My obsession with Stephen King started in the summer of 1993. I entered ninth grade that fall. I devoured many of his works between that time and when I embarked on what is perhaps one of his most devisive stories to date. Now, I could be mistaken, but I’m fairly certain that was spring of my junior year in high school.
Needful Things is unlike anything published, and yet the depth and scope of it feels strangely familiar, almost like you’ve been there before. Deja vu at its finest, but not quite. It’s a solid creation all its own. In retrospect, it feels similar to other King classics, such as The Tommyknockers, It, and Under the Dome. At the same time though, Needful Things is none of those things. It’s different in several ways. Most telling is the fact that it’s the “master of horror’s” attempt at satire, and given that -as far as I know– this was his first foray into hightened exaggeration, he did a mighty fine job. It read like he’d been crafting such stories for years.
Twenty-two years ago, I had only read King’s typically “balls-to-the-wall” type horrific stories. That’s what I’d come to expect. Needful Things, dubbed “The Last Castle Rock Story,” was the antithesis of all the others, in every aspect save five:
1) character-driven, indicative of fully-fleshed, memorable characters;
2) a large cast;
3) good vs. evil;
4)liberally seasoned with pop culture;
5)small town setting/feel.
There is a sixth element, but it’s relatively minimal, so I thought it best to list it separately. The last correlation is the supernatural, which is seen most promimnently in the novel’s epic denoument. There are, however, ripples of it here, spread sporadically, not unlike a plague.
These insights are all in hindsight. My initial experience was a lot different. I’m not going into detail, mostly because that was a long time ago and frankly, I can’t remember much more than the fact that I liked it. I remember being somewhat impatient and very mildly bored. I persevered, though, because at that time, King had yet to disappoint. I was in good hands; expert craftmanship, as I’ve come to realize over the last quarter of a century as a Constant Reader.
To reiterate my point, all of that was in retrospect. At the time, I couldn’t have explained more than the surface level premise of the book.
When I reread it in 2016, I was long overdue for a refresher course. And with a handful of exceptions, it felt very much like I was learning about LeLand Gaunt, Brian Rusk, Polly, etc…, for the first time.
This was a buttload of fun. More fun than I’ve had with most books, actually, which naturally kept the pages turning, faster and faster. I also discovered plenty of substance throughout, and I didn’t expect that. I didn’t know what to expect, really. From the finely crafted large cast, to the character-propelled plots and subplots; and expanding to the electric small town feel, complete with local politics, Castle Rock’s comings and leavings, police department, the hordes of gossipmongers, et al. Not to mention what has become a Stephen King staple: pop culture, of which he is king. No pun intended.
I liked following these diverse characters, including one familiar face. You’re given priviliged insight that either helps or hinders your opinions of them, done in such a manner that’s beautiful and marvelous. It was a sight to behold. King plants you inside their their minds-yes, even the most nefarious of individuals—and you’re given insider information regarding their ambitions and their darkest secrets. You live almost vicariously through their passions and exploits, and above all else, their greed.
Avarice is at the center of Needful Things, at the center of Castle Rock. Thematically, King was conveying a universal truth about the world in general. It is a weakness that most of us possess.
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.
There’s a certain diabolical genius in how the primary antagonist, LeLand Gaunt (whom some believe is the devil incarnate, if only symbolically,) systematically entered the town, set up shop, and proceeded to do the awful things that he did, pitting one against another. The ends clearly justified the means, and what we’re left with is one hell of a thunderstorm. This conclusion was utterly jaw-dropping and I could go on, but I’m choosing not to. Anything else would spoil the fun for the uninitiated. It was also fascinating to consider the lengths to which he went to, and precisely how he knew which buttons to press. How did he know virtually everything about everyone? However he achieved that, he possessed an innate ability and purpose and strength which, I believe, was unprecedented, and is rarely, if ever, surpassed.
I look forward to the next reread.