Saturday, December 24, 2011

Needful Things by Stephen King

Needful Things

By Stephen King

Copyright 1991

In the novel, Needful Things, Stephen King brings the saga of the town of Castle Rock, Maine to a head. Castle Rock has always been an uneasy little town. A local celebrity psychic helped catch a serial killing cop. Joe Camber’s big Saint Bernard went bad and killed a kid, celebrity writer Thad Beaumont lost his home and eventually his wife and child in a strange series of events, and local institution, Pop Merrill, went up in a ball of flames with his Emporium Galorium. Castle Rock is an uneasy place with a lot of tension building up.

King opens his final Castle Rock novel by telling us, we’ve been here before. He takes us on a tour of the town and introduces us to the principle players. The big story in Castle Rock at the moment is the building feud between the Catholics and the Baptists over the Catholic church’s intention to hold a casino night fundraiser. For Baptists, the devil and dice are one and the same.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Alan Pangborn is in the final stages of grieving for his lost family. As he battled Thad Beaumont’s unholy twin, his wife was fighting her own battle. She was suffering from nearly crippling headaches. But Alan was too engaged in the Beaumont business to notice. Later, when she crashed the car, killing herself and their only child, Alan was left with painful 20/20 hindsight.

He has found love once again with Polly Chalmers, owner of a local dress making shop. Polly suffers from exceptionally painful and debilitating arthritis in her hands. She also suffers from guilt from a very dark secret she harbors involving the death of a child she bore out of wedlock in the 1970s.

Like all parochial small towns, Castle Rock is rife with petty grudges and sleights. There is corruption and jealousy, all waiting to be exploited.

The plot gets moving much as it did in ‘Salem’s Lot with the announcement that a new store is coming to town. The locals are all sure it is another antique store that will sell second rate merchandise to rook tourists. But, with news and gossip being at a premium in a small town, its arrival generates interest and excitement.

The first to enter Neeful Things is 11 year old Brian Rusk. He meets Leland Gaunt, an elderly and stately gentleman from Akron who is setting up his merchandise, who is the store’s proprietor. Brian is immediately drawn to Gaunt’s collection of sports cards. Brian is looking for one card in particular – a 1956 Topps Sandy Koufax. To Brian, it is the holy grail of cards.

It just so happens that Gaunt has that particular card, autographed by Koufax. Serendipitously, it is signed, “To Brian.”

Brian is excited by his incredible find, then immediately crestfallen by his knowledge that he couldn’t possibly come up with the funds for such a purchase. But Leland Gaunt offers him a special deal. He takes Brian Rusk’s pocket change and a “favor,” to be called it at a later time

Over the next several days, many of Castle Rock’s citizens, from its esteemed (and corrupt) head selectmen to the town mouse who is out on parole after murdering her husband in self defense. Each finds the improbable desire of their dreams. Each dream is for sale at a reasonable price, and a “favor,” to be called in later.

Leland Gaunt has set in motion a series of events that will stoke the Catholics and the Baptists, the petty grievances of Castle Rock residents, and bring the underlying anger of the town to a boil.

Gaunt has arranged for each person to play what would seem to them, mean, but harmless pranks on people they hardly know. At the scene of each prank is left a clue to point the victim in the wrong direction – in the direction of the person with whom they are angry or hold a grudge.

Polly Chalmers is among those who have visited Leland Gaunt’s Neeful Things. To Polly, Mr. Gaunt provides an ancient charm on a chain from the Middle East. It is a talisman to ward of the pain that has left Polly crying in bed for days at a time. She pays $40.00 and promises to play a trick on the town’s former resident bad boy who is on his way back home.

Events get underway when mousy Nettie Cobb, who has just arrived home to find her precious dog stabbed to death, ostensibly by a bitchy neighbor, meets that Wilma Jerczyk, who is sure it is Nettie who has thrown mud on her drying sheets. The two meet in the street armed with knives and cleavers. There, they die at each other’s hand, not knowing that it was the town maintenance man who stabbed Nettie’s dog as his payment to Gaunt, and Brian Rusk who tossed the mud in exchange for the Koufax card.

Nettie worked for Polly at her sewing shop and she is devastated by her death. She and Alan discuss grief and loss and find themselves brought closer than ever by their mutual suffering and the therapy of the other’s comfort. Polly comes close to telling Alan what happened with her son when she lived in San Francisco, but decides not to, out of shame.

Tensions between the Catholics and the Baptists builds as pranks our pulled and threats levied. The Catholics promise swift and harsh retribution should the Baptists interfere with their fundraiser. The Baptists promise to shut down the gambling den by all means necessary.

With all of his wares now in circulation and his markers coming in, Leland Gaunt puts out the help wanted sign because he’s expanded his inventory to meet the new demand – demand for instruments of retribution. The man who excepts Gaunt’s help wanted solicitation is none other than Ace Merrill, who long ago tormented Gordie Lachance and his buddies as they searched for the body of a kid along the railroad tracks. Ace is back in town, on the run from coke dealers whom he owes a lot of money. He’s just completed a four year sentence at Shawshank Prison where Sheriff Alan Pangborn has put him.

Ace’s first mission is to travel to Boston to pick up a load of pistols, automatic weapons, and ammunition. This is Gaunt’s new inventory to be sold out the back door of the shop.

Other tensions are simmering in town as well. The head selectman, Dan Keeton, has helped himself to a sizeable chunk of the town treasury to play the ponies in Lewiston. The state auditors are on his tale and his doom is at hand. But Leland Gaunt has offered him the means of financial salvation and promise of aid in his battle against those who are persecuting him.

Alan puzzles over Nettie Cobb’s death. The solution seems obvious, but the clues don’t quite add up right. He knows there was a “witness” because a neighbor told Alan she saw Brian Rusk leaving the scene on his bike. Alan approaches Brian, who is now so guilt stricken and paranoid that he’s barely coherent. Alan tries to talk to Brian who seems almost desperate to reveal what he knows. But at the last minute, Brian rides off on his bicycle. He goes home and shoots himself in the head with his dad’s shotgun while his little brother looks on.

Sure that Brian Rusk was the key to the mystery of the death of Nettie Cobb and Wilma Jerczyk, Alan travels to the hospital in Lewiston to interview Brian’s brother who is in a state of shock. Meanwhile, somebody has played a trick on Polly. She arrives home to find a letter from the California child welfare agency to Alan and cc’d to her telling Alan that his inquiries into the death of Polly Chalmer’s child are improper and illegal. She goes to see Leland Gaunt who encourages her to break it off with the prying sheriff. She calls Alan and tells him off.

While Alan is away, the tension in Castle Rock explodes as people set forth from their homes, seeking vengeance against those who they believed have wronged them with a hurtful or destructive prank. They all stop in to see Leland Gaunt on their way. Gaunt is more than happy to sell them what they think they need. The slaughter starts.

There are shootings and stabbings all over town. The Baptists and Catholics, each attacked in their respective churches with stink bombs, meet on the field of battle in the town park. The state police who try to break it up are caught up in the melee.

After delivering the weapons, Ace Merrill goes treasure hunting, looking for where is uncle Pop Merrill buried his reputably large stash. He uses a map provided by Mr. Gaunt. Eventually, that map leads him to the old Camber farm where Cujo terrorized Donna and Tad Trenton over those two hot summer days in 1983. There, he digs until he finds a can. In that can is a note from Sheriff Pangborn informing Ace that he has beat him to the treasure. Ace is hell bent on revenge against the sheriff.

Ace Merrill, town thug, hooks up with Dan Keeton, leading citizen, to lay waste to Castle Rock once and for all. Keeton opens the town storage building and they grab all the dynamite they can carry and proceed to set time bombs all over town.

Alan is finally able to talk to Brian’s brother who tells him of Brian’s final warning. Brian told his little brother to avoid Needful Things, to avoid Leland Gaunt. What Gaunt sold was poison and he wasn’t human. Alan heads back to Castle Rock, certain that Gaunt is behind what is happening.

Meanwhile, Polly has an epiphany. She watches events unfold in town and knows that Gaunt is behind it. She knows that she has played a role in it and knows that if she keeps the charm around her neck, it will cost her her soul. She removes the charm and embraces her pain. The creature that dwells within the charm escapes and she kills it in the bathtub. She realizes she must find Alan and put things right with him.

Alan arrives in Castle Rock just as the bombs are detonating. Building after building goes up in a ball of flames. He heads straight for Needful Things and finds it abandoned and covered with dust, as if it had been years since anyone had been in. On the counter, he finds a television and VCR with an envelope attached.

In the envelope is a letter from Leland Gaunt who tells him that the tape in the VCR shows the final moments of his wife and son’s life and will close the door on the mystery of what happened in that car when it inexplicably ran off the road, killing Alan’s family.

Polly arrives and tries to convince Alan not to watch. He does and sees Ace Merrill run his wife off the road and into a tree where they are killed. Alan now wants nothing more than to kill Ace. Polly pleads with Alan, telling him it’s all false, like her cure. Alan pauses for a second and carefully goes over what he saw. He finds the inconsistency in what he knows happened and what’s on the tape

He and Polly leave Neeful Things. As they walk out, Ace Merrill grabs Polly and puts a gun to her head. He demands that Alan turn over the money he stole. As they face off, Ace is gunned down by one of Alan’s deputies.

As this is happening, Leland Gaunt tries to slip out of town, carrying with him an ancient valise. Alan confronts him and, using the white magic of an amateur magician, uses sleight of hand to snag the valise. It squirms and shakes with the souls Gaunt has gathered over the centuries of selling people needful things in exchange for those souls. Alan demonstrates to Gaunt that his white magic is more powerful than his and Gaunt flees in his Tucker Talisman. As he flees, the car morphs into an ancient, horse drawn carriage manned by a hunchback dwarf.

As he leaves, those Catholics and Baptists still standing stop their fighting. The anger has dissipated. Fires rage all over town as it slowly burns to the ground. The Castle Rock we once knew exists no more.

The story ends with the announcement of a new shop opening in a small town in rural Iowa. The residents are gossiping about what the new proprietor might be selling.

So ends the story of Castle Rock – the setting of some of King’s best early work. King has stated that he felt like he was visiting that strange little town too frequently. He feared his writing would stagnate if he stuck with it, so he decided to do away with it and do away with it in style.

Needful Things is never mentioned when people discuss King’s great works and I think it gets short shrift. It is an incredibly complex plot with an astounding number of fully developed characters. It’s set in a town well known and loved by fans of King’s work. Its villain is superb. It’s a weighty tome of almost 700 pages, but there’s nary a wasted word.

We see in King's story the nature of a small town where everybody knows everybody else's business and secrets (like that held by Polly Chalmers) are a premium. King reveals the power of coveting what we want and sometimes sacrificing what we need to get it. Finally, we see the power of white magic practiced by a law man over the black magic practiced by an ancient swindler and con man.

As with 'Salem's Lot, Castle Rock is more than a setting in this story. The town itself, the gestalt of its people, their hatreds and prejudices, its dark history, and its moral compass moves and acts as a character.

As King chugged along toward the end of the Dark Tower series, I was certain that Leland Gaunt was going to turn up somewhere. He had all the makings of a tower minion. Alas, he never appeared. The worlds of Castle Rock and the Dark Tower did not meet.

The book was made into a movie in 1993 that starred Ed Harris and Max Von Sydow. It wasn’t a box office smash and tepidly reviewed, but is a fun movie that is a little more “preachy” than the book.

The publication of Needful Things marked a distinct turning point in King’s writing. He quit writing pure horror stories and tried to be more socially relevant and mature. There would be no more monsters. His work went more mainstream. He went through a horrible feminist phase with his next few books and for the first time, he was writing bad books. It wasn’t until 1996 when The Green Mile was published that King would again turn out a worthwhile novel.


  1. Sandy Koufax played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He's well known for refusing to pitch in a World Series game because it was on Yom Kippur (one of Judaism's high holy days.) Don't be so sure people from Gen X or later don't know these things, especially if they are interested in baseball. I'm only in my early 20's and I'd rather chase down Sandy Koufax memorabilia than a Mickey Mantle card. You can actually find Mantle in many card dealerships, Koufax would require a longer search but is still very well known to collectors and even to casual fans. Considering the stories are set in Maine (firmly in Red Sox nation) they might tolerate a boy liking a National League player (less of a rival) over a famous Yankee. The change actually makes LESS sense.

  2. What do you think about the wandering peddler from Dark Tower VIII?? I think that he's Leland Gaunt, hehe

  3. I had never thought about this. How observant. I think you may be right. That's why I love the Dark Tower series. So much lying right under the surface.