“You’ve been here before.”
“Needful Things,” Stephen King’s first novel after deciding to go sober, was released in 1991. This 690-page story is all about the build-up and about how the intricacies and many different characters of a small town can lead to damnation.
King starts this novel out like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. The narration is superb, and it sets the tone for the story so well. If I could take the introduction out and make it its own story, it would be a top 10 King for me, easily. It sets the upcoming events of the novel up perfectly and gives you background details in a very unique way.
When he released “Needful Things,” King meant is as the story to wrap-up his fictional city, Castle Rock, in his storybook universe. The novel is subtitled: “The Last Castle Rock Story” for a reason. King draws on many references and characters from past novels such as “The Dark Half,” “The Dead Zone,” “Cujo,” the novella “The Sun Dog” from the collection “Four Past Midnight,” the novella “The Body” from the collection “Different Seasons,” and many other Castle Rock stories.
“Needful Things” is about a new shop opening in Castle Rock. The name of the shop? Well, it is Needful Things. What kind of shop is it? It is a shop full of things… things you need. Whether you know you need them or not, Needful Things’ owner and operator will show you that you do. The shop owner? None other than Leland Gaunt, one of my favorite King villains.
Gaunt is reminiscent of Randall Flagg at times, so much so that there are even theories out there that suggest they are in fact the same person or being. I am more on the fence with this theory than I was before my reread. Gaunt definitely displays Flagg characteristics and history, but toward the end, I think there is some major evidence that goes against this theory.
The entire town is obviously intrigued by the new shop opening and everyone checks it out, and leaves with something. The residents of Castle Rock aren’t paying Mr. Gaunt in only money though. With each item, comes a task, or prank. These pranks, devised by Gaunt, slowly pit the residents of Castle Rock against one another.
Everyone seems infatuated with the new store and ecstatic with their new purchase… all except Castle Rock Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who smells something off but can’t quite put his finger on it. Pangborn is one of my favorite King characters of all time. He seems like such an awesome person and is a total badass. Where there is evil, there is always an opposition right? Pangborn is Gaunt’s opposition.
“Needful Things,” like I said earlier, is all about the build-up. King sets up the confrontations between Castle Rock residents so well. He makes you feel each character’s paranoia and anxiety. He slowly escalates each prank until you see everything boil over and explode… literally.
“Everyone loves something for nothing… even if it costs everything.”
This novel is awesome, but it is almost a little too big at times. King nails the small town feel and the whole “everyone knows everyone” aspect is absurdly real. The big thing he’s missing, a big thing he usually is amazing at, is the depth for each character. He goes into detail about a lot of them, for sure, but not all, not enough. We get random snippets from almost everyone, but a majority of these character I would have liked to get more from. Either give me more or take people out.
I also feel like the escalation happened too fast. He spent nearly half the novel building up one confrontation, then suddenly everyone is against each other. The final “battle” between Pangborn and Gaunt made me feel so disappointed the first time through, but I actually didn’t hate it as much this time around. I still don’t love it, by any means, but I don’t hate it.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a great novel; the build-up is amazing, its intense, and even funny at times, but there are things that King definitely could have done differently that would have vaulted “Needful Things” into my top 10. In the end, I love this story and recommend you check it out. I also suggest reading the books I mentioned earlier, first. They’ll help make “Needful Things” more enjoyable. Oh, and ignore the movie… not worth it.