fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNeedful Things by Stephen King horror book reviewsNeedful Things by Stephen King

For the most part, being sheriff of Castle Rock, Maine is a peaceful job — that’s what Sheriff Alan Pangborn tells himself on difficult days. And for the most part, Alan’s right. Castle Rock is indeed a peaceful little town. Sure, there are frictions. The Catholics are planning to have a Casino Nite, which angers the Baptists. Wilma Jerzyck thinks she knows best, and she isn’t afraid to bully anyone in the town until they accept her way. And everyone knows that Buster Keeton abuses his authority as the town’s selectman. Still, one day in Castle Rock mostly leads into the next without incident.

So everyone’s abuzz when a new shop, Needful Things, opens. Needful Things is an unusual shop: it’s run by an urbane newcomer, Leland Gaunt; there are no prices on any of his stock; and although no one knows precisely what Needful Things sells, the townspeople will soon learn that Gaunt has something that each of his customers has always dreamed of.

Gaunt offers extraordinarily generous prices — as long as customers are willing to do little jobs for him. The jobs, mostly pranks, really, don’t seem too onerous. They’re harmless! However, before long, those harmless pranks have townspeople running through the streets, armed with cleavers and knives. The dreams Gaunt sells — or perhaps the deeds that his customers carry out to satisfy their longing — cost the buyers their souls.

The idea of a shop that sells baubles that turn people’s lives into nightmares is intriguing. Stephen King has a knack for finding interesting things for people to obsess over. For some people, it’s a picture of Elvis and for others it’s a one-of-a-kind fishing rod. These objects always seem mundane to observers, but King always convincingly shows how someone could come to view a Sandy Koufax baseball card with childlike wonder. The early descriptions of Gaunt’s stock are fascinating.

Needful Things can also be read as a story about addiction. The dreams that Gaunt sells turn into nightmares, and the bliss they initially offer soon feels like a dominating poison. Given King’s battles with alcoholism and addiction, his descriptions of the helplessness his characters feel are convincing. Needful Things was the first novel King wrote after getting sober, and there’s an undercurrent of regret in Needful Things that I found more moving than King’s descriptions of addiction in other novels.

However, the descriptions of Castle Rock twisting out of shape felt too familiar. King’s narrative hops from one character to the next, and all of them are full of familiar weaknesses, worries, and passions. Slowly, these weaknesses, worries, and passions drive the townspeople to madness and misery. These are well known “Stephen King characters” that longtime “Stephen King readers” have largely encountered before. Consequently, as the town began to descend into chaos, I began to lose interest in the plot. After a while I found myself disengaged from the action because I was too busy listing the familiar ingredients.

Here is a partial list of motifs that recalled other novels by King:

  • Alan, our hero, enjoys doing magic tricks, especially with coins. I couldn’t help recalling Roland from The Gunslinger. Alan even uses this trick to undo some of Gaunt’s hypnosis, just as Roland does.
  • Gaunt is an ageless creature, so old that he does not drive. I couldn’t help recalling Kurt Barlow from ‘Salem’s Lot, who corrupts a quiet New England town while worrying that he will be run over by a car.
  • Alan’s relationship with Polly, especially during the first half of the novel, reminded me a great deal of Stuart Redman’s relationship with Frances Goldsmith in The Stand.

Then again, Needful Things’ dust jacket describes the novel as the “Last Castle Rock” story, so perhaps these repetitions are an intentionally summative and climactic ending to themes and motifs explored over several works. The novel’s ending alludes to other stories set in Castle Rock, and it does attempt to bring the town’s confrontations with monsters to a close. Certainly, some might argue that it’s wrong to express surprise that a Stephen King novel will, say, introduce Elvis in the first act and have the King’s lyrics driving people crazy before the story ends. Having said that, Needful Things did strongly remind me of many of King’s stories, and it did distract me from much of the plot.

Regardless, true believers and readers new to Stephen King’s work won’t be bothered by any of these repetitions. Needful Things has a memorable premise, a quick pace given its length, and many dark and gruesome details to gross out readers. Readers looking for a Stephen King novel to read over their next vacation would do well to pick up a copy of Needful Things. Just be sure to pay the salesperson cash in full.

~Ryan Skardal

Trouble and aggravation’s mostly made up of ordinary things, did you ever notice that? Undramatic things.

Needful Things by Stephen King horror book reviewsThis is the first truly disappointing experience I’ve had with Stephen King. It’s his own damn fault for setting the bar so high. The story is quite basic… a stranger arrives in a small town and opens a store that’s part antiques, part yard-sale. “In a small town, the opening of a new store is big news.” The owner if this strange little store is Leland Gaunt.

Needful Things is Stephen King’s statement on the absurdities of American consumerism. Gaunt seems to have exactly what each member of the town needs… deep in their heart of hearts. A town deputy finds a fishing rod, amazingly similar to the one he used on memorable days casting with his deceased father. A woman finds sunglasses worn by Elvis Presley, and when she wears them, she’s taken to a concert, to Graceland, or to The King’s bed. The price of these items is small financially, but Gaunt always insists on a ‘favor’ in addition to cash. When those ‘favors’ are cashed in, chaos ensues.

While negotiating with one person, Gaunt says:

Why is it that so many people think all the answers are in their wallets? It’s criminally stupid…The world is full of needy people who don’t understand that everything, everything, is for sale… if you’re willing to pay the price.

Keep an eye on him, I tell you. Keep an eye on everything. You’ve been here before, but things are about to change. I know it. I feel it. There’s a storm on the way.

One of my issues with Needful Things is the lack of much back-story on Mr. Gaunt. He’s both charismatic and creepy in a very vampiric way. Think of The Stand‘s Randall Flagg, and then superimpose an evil Gandalf. There’s no doubt about his evil, but King barely allows the reader to dip a toe into his enigmatic history.

…Be patient. Wait. That’s most of what life in The Rock is about — taking it easy, being patient, and waiting for the occasional stink to blow over.

King’s at his best when creating atmospheric Small Town, USA. Castle Rock, Maine is the base for many of his earlier works, so he knows its people and character very well. “And it looks like such a sleepy little town from the outside, doesn’t it?” says Polly Chalmers to Sheriff Alan Pangborn when filling him in on some of the towns’ more memorable and dark history.

In Needful Things, King’s characters have familiar roots and themes. The extremely good-hearted cop with a dark past. His burgeoning love, who also has a secret past, but a heart of gold. The head Selectman of Castle Rock feels awfully similar to Big Jim Rennie in Under the Dome, which includes a family-owned car dealership. Even the eerie similarities between Gaunt and Flagg seems to evoke a sense that King was continually experimenting with the same themes, similar characterizations, and how those would interact when tossed together in a small New England town.

Needful Things is enjoyable, but nothing in comparison to some of his other works. It’s big at over 900 pages, but contains no where near the depth of It or The Stand, nor the poignancy of Bag of Bones.

~Jason Golomb


  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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  • Jason Golomb

    JASON GOLOMB graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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