Needful Things

Needful Things by Stephen King
Published by Gallery Books on March 20, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Horror, Supernatural
Pages: 816

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.


Rose Madder

Rose Madder by Stephen King
Published by Viking on 1995
Genres: Fiction, Horror, Thrillers
Pages: 420

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  


Which Stephen King Book Pairs with Which Wing Sauce?

Happy Halloween!  To celebrate this fantastically spooky holiday I wanted to pair books written by my favorite author with flavors of my favorite food.  Stephen King and chicken wings both hold a dear place in my heart.  I had fun deciding which King novel best complemented different flavors of wing sauces.

Barbeque wings complement a story with a slow burn and a lot of heart.  King’s foray into historical fiction, 11/22/63, immediately came to mind.  Like any good barbeque this story takes time to develop, it cooks low and slow.  Thankfully the slow place results in juicy, saucy characters that readers become invested in.

Ghost pepper wings bring the pain and the fury.  Carrie’s telekinetic powers unleashed upon her cruel classmates, after humiliating her at prom, is a satisfying blaze.  Following years of bullying and abuse from a batshit crazy, religiously obsessed mom, Carrie has a lot of anger and rage to unleash.  The way Carrie destroys the school’s auditorium reminds me of the destruction waged upon my digestive track after eating super spicy wings.

Buffalo wings, the classic wing flavor, and my personal favorite.  The aroma of buffalo sauce is intoxicating and brings an instant smile to my face.  I had to pair these magical snacks with a classic Stephen King novel.  I think Salam’s Lot is the perfect choice.  The book features many of the classic King-isms:  set in a small New England town, told from multiple perspectives, a scary supernatural element, and well written kid characters.

Soy-Garlic:  Soy sauce and garlic are like chocolate and peanut butter.  Two distinct flavors that mesh perfectly together to form an ultimate, cohesive flavor.  The genre mashing in King’s Dark Tower series is a western with horror and fantasy elements. The series is a beautifully cohesive tale with a satisfying conclusion (at least for me).  The Dark Tower also ties together the King universe by including characters, locations, and references to his other novels.  Just like soy-garlic flavored wings the Dark Tower is a fantastic blend of flavors.

PB&J flavored wings are probably one of the weirder wing flavors I’ve tried.  Surprisingly the sauce paired well with the chicken.  I would pair PB&J wings with one of King’s weirder books that somehow still works for me (probably an unpopular opinion).  The Tommyknockers, a strange novel featuring aliens, is a bit off the wall, but I enjoy its weirdness.

Lemon Pepper a non-conventional flavor choice when ordering wings.  An unconventional King book that I love is The Long Walk.  Fans of Netflix’s Squid Game will enjoy this book.  Straying away from his supernatural wheelhouse, King tells a dystopian story where teens competing for a prize by walking on a road for as long as they can.  If they fall behind or stop, they are killed.  Only one can win.

Sweet chili wings deliver sweetness with a spicy bite.  Pet Sematary perfectly compliments sweet chili wings.  Pet Sematary is known for being one of King’s most terrifying novels because of its brutal twist, matching the spicy bite of the chili.  The sweetness comes from the heart of the story, which is focused on love, family, and parenthood.

Honey Mustard is such a crowd-pleasing sauce, so I started to think which Stephen King novel would appeal to the widest range of readers.  And I came up with JoylandJoyland is not too scary to turn away readers who dislike horror.  Also, the book is a manageable length, unlike some of King’s doorstopper epics (which I love).  I think this book has an interesting mystery with well-developed characters that would appeal to people who usually dislike King’s books, while still appeasing the Constant Readers.  

Garlic Parm:  Unfortunately, in my early 20s I became cursed with lactose intolerance.  I wanted to choose a King book that is as full of shit as my toilet after I ingest cheese.  Thus, I’m pairing garlic parm wings with the lackluster Cell.  I don’t recall many plot details from Cell, but I do remember not enjoying it.  The novel is not on par with King’s usual work.  While cell phones causing a zombie apocalypse is an interesting premise, the book has no memorable characters and a dull ending.

Smoked – Smoke is similar to steam, which is a key element in King’s excellent follow up to The Shining.  In Doctor Sleep Rose and the Knot’s steam hungry followers are fantastic villains.  Smoking meat well results in yummy smoky flavor infused down to the bone.  Just like how Danny is deeply smoked in the trauma of his childhood.

What is it Like Having Stephen King as a Father?

Imagine being raised by the master of horror.  Joe Hill, an excellent horror writer in his own right, is the son of the great Stephen King.  Many of Joe Hill’s stories focus on father-son relationships.  I want to analyze a few of these relationships to speculate what Stephen King was like as a father.  Please note, this is all for entertainment.  I have never met Stephen King or Joe Hill (fingers crossed I would be so fortunate in the future).  Spoilers to follow.

In Joe Hill’s short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts the story Better than Home features a young boy who struggles with what seems like OCD.  Many people, including family members, have trouble understanding and being patient with the boy.  However, the father is beautifully supportive in caring for his son.  The father is a baseball coach.  As any serious Stephen King fan knows, King is an avid baseball fan.  He has even written a nonfiction book Faithful, detailing the historic 2004 season when the Boston Red Sox won the world series, and a novella Blockade Billy, which also focuses on baseball.  Clearly the father in Better than Home is inspired by Stephen King.  While staying at a hotel before a Chicago White Sox game, the AC in the room makes the boy anxious and prevents him from sleeping.  “My father pops open the jar of cotton balls and crams one into each ear.  I giggle at the sight of him—the sight of him standing there with a loose fluff of cotton hanging out of his big sunburned ears”, narrates the boy (p. 122).  The father’s humorous actions help the boy relax and he successfully has a restful night of sleep.  The father knows his son well enough to help him cope with his anxieties.  At the end of the story, while attending a baseball practice together, they play the “Secret Things Game” together.  The game is essentially a scavenger hunt around the baseball park.  “This is a good game,” the boy says.  “I bet we could play at home…How come we never do that?  How come we never play the game where we look for secret things at home?”  “Because it’s just better here,” his father says (p. 132).  From this story I infer that Joe Hill and Stephen King were really close during Joe’s childhood.  Their shared passion for baseball strengthened their bond.  In his childhood Joe Hill felt seen and understood by his father.  However, once Joe Hill reaches adolescence his relationship with his dad becomes strained.  This teenage angst is at the heart of Hill’s excellent comic Locke and Key.

In Locke and Key Tyler Locke and his father, Rendell have a strained relationship.  His father is highly involved in Tyler’s life because he is a guidance counselor at the high school.  One day they get into an argument that is familiar to many teenagers and their parents.  Tyler pleads: “Christ, Dad, will you lay off my ass for once?”  His dad replies: “Nope.  Not my job…Where do you think you’re going?  I’m not done…”.  “I am.  I’ve had enough”, retorts Tyler (p. 88).  At first, I thought this conflict was inspired by typical teenage angst.  But maybe instead this stems from resentment, originating in the Kings’ past.  It is no secret that Stephen King abused drugs, including cocaine, alcohol, too many cigarettes, and Valium, to name a few.  King believed the substances were essential for his writing.  He has since achieved sobriety and continues to write amazing novels, without the aid of drugs.  For a stretch of time Stephen selfishly chose to abuse these substances, which may have interfered with his parenting ability.  I believe this is the source of the angst Joe used as inspiration for Tyler’s character.  In Locke and Key Joe Hill explores what happens when this angst is unleased, resulting in tragic consequences.  Tyler has a conversation with Sam Lesser, another student outside of his dad’s office.  Tyler is frustrated after just having a disagreement with his father.  Sam who also is upset at his father, who is horribly abusive, says he wants to kill his Dad.  Tyler, complaining about his dad, says “he’s an overbearing asshole and I can never just make a mistake.  Every fuck-up is a damn…moral lesson…Well, you ever decide to kill your Dad, do me a favor and kill mine while you’re at it (p. 97).  Tyler is just speaking dramatically in the moment.  He has no idea that Sam will complete his request.  After murdering his dad, Sam travels to the Locke home and murders Randell Locke.  The murder not only leaves the Locke family fatherless, but also traumatized.  The three Locke children proceed to have a wild adventure involving magical keys with different powers.  After surviving the final epic, supernatural battle, Tyler is able to speak with his dad’s spirit through the power of the keys.  His father apologizes, saying “I hurt you sometimes Tyler.  I said cruel things.  Was too hard…because I was scared, you’d be like me.  But you aren’t anything like me.  You’re so much better.  You’re the kind of man I always wanted to be.  I guess my life wasn’t a complete waste of time.  Whatever damage I did—all those lives I wrecked because of my selfishness—my cowardice (p. 188).  These words are exactly what Tyler needs to hear from his dad and they reconcile their relationship.  But what does this say about Joe Hill and Stephen King?  Joe and Stephen possibly had a conversation, like Tyler and Randell’s, where Stephen apologized for the damage he caused during his days of substance abuse.  Or maybe these are the words Joe still wishes to hear from his father.  Part of Randell’s apology to Tyler includes the phrase: “You’re so much better than me”.  Does Joe Hill aspire to surpass his dad in being the king of contemporary horror?  His short story Abraham’s Boys suggests that he does.

I believe the story Abraham’s Boys represents Joe Hill’s ambitions to top his father in the world of horror.  The story is about two brothers living with their father, Abraham Van Helsing (yes, from Dracula), who has a mysterious past.  Their father warns them to not go out past dark and hides secrets in his office, which is off limits to the boys.  The older brother reflects that “saying his father was superstitious was an understatement of grotesquely funny proportions” (p. 92).  Immediately I recognized some parallels between these characters and the Kings.  Joe has a younger brother named Owen, and Stephen, an expert creator of spooky stories, must hold some superstitions.  The boys explore their father’s office while he is away and they their father’s secret profession.  Abraham is a vampire hunter.  I believe monster hunting and horror writing are arguably similar professions.  Many monsters are fought and defeated in the pages of Stephen King’s novels.  Instead of Stephen’s office being filled with stakes and crucifixes like Abraham’s it is filled with his horrifying drafts.  Towards the end of the story, Abraham decides to train his boys in the art of vampire killing.  Abraham orders Joe and Owen to stake and decapitate a vampire.  Young Owen is frightened and unable to complete the slaying.  Joe does not believe that vampires are real and thinks the “vampire” in the basement is just a human corpse.  Protecting his brother Joe murders his father in a twist ending.  “He put the tip of the stake where his father showed him and struck the hilt with the mallet.  It turned out it was true what the old man had told him in the basement.  There was wailing and profanity and a frantic struggle to get away, but it was over soon enough” (p.  111).  There are a few ways to interpret this ending.  My preferred explanation is Joe is writing about how he intends to best his father and become the superior writer i.e., the better vampire slayer.  I believe Joe is well on his way in achieving this goal.  In my opinion he is the better horror writer today.  His stories are more innovative, and he maintains a higher level of quality across his novels.  (However, Stephen King will always have a special place on my shelf.  He is the first writer of adult fiction I was exposed to.  I devoured his books in high school.)

I believe all fiction stems from truth.  Joe Hill often focuses on father-son relationships in his writing because his relationship with his dad holds great significance. There is added complexity in their relationship because they share the same profession.   Perhaps my use of Joe Hill’s stories to interpret the dynamics of the King family veers too far into speculative fiction.  What do you think?

Billy Summers

Billy Summers by Stephen King
Published by Simon and Schuster on August 3, 2021
Genres: Action & Adventure, Crime, Fiction, Suspense, Thrillers
Pages: 528

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.

Trigger Warnings: Rape, Pedophilia, War Violence