© 1992 Stephen King
A new shop has come to Castle Rock, one with a curious name: NEEDFUL THINGS. Its wares appear to run the gamut from cheap antiques to one-of-a-kind oddities. Even in a small town like the Rock, however, everyone seems to find a special something there, just the ticket for what they need. An embezzling politician in debt finds a toy that predicts horse races; a child finds the one card that will complete his 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers baseball card collection; a man who sorely misses his father finds an exact duplicate of the old man’s fishing reel. But it’s true, you know: the things you own end up owning you. And in the case of those items sold from Needful Things, they own you body and soul. Opening in early October, Needful Things is a thrilling novel from Stephen King chronicling the descent of a town into absolute mayhem when a literal merchant of death sets up shop.
When I first heard of this novel, its premise intrigued me, reminding me a bit of that early Twilight Zone episode in which a peddler sells people items they’ll need….in the future. But there is a great gulf between that kindly peddler and the owner of Needful Things, one Leland Gaunt. Even if a reader had never heard of Stephen King and didn’t realize they were bound for horror, Gaunt’s early characterization makes it obvious that something is very, very wrong. The kindly, wise shopkeeper seems to be able to put solitary shoppers into a bullying trance, and the items his victims regard as so precious are seen by others as cheap trash. Still more, Gaunt seems to acquire a power over his shoppers, bidding them to do little favors, pull little pranks. But what begins as a seemingly innocent, if mischievous, errand, may put the town on a course to utter chaos.
Needful Things builds as a novel, stewing all throughout the first half: both King and Gaunt work their magic, the author creating a map of the town’s people and their relationships with one another, the latter seeding his needful things among the populace at bargain prices and slowly getting the pot ready to boil. On Columbus Day, the action starts, and from there readers follow the town as it spirals out of control into a total bloodbath. The book certainly succeeds as a thriller, in part because of the light King puts human nature in. When Gaunt’s victims first see the items, they’re always shrouded in the promise of goodness: a drunk sees something that reminds him of his youth, and thinks if he can have it, he can take inspiration from it to start his life back over – to walk away from the bottle. But the promise is never quite fulfilled, and most of Gaunt’s customers are so obsessive and protective of their preciouseses that they never even use them, only obsess over them and keep them under lock and key. In the end, all are driven to madness. Desire and appetite are never satisfied here, only fed and engorged. I tired of the chronic carnage of the last two hundred pages, but the first two acts’ slow boil had me hooked too firmly to care at that point.