Off the Shelf

"Needful Things"

By Marcus Pan

Needful ThingsSure, I've seen the movie. As a matter of fact, I've seen it years ago. It is the movie that made me wait so long to read the book. I wanted to have as little memory of the movie version as possible when I delved into the "true" story instead of the edited, cut up, watered down movie version. The movie was actually pretty good, which only made not reading the book so long not an easy thing to accomplish.

"Needful Things" by Stephen King is billed as "The Last Castle Rock Story." Having an affinity for locating most of his stories in a rural area of Maine, Castle Rock is King's fictitious town that has taken a good brunt of his imaginative efforts. Castle Rock has seen the horrors within "The Dead Zone," "Cujo," "The Tommyknockers" and "The Dark Half" previous to the arrival of their newest store proprietor, Leland Gaunt, and the opening of his shop. King does a good job of winding the novels together without making them rely on each other. In one scene, a character visits the farm where the estranged dog, Cujo, took the life of Castle Rock's sheriff of the time, Bannerman. She recalls the tales of Cujo and her thoughts of that matter are apparent in the story adding a fabricated "history" to Castle Rock that travels before and beyond the confines of Needful Things. You can also see the empty lot where Pop Merril's "Emporium Galorium" once stood in yet another previous tale. A well-done yet not over-wrought history for a small town that exists only in a man's head.

The prime bastard of this tale is Leland Gaunt, proprietor of the shop Needful Things in the small business district of Castle Rock. Gaunt has a knack for knowing people's deepest desires. Whether it's freedom from pain, a fantasy you've only seen in your imagination or whatever else it could be, Gaunt will have it for sale to you…and only you. The item is always affordable no matter who steps through the door and rings the small silver bell that hangs above; but the price is still too high for all of them. Each person who buys from him, and nearly all of them do as he sells their very dreams, is required to perform a service. A "prank" he calls it…nothing more. These pranks, done by his buyers against whomever is required, sets the entire town of Castle Rock against one another. If you remember the movie you recall some of the pranks that Gaunt had his buyers play on other members of Castle Rock. The book, however, doesn't have an hour and a half time limit nor does it require editing for a mainstream audience. You see so many more of the pranks in the book than in the movie, and it goes a long way to showing you just how strategically sneaky and informed Gaunt really is about the town he has chosen to open his business in. At some points in the book the pranks are moving so quickly, effecting so many and racing to the climax that it is difficult to put down until most of them have worked themselves out just so you don't lose track…and you probably will lose track anyway, but strangely enough it seems to work itself out in the end. Because of this, Needful Things proves to be a quick, delightful and pleasant read that keeps your mind occupied and racing from one scene to another. This is something that can't be reproduced in the movie.

One of my problems with the book is with the character of Leland himself. With everything he knows about his customers and everything he's started moving between them, I would expect him to always remain cool, collected and in control. For the most part and for at least the first half of the novel he is. But near the end he begins to get almost schizophrenic. He shouts often, screams at customers as they sit in their dazed "Mr. Gaunt Knows Best" states and even physically attacks one or two people when he blows his top over simple things that a character like Gaunt would be expected to shrug off and correct in a more controlled manner. Surely I was shocked when he took to screaming, "Fellate me!" at one of his customers…it just wasn't like him, or at least like the Gaunt that I had grown to know through the first half of the novel.

Sheriff Alan Pangborn, a nice guy with a terrible past, is the one to stop Leland and he does so in a strange sort of way and using a form of weaponry that you might not expect. They take the form of simple things that he enjoys and takes for granted. I would like to know just why the things he used to fight Gaunt in the ending climax worked in the way that they did. It was never explained enough, this being one of my other pet peeves of the story. It seemed a little flaky to me, to beat whatever Gaunt was with the things Alan used, but then again maybe it's not because I don't know the principle behind it.

In summary, Needful Things is regardless of my peeves a very good book. You'll read it quickly, effortlessly and once things get going it moves at a Concorde's pace and is very difficult to put down. If you enjoyed the movie I suggest picking it up. But wait until most of the movie is out of your head. You'll enjoy it more, not having any film-borne expectations to souse up your enjoyment of the "real" and "final" Castle Rock story. So tell me…what is YOUR Needful Thing?

"Needful Things" by Stephen King
Published by Signet - © 1991
ISBN# 0-451-17281-7

Click to Buy!
Buy It