As it’s the season to be Merry and gifting – why not go and have a look at another Stephen King book that deals with people WANTING things, NEEDING things, DESIRING things – and a shop that can fulfill every desire, at a price. “Everything is for sale”, “Free trade is what made this country great”, “Selfish people are happy people” and encouraging feelings of “pride of possession” – reinforce the greed, materialism, and self-satisfaction of the 1980s, making the book a possible allegory of the Reagan/Bush administrations.
Everyone loves something for nothing…even if it costs everything.
King locates his hokey Our Town in Maine, but as ever it’s really Consumerville, USA, with everyone’s life festooned with brand names. The cast is huge and largely grotesque, since King–wearing a tremendous cat’s-smile–means to close the book on Castle Rock and blow it off the map in one of his best climaxes since Salem’s Lot. Editing here is supreme. King braids perhaps a dozen storylines–with hardly a drop of blood spilled for the first 250 or so pages–into ever briefer takes that climax in a hurtling, storm-ripped holocaust whose symphonic energies fill the novel’s last third.
“Why is it that so many people think all the answers are in their wallet?”
Perhaps only five characters stand out: Leland Gaunt, a gentlemanly stranger who opens the Needful Things curiosity shop; his first customer, Brian Rusk, 11, who sells his soul for a rare Sandy Koufax baseball card; practical Polly Chalmers, who runs the You Sew ‘n’ Sew shop, welcomes Gaunt with a devil’s-food cake, and buys an amulet to relieve her arthritis; her lover, Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who buys nothing but is haunted by the driving deaths of his wife and son; and Ace Merrill, coke dealer in a bind, who becomes Gaunt’s handydevil and gets to drive Gaunt’s Tucker, a car that’s faster than radar and uses no gas. As he has for hundreds of years, Gaunt sells citizens whatever pricks and satisfies their inmost desires. But the price dehumanizes them, and soon all the townsfolk vent their barest aggressions on each other with cleaver, knife, and gun: Gaunt even opens a sideline of automatic weapons. By novel’s end, the whole town is on a hysterical, psychotic mass rampage that floods morgue and hospital with the de-limbed and obliterated.
“What chance?’ she had asked, bewildered.
‘Your chance. Your chance to live your own life. Right now you have the look of a woman who is seeing ghosts. Not everybody believes in ghosts, but I do. Do you know what they are, Trisha?’
She had shaken her head slowly.
‘Men and women who can’t get over the past,’ Aunt Evvie said. ‘That’s what ghosts are. Not them.’ She flapped her arm toward the coffin which stood on its bands beside the coincidentally fresh grave. ‘The dead are dead. We bury them, and buried they stay.”
Why I liked the story? It’s about the dangers of consumerism and not knowing when to stop.
Unfortunately, while King’s anti-consumerism message is present, it’s very weakly presented. The same point is made with numerous townspeople; it gets repetitious and King’s done it better in earlier books. This is well-travelled territory for King, with themes that resonate throughout his fiction: the darker pathologies of small town life, religious mania, addiction and obsession, class and gender inequality, domestic abuse. As Russell notes, the underpinnings of society offer no help during the crisis. Law enforcement, city government, and religious leaders are all as complicit as the individual citizens in the town’s escalating hostility.
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.
It is explained that Gaunt has, for centuries, been wandering through different countries and selling people useless junk. These objects appear to the buyer to be whatever they want most, and once acquired, have the power to strongly affect their moods. Buyers develop severe paranoia and anxiety if they are not physically holding the purchased items. By threatening to either take away the item, destroy it, or remove its power, Gaunt is able to blackmail, coerce, and intimidate his customers into doing whatever he wants. In the end “he always sells weapons”, which everyone eagerly buys so they can defend their property.
He had begun business many years ago – as a wandering peddler on the blind face of a distant land, a peddler who carried his wares on his back, a peddler who usually came at the fall of darkness and was always gone the next morning, leaving bloodshed, horror, and unhappiness behind him. Years later, in Europe, as the Plague raged and the deadcarts rolled, he had gone from town to town and country to country in a wagon drawn by a slat-thin white horse with terrible burning eyes and a tongue as black as a killer’s heart he had sold his wares from the back of the wagon … and was gone before his customers, who paid with small, ragged coins or even in barter, could discovery what they had really bought.
He poisons everyone in town, sowing division and dissension, anger, and jealousy, ruining relationships and conducting the town’s people through “dark and bitterly satisfying fantasies of revenge”.
— Carra Lucia Books (@BooksCarra) November 22, 2017
The novel’s ending is especially unsatisfying because it is highly reminiscent of the revised ending of The Stand (which King re-worked around the same time). Randall Flagg’s escape before The Stand’s nuclear conflagration and his re-emerge elsewhere to once again plot destruction is identical to Gaunt’s escape from The Rock in this novel. Needful Things ends as it began, with Gaunt opening a new store (Answered Prayers) in another American small town.
While some people loved it (Review: ‘Needful Things’ by Stephen King, I must say the book left me mostly unsatisfied and I would give it a 3/5 for effort. It’s long, laborious and the violence at the end resembles a melee.
It’s a good allegory, but very, very repetitive.
What did you guys think?