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Review: Needful Things by Stephen King

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Needful Things
Stephen King

Genre: Horror
Hardcover: 690 Pages
Publication: October 1991
by Viking

Leland Gaunt opens a new shop in Castle Rock called Needful Things. Anyone who enters his store finds the object of his or her lifelong dreams and desires: a prized baseball card, a healing amulet. In addition to a token payment, Gaunt requests that each person perform a little "deed," usually a seemingly innocent prank played on someone else from town. These practical jokes cascade out of control and soon the entire town is doing battle with itself. Only Sheriff Alan Pangborn suspects that Gaunt is behind the population's increasingly violent behavior.


I'll start by saying this: you don't want to rush through this book. There's a lot going on in Needful Things, and you will definitely want to take your time with it. I had to learn the hard way, hence why this review took me a little longer than usual. That being said, let's move on.

I'm always happy to be reading Stephen King, and Needful Things was another delight. I loved the references to other King works, and while I had to look up a few, there were some that were familiar to me. Characters from Cujo and The Dead Zone came up in passing, as did Shawshank Prison. (I also couldn't help but picture Ace Merrill from "The Body" in Different Seasons as looking like Keifer Sutherland, who played him in the movie adaptation of said novella.) Protagonist Alan and his girlfriend Polly were great characters, both revealed to be people struggling with painful personal losses. How they come to cope with these not only shows how strong their relationship is, but also helps in defeating the antagonist.

As I said in my review of Something Wicked This Way Comes, every great horror story needs a great antagonist, and Mr. Gaunt is a devilishly good antagonist. Call it the wave of nineties nostalgia that's hit me lately, but he came across as an evil version of Sardo from Are You Afraid of the Dark? (for those of you not familiar with the show, it was a horror anthology series for kids that ran for a while in the nineties. Think like Goosebumps, only darker and creepier.). But whereas Sardo sold magical objects without actually knowing they were magical, Mr. Gaunt uses dark magic to trick his customers into buying his wares. Like Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, Mr. Gaunt is scary because we know very little about him. The things we do learn only enhance the image of him as a boogeyman.

The pacing held very well throughout this novel. There was plenty of intrigue when Needful Things and Mr. Gaunt are first introduced; even though customers leak into the store literally one at a time, their reactions to whatever they buy really makes you wonder about the nature of the shop. But once the first few hints concerning the unusual nature of Needful Things arose, everything quickened. The narrative is separated into the three parts, and the third act was literally where all hell broke loose. There was murder and mayhem going on left and right, and the final confrontation had me racing through the pages because of how insane it was.

As much as I loved the concept of the curio shop that turns out to be sinister, I really loved the way Mr. Gaunt set up the whole town to turn against itself. This book had a seriously similar vibe to the famous Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street." I'm a huge TZ fan, and this book just kept making me think that the sort of events that would've unfolded in the episode were more than fulfilled here. If the episode shows just how dangerous paranoia and panic can be, this book shows just what happens when those two things are allowed to spiral out of control.

The biggest problem I had with this book was that it felt too overstuffed. It wasn't so much a problem of there being a lot of characters so much that it seemed like there were too many parts to the big plot Mr. Gaunt set into motion to wreak havoc in Castle Rock. It got hard after a while to remember not just who was "pulling a prank" on whom, but also what they bought and why they went for that specific item. There was also another subplot about the members of two churches getting into a squabble, but that felt kind of tacked on because it didn't really have anything directly to do with Needful Things nor with Mr. Gaunt.

I thought the ending to this book was really unsettling. We get the reveal about Mr. Gaunt, which should probably be obvious to some after seeing the effects his wares have on the people who buy them, but it was still pretty creepy. The end of the actual narrative came to an uneasy conclusion in my mind, the sort where the characters end up in the least worst possible outcome. The lesser of two evils, if that makes sense, since what becomes of Mr. Gaunt isn't one hundred percent clear. The epilogue hints that the story isn't exactly over, and it's that uncertainty that makes the ending so successful.

Again, this is *not* a book you want to try speeding through. Because of the web of manipulation speared on by Mr. Gaunt and how complicated it is, one can get tangled up in it very easily, no pun intended. That being said, the way Mr. Gaunt's plot to turn everyone in Castle Rock against each other worked well, and our protagonists were fairly likable and clever enough to catch on to the strangeness of the events going on around them. Great suspense and intrigue and a few good scares made this a really good read.

Rating: 4 stars

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Similar Books
  • The Monsters are Due on Maple Street by Rod Serling and Mark Kneece
  • In the Dark by Richard Laymon
  • Strong language
  • Some sex
  • Graphic violence
  • Graphic depictions of murder
  • Drug use

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