"What the hell gets into people - some kind of poison?"
A new shop is opening on the town square in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. There are various antiques and oddities in the window, under a green canvas awning that reads: "Needful Things".
Its proprietor, Leland Gaunt, is a handsome middle-aged man from outside New England, with a natural affinity for quickly putting people at ease; he also has an uncanny ability of providing each townsperson with something they secretly covet. He sells the items at bargain prices, but also requests that each purchaser play a prank on someone else in town. The pranks - which range from muddying the sheets on someone's laundry line to slashing car tires to killing a dog - are designed to inflame various pre-existing grudges, petty feuds and disagreements.
Needful Things follows the classic theme of "a stranger comes to town". Gaunt (like Kurt Barlow in 'Salem's Lot) is an supernatural being, whose goal is sowing distrust, division, and paranoia in Castle Rock, and then harvesting the souls of the people who end up killed or dead by their own hand.
The novel is subtitled "The Last Castle Rock Story". King has decided to leave behind the fictional town he has used for several novels and shorter stories: The Dead Zone, Cujo, "The Body", The Dark Half, "The Sun Dog". Castle Rock Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who played a large role in The Dark Half, is the main protagonist in this novel, attempting to save his town from Gaunt's evil machinations. (Needful Things is also the first novel King completed since becoming drug-free.)
John Sears (Stephen King's Gothic) writes that Needful Things
offers King's most extended and forceful allegory of consumerism as the misdirection and corruption of desire. The novel is a kind of Faustian parable firmly locked in the extensive and detailed domestic realism familiar from novels like 'Salem's Lot. ... [Needful Things is] an overt analysis of desire in capitalism, its combination of deceptive satisfaction and unquestioned ideological faith.Sharon A. Russell (Stephen King: A Critical Companion):
[King] is concerned that our quest for personal gratification can destroy society. King is interested in both individual actions and the organization of the community. ... King shows how these [societal] codes break down. We quickly believe the worst of each other and act rather than talk. ... Civilization is just a thin coating over our more violent impulses. ... When the social structures of Castle Rock begin to fall apart, King shows how ineffective the traditional supports of a community can be. All the organizations we trust to maintain society become involved in the destruction.King's anti-consumerism message is present, but it's 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.
The writing of Needful Things rarely rises to the level of classic King. There are exceptions, however, where King really shines, e.g., when relating the backstories of Pangborn and Polly Chalmers. 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.
Like Flagg, Gaunt is shown to have had a long history:
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.Gaunt knows exactly what each person wants - and he can supply it. (In the end, we see that the items he has sold were little more than junk, but they had been idealized in the eyes of the buyer.) Gaunt is a consummate con-man, who splits off each person from the rest of the town - all of his deals are done one-on-one - and then makes his covert arrangements. 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".
As in 'Salem's Lot, secrets abound: there are gambling addictions, alcoholism, incidents of domestic abuse. When she was young, a pregnant Polly Chalmers left Castle Rock; she returned without her child, but no one knows what happened. And while everyone knows that Sheriff Pangborn lost his wife and younger son in a car crash, he finds it impossible to speak to anyone about his grief. The townpeople cannot share their new purchases with anyone because they fear jealous thieves, or they are afraid of breaking the item if they use it. Many of them lock their items away, finding that "gloating in private provides its own particular pleasure".
Gaunt's statements - "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. (One character speaks disparagingly about the 1991 Iraq Invasion. This is almost certainly King talking. The sentiment seems out of place, since that brief slaughter was conducted to near-unanimous cheering in the US.)
King notes: "In America, you could have anything you wanted. Just as long as you could pay for it." Gaunt exploits people's greed and their willingness to pay what at first seems like a small price to fulfill their desires. While everyone acts out of free will, each small payment turns out to have large consequences.
Next: The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands.