main protagonist is Alan Pangborn, the town sheriff and magic trick enthusiast. He is coping with the death of his wife and son who died in a tragic car accident. Alan is currently dating Polly Chambers a seamstress who suffers from the most extreme case of arthritis in literature. There is also the town’s head selectmen Danforth Keeton, who has a gambling addiction and is convinced that “persecutors” are out to get him. And Ace Merrill, the bully from King’s beloved short story Stand by Me, returns to Castle Rock. Ace is struggling to find money to pay off a debt to organized criminals making him a prime target for Gaunt to manipulate.
My favorite part of Needful Things is the dark humor and satire. The squabbles between the residents of Castle Rock quickly escalate to extremes. The Castle Rock women committing murder because of petty pranks feel like over exaggerated scenes from the Real Housewives. Leland Gaunt is a unique villain in the early parts of the book. I believe he embodies the evils of American capitalism and commerce. I love any King story that has multiple perspectives, my favorites being Salem’s Lot or The Stand. Maybe some people are put off by King’s tendency to drop references and characters from his previous works into his books, but I love all the Easter Eggs. Brian Rusk a schoolboy is Gaunt’s first customer and one of my favorite characters. King has mastered writing child characters, probably why I’m currently loving his latest release, Fairy Tale.
I found the pattern of customers purchasing from Gaunt and then playing a prank on someone to be repetitive after a while. And it does become difficult to keep track of who played a prank on who. Gaunt is an interesting villain at the start of the story, but I thought he devolved into a more one-dimensional villain by the book’s conclusion.
Needful Things is essential reading for any King fan. That being said, this is not among his best books and not something I’d recommend to a reader looking to try Stephen King for the first time.