Needful Things might just be the quintessential Stephen King experience. I tore through over 700 pages at a fantastic clip, enthralled by the plot and developing genuine concern for the characters. And then, the ending happened and I was left puzzled, annoyed, and uncertain how I felt about the book overall.
The mysterious Leland Gaunt opens a new store in Castle Rock, Maine and one by one all the townsfolk stop by to see what’s on offer. Needful Things is a curious store that doesn’t seem to have much in stock and yet somehow always has the item the customer most wants. The price is usually pretty good too, at least in terms of dollars and cents. Mr. Gaunt just asks you to play a little trick on someone else as part of the deal.
These little tricks add up of course, as Gaunt expertly leverages old grudges and small-town feuds as though he were a lifelong resident privy to everyone’s secrets. He turns neighbor against neighbor, friends into enemies, and stokes the fires of a minor conflict between the town’s Catholics and Baptists into an all-out conflagration. And all he needs to do it are trinkets like baseball cards, autographed photos, carnival glass, and fishing rods.
The most impressive aspect of Needful Things is definitely the scope. There are dozens of characters with important roles in the story and for the most part King does an incredible job of weaving them in and out of the narrative. Though the steady stream of “deals” being struck at Needful Things does get a bit repetitive, there is enough intrigue to carry the reader through.
Interestingly, Needful Things is a bit of a mash-up for King. The Castle Rock setting is certainly familiar to Constant Readers, but so are several of the characters. Sheriff Alan Pangborn featured heavily in The Dark Half, while Ace Merrill of The Body (aka Kiefer Sutherland’s character from Stand By Me) shows up as an ex-con straight out of Shawshank intent on causing trouble. There are references to the events of Cujo and The Dead Zone as well. It makes for a fun little game within the book.
As events spiral out of control and the very existence of Castle Rock is threatened, you can feel King struggle to find a way to resolve the plot. Ultimately, his solution is a tad underwhelming, a criticism King fans will also be very familiar with. Still, a rough patch right at the end can’t spoil all the fun of an entertaining yarn, and Needful Things is certainly that.