Needful Things (1991)
By: Julian on November 18, 2010  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 790
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In an earlier review of a Stephen King novel, I identified the end of his 'Golden Age' – a period during which King was one of the premier literary talents (of any genre) operating in the States – as around 1987, when he published Misery. King commenced writing Needful Things shortly after (according to the dates at the end of the book, the novel was written between October 24 1988 and January 28 1991) and it suffers from a similar problem to Insomnia (1994), another moderately good novel released in the early nineties: the first two or three hundred pages are quintessential King. Adept at evoking a serious feeling of dread in his readers, the openings of Needful Things and Insomnia affirm King's position as a master of his craft.

Both books become slightly undone at about their half way points, before unravelling further as the bloated narrative explodes to 750-odd pages. I certainly think this is better structured than Insomnia but it has some fundamental deficiencies in plotting – a serious problem when you're dealing with a novel of this length. But by the time Needful Things' climax comes around and the antagonist is revealed for what he truly is (we're allowed to harbour suspicions early on, but King is reserved in how much he gives away), the reader is afflicted with more than a touch of indifference, a feeling abetted by King unsuccessfully using the sheer volume of words that served him so well earlier in the novel.

With that said, Needful Things is hardly a failure. The premise is at first fascinating and devilishly original, and King establishes a series of sympathetic (and conversely antipathetic) characters to people his recurring Maine hamlet, Castle Rock (a piece of trivia extracted from a King introduction to another one of his novels: Castle Rock Entertainment, Rob Reiner's production company, was so-named after Reiner adapted the King novella The Body for his film Stand by Me).

When Leland Gaunt opens 'Needful Things' in Castle Rock, Polly Chalmers defies unwritten convention and greets him immediately on his opening day. Polly, the owner-operator of a sewing store next door to Needful Things and the girlfriend of local sheriff Alan Pangborn, is one of Castle Rock's more opaque residents: she spent most of her teenage years in Castle Rock before falling pregnant and disappearing completely, before returning to her home town a middle aged woman sans child. Polly is described as cagey, an adjective mainly driven by the gossipy townspeople's unfulfilled desires to learn the intricacies of her past.

Needful Things is a hard shop to pigeon-hole: a good description is that it sells antique bits and bobs and collectable miscellany, but those who enter emerge highly satisfied. Indeed, Mr Gaunt purports that his shop has something for everyone at highly competitive prices. When eleven year old Brian Rusk is Mr Gaunt's first customer, he is offered a highly valuable baseball card, signed by the player, for under a dollar – and the promise that Brian plays a prank on one of the townspeople. Such payment is standard for all customers, provided they are the only ones in the store; a nominal fee plus a deed, and all customers leave feeling that they have scored a bargain.

As Mr Gaunt's pranks begin to be executed, rifts emerge among the townspeople: first between the mentally unstable but docile Nettie Cobb and the outwardly psychotic Wilma Jerzyck; then between Selectman Danforth Keeton, a wife beater with a chip on both shoulders, and the placid Deputy Ridgewick, and then between a fundamentalist Baptist preacher and a hard-headed Catholic priest - all of it working towards Mr Gaunt's gruesome pièce d'résistance.

The tagline of Needful Things is 'words are his power', and it perfectly captures the gleeful deviousness at work here: at first, it's benign (which is, of course, one of King's brilliantly employed methods to evoke tension and suspense), before incrementally escalating to events of calamitous proportion. King's incremental escalations aren't always on the money – he misses a step between Nettie and Wilma's original confrontation to their final showdown, and career criminal Ace Merrill appears too suddenly. The book is certainly bloated – both with words and characters (although it is not unusual for King's novels of this length to be heavily populated) – and there's a feeling that King is making up plot as he goes along. Not a good move if one is intending to write a novel of this length.

Two characters that I thought were perfectly handled were Danforth Keeton and his wife Myrtle. Keeton (to his chagrin, many of the townspeople refer to him as 'Buster') is not Needful Things' chief antagonist, but he is one of King's most multi-faceted villains, a man so wracked with paranoia about 'Them' that he is rendered personally and professionally crippled. The manner in which King chronicles Keeton's relationship with his wife and with the other townspeople is a triumph, the characterisation is second to none. Keeton is the character King most comprehensively analyses in Needful Things – he does an adequate job with Polly and Alan, but the removal of some faces could have permitted him to do a better job. Leland Gaunt is necessarily mysterious, and King invokes that veil well.

But by the time we get to that veil's removal, it's anti-climactic. Where Needful Things becomes confused – not fatally so, just muddled and unnecessarily voluble – is when Ace Merrill is introduced as Gaunt's partner-in-arms. Perhaps Ace is the character that breaks the camel's back, but his entry is the impetus for Needful Things to buckle under its own weight. It never peters out – faults aside, by the late-eighties, King has written enough books to develop a formula to keep readers intrigued, and this reader didn't once consider putting the novel down – but it is severely weakened nonetheless.

Despite these reservations, Needful Things does not deserve a negative review. Its first half is vintage King, recalling the author's best work in the seventies and early eighties, and I attribute the lag that the novel suffers from in its closing few hundred pages to length, ill-conceived plotting, a huge volume of characters and a decided drop in quality of output by King over this period. Stephen King fans will like this more than those who have had little experience with the author: if you belong to the former group, you might add half a point to the below rating. Otherwise, it's reservedly recommended.
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