You’ve been here before.
At least if you’re a King fan. “Here”, for the sake of my discussion, is the town of Castle Rock, Maine. Upon reading Needful Things, you’re welcome to delve deeper into the meaning of the rather ambiguous opening statement. As for Castle Rock, it’s a town of utmost importance and infamy in King’s fictional universe, nearly as pivotal as Derry. It is the setting of The Dead Zone, Cujo, and several short stories and novellas. It is extensively referenced in The Dark Half and Bag of Bones. “The Body”, the short story behind Stand by Me*, was set there as well, though Rob Reiner changed the town’s location to Oregon rather than Maine. Reiner later went on to name his production company Castle Rock Entertainment, which is behind numerous King book to film adaptations (including The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Hearts in Atlantis). You’re welcome for the trivia (in case you needed any more evidence that I am, in fact, a spermologer (though one could argue using obsolete words such as spermologer is indicative enough of trivia hoarding tendencies)).
Needful Things is the last Castle Rock story. Or at least it was billed as such. King later wrote the short story “It Grows on You” (in Nightmares and Dreamscapes), which he considered more of a farewell to the town. In this novel, which was eviscerated by the New York Times (more on that in a minute), entrepreneur Leland Gaunt moves in on Main Street. He begins peddling priceless, yet curiously low-priced wares in the eponymously titled shop. A Sandy Koufax autographed rookie card, a cure for arthritis, an expensive lamp; they are all sold for near naught, save the favor Gaunt demands in return. Harmless pranks really – like leaving pornography on a teacher’s desk – set events in motion that will lead to rioting, mayhem, and death.
Everyone loves something for nothing…even if it costs everything.
Simply put, I like Needful Things. It’s certainly not King’s best effort, but it’s a surreal, horrific, apt depiction (read: satire) of the eighties in America. It’s at times campy, over-the-top, and cringeworthy. The New York Times disagrees with my opinion of Needful Things, quite thoroughly. To borrow just a single paragraph from the scathing review: “If all of this sounds a tad adolescent, well, it is. “Needful Things” is not the sort of book that one can readily recommend to the dilettante, to the dabbler or to anyone with a reasonable-sized brain. It is the type of book that can be enjoyed only by longtime aficionados of the genre, people who probably have a lot of black T-shirts in their chest of drawers and either have worn or have dreamed of wearing a baseball cap backward. Big, dumb, plodding and obvious, Mr. King’s books are the literary equivalent of heavy metal. The author peoples his novels with ultralow rollers — couch potatoes, barmy widows, small-time hoods — rarely producing a character that an intelligent, normal reader could identify with, much less like. From the purely logistical point of view, this creates a problem for anyone reading Stephen King for the first time; plowing through a 690-page novel, in which the only vaguely appealing characters are a hero who happens to be a dummy and a heroine who is an absolute pinhead, is like reading a very long book about English royalty.” I would argue that this assessment is both too harsh and at least partially unfounded (because I have never, not once, worn or dreamed of wearing a baseball cap backwards – nor do I swoon over the just fell out of bed, baggy pants, backwards cap to cover greasy hair look). Consider me the antithesis to everything a Needful Things reader is supposed to be.
So despite this being a horror novel – and make no mistake the story is consistently gruesome – I consider Needful Things to be an effective black comedy. Written in 1991, the novel takes aim at the rampant materialism perpetuated during the Reagan era. Ronald Reagan, purveyor of the welfare queen myth, destroyer of the mental health care system, and ardent admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt (oh the irony), is often, to my utter bemusement,
revered remembered fondly by twenty-something conservatives who have zero actual memory of his presidency. While it’ll be years until there is an unbiased perspective on his role in history, it’s clear Reagan ushered in an age of consumerism and self-interest that rivaled the Gilded Age. As King points out, seemingly everything in the eighties had a price tag. The decade, as King puts it, “literally was the sale of the century…the final items up on the block had been honor, integrity, self-respect, and innocence”. That is what the curiosity shop Needful Things represents – what you desire most for a price. What’s the cost? Anything and everything. Death? Sure. Destruction? Definitely. Not even the visage of Elvis Presley or a harmless puppy escapes the toll demanded by Leland Gaunt. While no customer went into the shop expecting to pay such a price, not one could bear to leave a potentially prized possession behind. Not one person felt that they should have to leave their heart’s desire behind. They needed it.
It’s worth noting that not everything in the novel exacts a hefty price, Castle Rock’s horripilation is free.
Is Needful Things the pinnacle of King’s work? Certainly not, but with equal certainty, I can assure you it doesn’t rank in the bottom ten of Stephen King’s bibliography either. If you take it the way it was intended, it’s an oft funny, very bloody, satirical look at a decade that might’ve gladly sold its “honor, integrity, self-respect, and innocence” for a good time. It has many of the hallmarks of a good King novel: a large cast of characters, a seemingly idyllic town that attracts the dregs of humanity and masks their secrets behind a pretty façade, and gore – let’s not forget the gore. 3/5. Is it surprising that I would defend Stephen King? Probably not.
When Polly welcomes Mr. Gaunt to town with a devil’s food cake, I nearly snorted. Not very ladylike, though neither is my love of chocolate cake…
*Arguably one of my favorite (and best) coming of age movies, it ranks right alongside Clueless, Trainspotting, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Breakfast Club.