“Ladies and gentlemen, attention, please!
Come in close where everyone can see!
I got a tale to tell, it isn’t gonna cost a dime!
(And if you believe that,
we’re gonna get along just fine.)”
Are you a seasonal reader? I sure am. Winter is for classics and childhood favorites and romances. Spring is for fiction that builds my faith and fantasies that build intricate worlds in my mind. Summer is for rereads when I’m feeling lazy and new-to-me realms of fantasy when I’m not. But autumn is without a doubt the season that dictates my reading the most. For the past few years, October has been for horror in general and Stephen King in particular. This year, I kicked my King-a-Thon off a little early. And I’m happy to report that I started it off with a bang.
Though I’ve visited through film and the novella Gwendy’s Button Box, Needful Things marks my first novel-length journey into Castle Rock. It was quite the introduction, let me tell you. Originally billed as the last Castle Rock novel, you know going in that things probably aren’t going to end well. King is a master of the slow burn, of stories that so gradually develop their tone of impending doom that you find yourself suddenly frightened with no way to pinpoint what it is exactly that is scaring you. Needful Things was no exception.
Castle Rock is a quaint little town that has experienced it share of weird. It’s the setting of The Dead Zone, Cujo, and The Dark Half, all of which took place prior to this book. But as with all small towns, they’ve done their best to sweep the weird under the proverbial rug and pretend that it never happened. Whether that willful ignorance has any impact on the events of this book is for the reader to decide.
“Love, the simplest, strongest, and most unforgiving of all emotions.”
The story opens with townspeople whispering excitedly over the opening of a new shop. In a town this size, change is rare and is made much of, though the citizenry is sure to feign disinterest; no one wants to seem too excited, as that would reveal a lack of restraint and refinement to others in town. Regardless, nearly everyone in town ends up paying Mr. Leeland Gaunt a visit at his curiosity shop, Needful Things. And every single visitor finds within the shop the fulfillment of their deepest and most treasured wish in the form of an object on the shelves of the new shop. Every customer is desperate to secure said object, but certain it’s something they could never afford.
“Because in America, you could have anything you wanted, just as long as you could pay for it. If you couldn’t pay, or refused to pay, you would remain needful for ever.”
Imagine their absolute delight when Mr. Gaunt quotes them a rock-bottom price on the item that physically embodies their wildest dream. They get a steal of a deal, as long as they’re also willing to perform a tiny favor for the proprietor in the form of a harmless prank played on another Castle Rock citizen. What’s the harm, right?
These purchases begin to change the people of the town, bringing out the darkness inside them. Greed and selfishness, suspicion and mistrust begin to bleed onto the streets and into the hearts of those who walk out the doors of Needful Things. Even though each customer has just made the purchase of a lifetime, there is no rushing to show off these remarkable finds to family or bragging of them to friends. Each treasure is jealously guarded, and each owner lives in terror of someone stealing this prized possession from them. Because they never share their treasures with each other, no one sees said treasure for what it really is: a lie.
“Everyone loves something for nothing…even if it costs everything.”
Each of Mr. Gaunt’s customers becomes so obsessed with their purchase that they fail to see the malice festering all over town. Those “harmless” pranks? When you have enough of them built up, they’re not so harmless. Neighbor is pitted against neighbor, lover against love, friend against friend and church against church as parties are framed for stunts they never pulled. When all of this mischief finally comes to a head, the whole town is likely to explode.
“Men and women who can’t get over their past . . . That’s what ghosts are.”
Mr. Gaunt is a fascinating character who is undoubtedly a supernatural being, though what exactly he is never comes to light. He is the most masterful manipulator of people I have ever come across. But he’s not what made this story so scary. What frightened me was King’s portrayal of human nature. While Gaunt is the orchestrator of the madness that takes hold of the town, its people are willing participants. Each is out for their own gain, and are quick to accept that whoever Gaunt framed is to blame for their misery without every asking said person if they really did these hurtful things. We see an entire town of diverse individuals become replicas of Tolkien’s Gollum, focused single-mindedly on guarding their precious object and mistrusting of everyone around them, convinced that a potential thief lives in the shadowed hearts of their family and friends and neighbors. Man’s readiness to see the worst in his fellow man with no effort to investigate for himself is mind boggling to me, even though I’ve seen it countless times in both fiction and reality. The scariest monsters to leave King’s mind for a home on a page are not the killer clown or rabid dog or reanimated cat, but the men and women who find themselves twisted and do nothing to fight the change, choosing instead to embrace their inner darkness. His take on humanity is terrifying in its probability.
“Some tears have to be cried no matter what the hour- until they are, they simply rave and burn inside.”
What keeps me coming back to King isn’t the fear factor, but the hope that finds a way to shine through the utter bleakness of his stories. While he shows humanity at its worst, he also shows it at its best. There is always someone who rises up to fight the darkness, even when they fight alone. But the tiniest ray of light can banish the darkest shadows, and King is wonderful at showing the power of that light. Evil might not be forever defeated, but it has been vanquished for a time to lick its wounds. Good triumphs in the battle, even if the war wages on.
“That was what I wanted, but I don’t need it to be gone. I can love you and I can love life and bear the pain all at the same time. I think the pain might even make the rest better, the way a good setting can make a diamond look better.”
King is kind of known for not being able to stick the landing when it comes to ending a story. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve come to expect so little from his endings or because it was legitimately better than most, but I was super happy with the way this book wrapped up. Everything built up to this epic battle, and I wasn’t disappointed with either the battle itself or the outcome. I didn’t feel like cheated in anyway by the final pages, which I have in the past. Whatever the case, I’m so glad I kicked off my King-a-Thon with this book. Time to backtrack and dig into the rest of Castle Rock’s history!
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