"Needful Things," Stephen King

Pros: Complex; fascinating; very human characters
Cons: Complex; too self-aware; juvenile in places; “name-dropping”
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 8/1/2001

“Needful Things” is a complex, well-thought-out, carefully constructed horror novel with some very interesting underlying themes. The basic idea is this: a man named Mr. Gaunt opens a shop called “Needful Things” in the sleepy little town of Castle Rock. He sells people things they really, really want. In return they give him a small amount of money (much less than such items would be worth) and agree to play a small, “harmless” prank on someone they don’t really know. Of course, the small pranks add up. They take ordinary grudges and angers and inflame them. They drive everyday feuds to explosive levels. Before long the town is falling apart – quite literally.

Only Sheriff Alan Pangborn stands between Mr. Gaunt and his devious plans. But can the Sheriff keep himself free of Mr. Gaunt’s poisonous webs?

The Premise

It’s an absolutely fabulous premise. All of the grudges and angers are normal, everyday things, driven to the breaking point. Mr. Gaunt carefully arranges his pranks so that the pranksters can’t help but think of the pranks as harmless, then gives them an added push by offering them something they can’t refuse and adding a little hypnotic edge to it all. It’s easy to see how things spiral oh-so-gently out of control, from simple angers to explosive confrontations.

There is certainly the touch of the supernatural in this book – you didn’t think that Mr. Gaunt was an ordinary man, did you? – but it’s mostly subtle, at least at first. Mr. Gaunt lets everyone else do his work for him; he just pushes things along a little.

The story is quite complex, with King meticulously setting up his townspeople for their fall. The characterization is beautiful – it’s easy to see how people could let this happen. One of King’s strengths has always been his ability to create very realistic characters, people you can imagine as your next-door neighbors. It’s wonderful to see characters fall and fail (or triumph and succeed) on their own very human merits.

The Problems

There’s King’s (inevitable, perhaps) touches of bathroom-humor, unnecessary levels of gross-out (vomit always seems to play a part somewhere in his books), and juvenile silliness. It can be a little distracting at times, at least when he carries it to excess. There are a few places where King’s writing is a little too self-aware – for instance, a comment somewhere about a situation that no self-respecting novelist would create. I find that things like this pull me out of the fictional world, which is jarring.

While it’s really amazing to watch King set up a gazillion different town residents and knock them all down again, it’s also tough to keep track of. By a little over halfway through the book I tended to see names and go “who was that again?” rather often.

Because Castle Rock is a town that King has written about over and over, King drops in a lot of references to old stories of his. On the one hand this can be a good thing – it gives the impression of a world that is larger and more interesting than just one book, which is great. On the other hand he makes many of his comments unnecessarily cryptic and unexplained. So if you’re a King fan who has read all of his books, you’ll probably find it really neat to uncover all of these references and realize what they’re referring to. If you aren’t, they’ll probably frustrate you in places.

Needful Things is a wonderfully fun book. The character of Mr. Gaunt is difficult not to like and hate at the same time, much as the townspeople both like and hate him. The many characters are interesting to read about in their own right, with their frequent foibles and their occasional charms. There are some very interesting themes to this book, about responsibility, slippery slopes, lies, and the differences between small angers and big ones, among many others. If you feel up to keeping track of all the people, and don’t mind all of the name-dropping from King’s other books, then this is a fascinating book to read.

Obligatory genre note: this is in fact a horror novel. There’s sex and violence, and some of the violence is fairly bloody.

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