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From Sunday, 26 January 2014 to Wednesday, 5 February 2014, I read Stephen King's Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story (NY: Signet [published by the Penguin Group, Penguin Books USA Inc], 1992 [copyright 1991]; mass market paperback edition [movie tie-in edition]; ISBN: 0-451-17859-9; 736 pps.]), with illustrations by Bill Russell.
cover to Needful Things by Stephen King -- movie tie-in ed

Needful Things purports to be the last story set in Stephen King's fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine (and explicit reference is made to events that occurred in it in previous books: The Dead Zone, Cujo and The Dark Half being the most prominent), even though it has continued to be referenced in several subsequent books and stories, the latest of which is the much-ballyhooed sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep. It has an irresistible premise: an urbane, courtly gentleman going by the name of Leland Gaunt opens a store called Needful Things in the dying, if not dead in all but name, downtown of Castle Rock, which proves to be quite a bit more than the usual Lovejoy-like New England antiques store designed to separate the summer tourists and leaf peepers from their disposable income; though relatively little merchandise is actually on display, Mr. Gaunt shows himself to be capable of supplying simply anything material that a body desires, no matter how esoteric or how specific the item is to one's own past. His prices seem more than fair, as he does not empty out the townsfolks' bank accounts or max out their credit cards the way they suppose he would some pushy tourist's; the main thing that Mr. Gaunt demands in return for an otherwise priceless item is a practical joke, a prank, á la the MTV series Punk'd, played on another town resident, always one with whom the customer has a minimal connection.

Only a very dim or inexperienced reader would fail to note the ominous and alarming foreshadowing with which King paints Mr. Gaunt; Gaunt and his store recall, in a way, Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao (the basis of the 1964 George Pal movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Bradbury's Mr. Dark in Something Wicked This Way Comes, while the whole ambiance of the town and the townsfolk suggests an updated, even more cynical version of Sinclair Lewis's parochial characters. What is more interesting to even the occasional horror fan is the fact that King explicitly references the Lovecraftian mythos -- Gaunt tells a newly recruited stooge named Ace Merrill that the cocaine that he's given him comes from "the Plains of Leng," which lie "[o]ver the hills and far away" (Chapter Twelve, Section 10; p. 372; the same page has Ace thinking that this nose candy had "that vague banana-lemon taste that really good cocaine always seemed to have," which almost piqued my curiosity enough to actually try some -- almost), and later sends him to a garage in an insalubrious part of Boston that has a graffito reading "YOG-SOTHOTH RULES" spray-painted on its back wall (Chapter Fourteen, Section 2; p. 409) -- which is doubly interesting given that King has said that Lovecraft's writings were the single biggest influence on his own writing. Thankfully, for this reader, King's style is usually much more felicitous than Lovecraft's, and he seems to evince far fewer of Lovecraft's fears and prejudices, although a few characters here, as in It, do talk smack against those of French descent, which was another of Lovecraft's bugaboos, and certain of the female characters -- particularly those besotted with Elvis Presley -- and the homosexual characters are bit too prejudicial in their presentation for me to say that Needful Things is wholly free of the shadow of Lovecraft's misogyny and homophobia. (As a side note, one might well make a case for Mr. Gaunt being an incarnation of Nyarlathotep, given his physical appearance, the fact that he's been around the block a time or three, and his provenance in one of Lovecraft's dreams, which he described in a letter to Reinhardt Kleiner in 1921 [cited in the Wikipedia entry on Nyarlathotep]: "Don't fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible — horrible beyond anything you can imagine — but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterward. I am still shuddering at what he showed....Nyarlathotep was a kind of itinerant showman or lecturer who held forth in public halls and aroused widespread fear and discussion with his exhibitions. These exhibitions consisted of two parts — first, a horrible — possibly prophetic — cinema reel; and later some extraordinary experiments with scientific and electrical apparatus.")

The main characters in Needful Things are Sheriff Alan Pangborn, last seen in The Dark Half -- he's not nearly so skeptical here as he was there (for reasons that should be blindingly obvious to anyone who's read The Dark Half, but which should be easily surmised by anyone who hasn't, even if they have only a nodding acquaintance with the general tenor of Stephen King's work), and he's given an interest in stage magic that I didn't recall him having in The Dark Half -- his love interest, Polly Chalmers, who owns a dressmaker shop in town, and an 11-year-old boy named Brian Rusk, who has a crush on his speech therapist and is Mr. Gaunt's first customer in Castle Rock. While I found myself drumming my fingers with impatience during the first two hundred-odd pages of the novel as King introduced the various townies and their interpersonal conflicts, my quasi-boredom was soon relieved by a Tarantinoesque duel on a residential street corner; I can honestly say that, as with Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son, a few hundred pages of near-boredom is absolutely essential for the effectiveness of the payoffs in both books. (A quibble: King should've introduced the breadth and depth of the decades-long feud between the Baptists and the Catholics -- which reminded me a bit of a funhouse mirror version of the conflict between the High Church [Anglican] and Low Church [a more evangelical and explicitly Protestant style resembling that of the Methodists and the Baptists, though still a part of the Anglican Church] in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers -- far earlier, in order for this conflict's becoming overt to have a greater impact.) The finale manages to scratch several itches at once: violent spectacle, gross-out horror, and awe, wonder and fright at supernatural happenings made explicit; if I was most incredulous, at the end, over how quickly the survivors of Mr. Gaunt's influence returned to reasonable semblances of their former public selves, well, I have to admit that I was almost as mentally tuckered-out by all the wild wowsers as said survivors were. I mean, hell, fun's fun, but it's gotta end sometime, or else it ain't fun anymore, eh?

Though I've yet to read any further in King's The Dark Tower series than the first volume (I read the originally published edition of The Gunslinger, not the wholly rewritten version published in 2003), I have a sneaking suspicion that, even though he wrote Needful Things between October 24, 1988 and January 28, 1991, he was loosely tying the events of Needful Things's zippity-pow climax into the larger tapestry of The Dark Tower. (The second volume, The Drawing of the Three, came out in 1987, while the third volume, The Waste Lands, was published the same year as Needful Things.)

Ah, but what mischief could Mr. Gaunt wreak today, with the internet as a tool, for all that he likes to give his business that personal, face-to-face touch....


*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.


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