Stephen King is known for his horror, thriller and fantasy works. He’s also known for the miniature fictional landscape of Castle Rock, Maine. Castle Rock is inhabited by novels and stories including ‘Cujo,’ “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Sun Dog,” ‘The Dead Zone’ and ‘Needful Things.’
If you’re a King fan, you’ll end up visiting this mythical town sooner or later. However, ‘Needful Things’ makes a poor introduction — mainly because it’s the Castle Rock Apocalypse. It also makes a poor farewell to Castle Rock, because it’s simply not a very good book.
It begins with a prologue where an unnamed narrator fills you in on the town drama. However, the first chapters make you read all the town drama again, rendering the prologue irrelevant. The minor religious war between the Baptists and Catholics is noteworthy, as is the semi-secret romance between Sheriff Alan Pangborn and seamstress Polly Chalmers. The rest of it, however, is not compelling. It’s difficult to care about the petty grudges and problems of petty people going about their petty lives.
The book meanders along, falling into a comfortable pattern. People go to the new shop Needful Things, become obsessed with an item, and buy it at a “bargain” price from the sinister Mr. Leland Gaunt. Mr. Gaunt gives them discounts on the condition that they play a little prank on someone else in the town. By the fiftieth time this happens, though, the reader may be yawning as he or she turns the pages. It’s a predictable and eventually tedious pattern.
The pranks are calculated to fan the flames of grudges until the parties involved are ready for war, murder and mayhem. In the next third or so of the book, the pattern changes: people play pranks on others. The pranks are interesting (sometimes horrifying) at first — but as with the beginning, by the time you read ten variations on the same event, you’re bored.
Worse, it’s so hard to care about most of the characters that you may end up not caring if Mr. Gaunt blows Castle Rock sky-high. By the time things start really moving in the last third of the book, the town is ready to blow — and maybe that’s the best thing that could happen. The only people of real interest are Alan and Polly; not because they’re necessarily hero and heroine material, but because they’re the characters that King invests the most time developing.
Speaking of characters, one of the most frustrating things about ‘Needful Things’ is the question of Mr. Leland Gaunt. Why does he care about Castle Rock (other than that Stephen King was tired of writing about the town and wrote a book to destroy it)? The Devil is in Castle Rock in the form of Mr. Gaunt. Gaunt operates a bit like Shakespeare’s Iago: leading his victims along with false confidence, lies, letters and dropped handkerchiefs. And like Iago, he torments people mainly because he likes it.
The most interesting thing about ‘Needful Things’ is that the townsfolk are largely responsible for their own downfall. There’s a message about greed in those pages, if you can wade through them all.
For avid fans of King’s Castle Rock books, ‘Needful Things’ may not fall so flat. There is a sense of King visiting familiar places and faces one last time. He steps into Castle Rock like a pair of old shoes, taking his time with a stretch and a stroll down Main Street before cracking down to the business of the story. There’s a lot of writerly self-indulgence in ‘Needful Things,’ but it’s understandable. It is, after all, the last Castle Rock book. Some readers may even find King’s moseying enjoyable.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t visit Castle Rock by way of ‘Needful Things’ if you’re an “out-of-towner” who’s never read other Castle Rock books. Worse would be to make your introduction to Stephen King with ‘Needful Things.’ Most people pick up a King novel expecting a thriller. ‘Needful Things’ is not as tightly plotted, action-oriented or even character-oriented as most of his other works. You could easily skim half this book and not miss anything important.
Overall, ‘Needful Things’ sits at a mediocre three stars.