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.
A magical painting, a deranged abusive husband and a menacing bull can all be found in Stephen King’s, Rose Madder. Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It is a unique entry in King’s bibliography. Rose Madder reads as a thriller, with some magical elements, inspired by Greek mythology. Norman Daniels might be the most evil and terrifying villain King has written. This was a fun read that I’d place in the middle tier of my King rankings.
Rose Madder begins with a brutal prologue that details a violent moment of domestic abuse between Rosie and her husband, Norman. The novel picks up years later, on the day Rosie decides she’s had enough. While Norman, who is a cop, is away at work, Rosie steals his bank card and leaves, hoping to never return. Upon arriving at a new city, Rosie finds refuge at the Daughters and Sisters Shelter and eventually finds a job and apartment. Meanwhile, Norman is hell-bent on locating Rosie and getting his revenge. The magical elements of the story come into play when Rosie finds a painting that catches her eye at a consignment store. However, the painting ends up being more than it seems.
I really enjoyed the tension that King maintained throughout the book. I was scared for Rosie as Norman closed in on her location. There were passages that had me at the edge of my seat. My favorite character in the story was Gert, another woman at the shelter. Gert teaches the women self defense and is the key character in my favorite scene. Norman was a great villain you love to hate. The passages told from Norman’s perspective were so disturbing and twisted. I felt unsettled reading those. I also enjoyed all the Greek mythology King wove into the story.
The magical sections of the book felt jarringly placed. It didn’t feel like I was reading the same book at times. I wish King had more smoothly integrated the magical elements into the real-world sections.
I have two problems with Rose Madder that I’d like to see reworked if it’s ever adapted for the screen (spoilers to follow). Norman Daniels is a twisted, evil man. For some reason King decided to add gay elements to his violent tendencies. King also suggests that Norman’s behavior originates from his dad molesting him when he was young. The gay serial killer trope is overdone and harmful. One does not become gay because they were molested by someone of the same sex and gay people are not any more likely to be serial killers than anyone else. Norman Daniels would have been plenty terrifying and deplorable without the addition of these gay elements. My second gripe is with the role of the black woman in the painting. This woman is one of the few black characters in the novel She appears to be Wendy (a previous victim of Norman). In the painting she acts as a servant to the blonde women. The optics of this are not good.
I enjoyed my time with Rose Madder. I find this to be one of King’s most unique novels. I had no clue where he was going with the painting and enjoyed the book’s suspense.
Trigger Warnings: Domestic Abuse, Miscarriage, Lots of Violence
Only Stephen King can get me to read a novel about an Iraqi war veteran turned hitman on a quest for revenge. King’s latest release, Billy Summers, is a thriller without supernatural elements. Billy Summers’ only rule, as a hitman, is he only accepts targets that are “bad guys”. He hopes his latest high-paying assignment will be his last. Billy poses as a writer in an office building across from a courthouse, waiting for an opportunity to take out a murderer as he is escorted up the courthouse steps to stand trial. He uses the downtime waiting for the day of the assassination to write a memoir, ironically becoming the writer he is disguised as.
The first half of this book was excellent. I love when authors make their protagonists writers, it is one of my favorite literary tropes. Billy suspects the individuals managing the hit are spying on his laptop, so he purposely writes his memoir in a dumbed-down voice, to hide his intelligence. Convincingly writing in different versions of one character’s voice is impressive and displays why King is a master storyteller. There are many parallels between Billy Summers and King’s outstanding Misery. Both novels feature male protagonists writing stories that are featured within the novels. Additionally, both Billy and Paul Sheldon are isolated indoors for the majority of their stories. I suspect Billy’s periods of isolation were inspired by King quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic. King does drop in references to another work in the Stephen King Universe, fans of The Shining will be pleased.
About halfway through Billy Summers there is a major plot shift that drives the action for the remainder of the book. I found the plot in the second half to be less compelling and began looking forward to finishing the novel so I could move on to my next one, which is never a good sign. There is a horrendous instance of brown face in the book, that made me wince. Billy uses many disguises in the novel, one of them is a Mexican gardener (Billy is not Mexican) and involves layers of spray tan. After his first coat of tan Billy is described as “a white man with a desert tan”. After a second coat Billy is still not convinced and says: “This might have been a bad idea” (p. 395). Yes, Stephen King this was a horrible idea to include in the story. The disguise is wholly inappropriate! How did your editors approve this? Please do better! The frequent digs at Trump that I have come to appreciate in King’s latest works are present, but do not make up for this unnecessary, and highly problematic plot point.
I would only recommend this book to Constant Readers (King’s name for his die-hard fans). If you are a Stephen King completionist like myself, I’m sure you will be picking this up no matter what reviews say. For everyone else, there are plenty of better options in King’s massive bibliography to choose from.