Needful Things by Stephen King

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

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.

You’ve been here before.

Devil's Food

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.

1/2

34 thoughts on “Needful Things by Stephen King”

    1. It’s a decent one, not exactly his best though…

      However it in no way deserved that NYT review and I resent the implication that I have a small brain because I read and liked it.

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  1. So okay, I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all but I don’t get how guys dress today. I mean, come on, it looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants and take their greasy hair – ew – and cover it up with a backwards cap and like, we’re expected to swoon? I don’t think so.

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    1. Glad someone caught that (I mean the bit at the end practically gives it away). And I am a traitor to my generation, rather willfully, which makes it worse. Only now instead of baggy pants and backwards caps it’s skinny jeans and fake glasses. Sorry if you fall in that latter generalization (or, more disturbingly, the former) just know that of course I wouldn’t judge you.

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      1. I occasionally dabble in skinny-ish jeans – I’m pretty slender so I think of them more as ‘clothes that fit’. Nothing severe – no heroin chic round these parts, no sir.

        Fake glasses are ridiculous. As is pretty much everything worn by everyone in East London, not to generalise…

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      2. I’ve heard nothing flattering about East London fashion, but haven’t seen it for myself. So. As long as your clothes fit, I guess that’s passable. I really can’t judge because I do wear skinny jeans all the time and, worse still, leggings with tall boots. I draw the line at shoulder pads, which I saw just this week in stores while shopping for a suit. But I’m a girl, so it’s expected and all in the name of fashion.

        I admit to being tempted by fake glasses, but I’ve since gotten past my desire for them and learned to appreciate my excellent eyesight.

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    1. Don’t rush out for this one. Have you read Bag of Bones? Because if you haven’t, that is one you need to read immediately.

      PS – Don’t tell me if you’ve read and not liked Bag of Bones. It might ruin out friendship. 😉

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    1. THE CAKE! Someone needs to please bring me cake, I just survived a thoroughly grueling interview. It’s a fitting dessert for the character, if you like your hints with the subtlety of a hammer on a thumbtack.

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    1. I’ll be watching the movie soon. I’ll go in with my expectations suitably low (as I do with most King adaptations).

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who liked it because I’m positive you don’t have a tiny brain, backwards cap, or only black t-shirts either. Vindication.

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      1. Well I do have a bunch of black concert tour t-shirts… But yeah, I do have other clothes, no cap and I think my brain works well enough most of the time.
        The more I think about it, the more I remember really liking it. How these pranks and acts of vandalism can have so huge consequences. He often nails human behavior and does in this one too.

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      2. At least 50% of my clothing is at least partly black, so that’s technically right. But the other two…

        Two things that have kept me coming back to King are the depth of his characters and how he humanizes small towns. He does both well enough in this one. I don’t know that there’s much that would stop me from reading SK anymore.

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  2. I’ll likely read this someday. I’m on a King break. Maybe I’ll try the audio next summer. I’ve somehow created a “must-listen-to-King-while-mowing’ habit.

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    1. The Stand is always wonderful, as is IT. If you’re looking for something shorter, Bag of Bones or The Dark Half are both good ones to start with. Misery is also excellent. Avoid Cell, The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and Gerald’s Game. Those ones are definitely subpar.

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  3. You’ve intrigued me with “effective black comedy” but frightened me with “gruesome.” Bag of Bones freaked me out so much I couldn’t make eye contact with refrigerator magnets for a few days… Will this be too scary for my lily liver?

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    1. Bag of Bones scared you? But it’s a love story! Avoid this one, it’s not scary exactly, but gruesome is accurate. How do you feel about dogs? Because…I won’t say, but at least it’s not a penguin. I’ll leave it at, I don’t want to scar you for life.

      Bag of Bones made me passionate about SK again after a long hiatus. It holds a very special place in my bookish heart.

      Of note, it’s only an effective black comedy if you loathed the Reagan years (or find them ridiculous in hindsight, as is my case).

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    1. Lucky – what a steal! I actually bought the hardcover of Needful Things at a used book sale today. I only had a tattered paper back, but liked it enough that it was worth the $2.50 to upgrade to a nice copy.

      I hope Bag of Bones and The Stand were in there, they’re my favorite.

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  4. Ohman that cake looks delicious… Good thing I have a Skinny Cow chocolate bar with me for my sweet tooth.

    DAMN the NYT really tore into King and this book, didn’t they? Geez. But your review definitely makes me want to explore more King, despite the fact that I worry about his books scaring me. I mean, I survived The Stand alright! Joyland was terrible, but since he has so many books out there I’m sure to fall in love with at least one of them…

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    1. I really need a piece of cake or a cookie or something chocolate. I have a sweet tooth, but I am usually pretty good at keeping it under control. The cake is going to do me in though.

      My brother gave me Joyland for my birthday last month, but I haven’t read it yet. I’ve seen mixed reviews, I don’t know quite what to expect. Someday. My favorite King, for what it’s worth, is Bag of Bones (The Stand is a close second).

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  5. Thank you for a very well written and insightful review! I read the book when it first came out, but haven’t been back since. I agree with you, not one of the best, but not one of the worst.

    I kind of liked the film adaptation to some extent, but I guess I’m just a sucker for Ed Harris. Bonnie Bedelia, though. Not so much.

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    1. You’re welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I don’t know if this will ever be a reread for me, but I did like it. In no way did I think it deserved such a harsh review from the NYT, but to each their own…

      Bonnie Bedelia, I haven’t thought of her in ages. I’ll hopefully be seeing this movie soon, but I’m not expecting much. After quickly googling Bonnie Bedelia, I didn’t realize she was tied to the Culkin family – what a huge acting family.

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  6. Your review made me think of two things. The first being that annoying thing that some reviewers do where they totally dismiss the talents of a writer who happens to be popular. Of course they’re popular writers that are total crap but they’re also “literary” writers who are also crap (and hacks). The second thing that made me think was the part where you talk about the Reagan years. Have you read King’s Kindle single? It’s an essay called Guns. Worth a look if you get a chance.

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    1. I don’t know why I get so irritable when reviewers are so wholly dismissive of King. They were for years, though now he is generally getting a bit more respect and deserved credit. For me, James Patterson is easily dismissed. I think he is a terrible writer and I’m always appalled by the amount of money he rakes in every year. Jonathan Franzen, for me, is also easily dismissed. I don’t enjoy his writing and I feel he is vastly overrated (and perhaps the tiniest bit pompous).

      I haven’t read his essay yet, but I’ve been curious about it.

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      1. I’m curious what you think (if you get a chance to read the essay). I have no compulsion for Franzen. I think many people find him overrated and I personally agree about the pompous trait.

        You’ve now put me in the mood to read one of Stephen King’s books!

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  7. I think this is one of Stephen King’s masterpieces, mainly due to his intricate character development and painfully slow build of suspense. I rank it as one of my favorite King works (with Gerald’s Game and The Shining at a close tie for first, of course).

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