Needful Things by Stephen King (R.I.P. XIII)

“The world is full of needy people who don’t understand that everything, everything, is for sale…if you’re willing to pay the price.” (p. 82)

Isn’t that just what the Enemy would do? Trick you into believing that what you want is what you have to have? Trick you into paying anything for your obsession? Trick you into thinking that what you thought was worth everything, was really worth nothing? King’s plot is brilliant, for it shows how we are often taunted with promised pleasure almost too powerful to resist.

Eleven year old Brian Rusk has bought a Stanley Koufax 1956 baseball card from the shop, Needful Things. He can’t stop looking at it, checking it, taking one last peek to see that it is still there. “He recognized that it had become kind of an obsession with him, but recognition did not put a stop to it.” Because obsessions are not that easy to get rid of.

Ask Danforth “Buster” Keeton, who is addicted to gambling and buys a tin race track which magically reveals the winning horse. Or, Hugh Priest who is addicted to alcohol and buys a fox tail which reminds him of the joy of his youth, or even timid Nettie Cobb, who simply cannot let the Carnival glass lampshade out of her sight. Each person in Castle Rock feels that the thing they have purchased at Needful Things is now the one thing they cannot live without; surely this thing, they hope, is the answer to their yearning.

I am captivated by the way that King has portrayed addiction in this novel:

It was a pit with greasy sides, a snare with hidden teeth, a loaded gun with the safety removed. (p. 210)

He had discovered another large fact about possessions and the peculiar psychological state they induce: the more one has to go through because of something one owns, the more one wants to keep that thing. (p. 261)

But, the people of Castle Rock, Maine, are holding nothing but empty promises. Brian’s brother, Sean, can’t understand why Brian is so attached to a faded, dog-eared card bearing the name Sonny Koberg. And no one can understand why Hugh Priest gently and lovingly strokes a mangy, dirty piece of fur which was once a lustrous fox tail. Deputy Norris Ridgewick’s beloved Bazun fishing rod is nothing but a splintery bamboo pole.

For the people have all been deceived, by their own desires to be sure. But, also by Leland Guant, owner of Needful Things, who sells them what they desire with soothing words (“Because the devil’s voice is sweet to hear”), a compelling gaze, and a promise to play a little prank, a harmful little trick.

The “little tricks” build to such grotesque consequences that soon the town begins to self destruct. Castle Rock’s inhabitants are in the grip of their obsessions, and they will let nothing come in between the thing and their illusion of happiness.

“Perhaps all the really special things I sell aren’t what they appear to be. Perhaps they are actually gray things with one remarkable property—the ability to take the shapes of those things which haunt the dreams of men and women.” He paused, then added thoughtfully, “Perhaps they are dreams themselves.” (p. 370)

The Enemy and all his empty promises are portrayed so cleverly in this novel by Stephen King, who shows us in thinly veiled hints just who Leland Gaunt may be:

“Needful Things is a poison place and Mr. Gaunt is a poison man. Only he’s really not a man, Sean. He’s not a man at all. Swear to me you’ll never buy any of the poison things Mr. Gaunt sells.” (p. 553)

I was riveted to this book, almost as much as The Stand, because I am fascinated by the way King writes, pulling me immediately into the story, and into the era I knew when I was growing up. I also like the battles between good and evil, most of which I find are not entirely fictionalized, but very real indeed.

There’s a warning in this book, told several times over. Even if Stephen King knows it, which I suspect he does, he didn’t write it as plainly as this:

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. Jonah 2:8 (NIV)

17 thoughts on “Needful Things by Stephen King (R.I.P. XIII)”

    1. I tend to think books are a rather healthy obsession, but maybe that’s just my justification. After all, anything can tilt the other way. Yet, books uplift and restore me, especially when I choose the right ones.

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  1. I read this book way back when it was first published. I actually remember very little about it, other than that I devoured it. I did that with a lot of King’s earlier books. Your review (wonderful and insightful, by the way) makes me want to pick it up again. I can see the whole similarity to The Stand – the epic battle of good vs. evil. Thanks for nudging me to pick up an old favorite. I’m going to be doing more of that in the future.

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    1. I was so “proud” of myself for finishing The Stand last October, and now I have finished Needful Things. The two seem to resemble each other in the good vs. evil battles, and even the ending. (SPOILER: Remember when Flagg moved on to a new place to wreak havoc at the end of The Stand, just as Leland Gaunt does when he flies off in his car turned coach to open Anwered Prayers. That was the one thing that I really couldn’t justify in reading this book. I don’t like it when Stephen King mocks Christianity.) It hasn’t always been so in my life, that I was able to read a King novel. Too many times I’ve been either too afraid, or convicted. But, when I put it in light of the battle we must do with the Enemy, I’m interested in the plot. If you do pick it up again, let’s chat.

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  2. I’ve just never been able to read King — for whatever reason, his books bored me from the beginning, and I just crossed him off my list. But this is intriguing, thanks in good part to your review, and if the library has it, I’ll give it a try. If he’d known about the process I used to go through to protect my china collection prior to hurricane evacuations, it might have made this book!

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    1. I can completely understand why you crossed him off your list; there is mass appeal such as Danielle Steele has created for her readers which doesn’t suit everyone. When you add in his topics, mostly of evil, it doesn’t make for easy reading. As I mentioned above to Kay, parts of me have been convicted while reading his stuff, and I’m not entirely sure I should shrug that off. Putting it in the light of what I know to be truth helps; I hope that isn’t a justification.

      As to protecting your china collection due to hurricane winds, I think you are entirely correct. It isn’t as if they had an evil hold on you. We are to safeguard what is in our care, I think. I would love to see it. I have my mother’s china teacups which are irreplaceable now in their thinness and beauty. Are yours like that?

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  3. I read this one years ago and decided to give it another read and read it early last month. Let me just say that I loved it even more this second time. King’s writing is top notch with this story, which captivated from the start. So glad you enjoyed it so much 🙂 Loved your post – spot on as always.

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    1. Totally captivating! What does that say about me?! I hope it isn’t pointing at anything evil in me, just in my fascination with his excellent writing and plot structure. There wasn’t one end he left loose, from Alan Pangborn (the Sheriff) wondering about how his wife and son died, to Ace Merrill having a demise he most deserved. I was riveted. Really. (Thanks for enjoying my review, friend. It’s hard to write about something without giving too much away. xo)

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    1. I had the feeling that it was made into a movie, I should check. Now horror movies are something I really can’t bear! Everything becomes much to graphic for me. I still have Sleeping Beauties and The Other on my shelf waiting for an opportune time. You are much better at finishing his work when you get it. 🙂

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  4. Bellezza, I enjoyed reading your review. This sounds like such a great book by KIng, with style and substance. I may need to find a copy of this novel!

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  5. I haven’t read king since the shining. (unless thinner was king under a pseudonym) its true some of those gratuitous Scenes are hard to shake off. I read the dead zone first and still think about it when I use my garbage disposal. But I did like the fall atmosphere in the small town and womdered if needful things has that? Kind of like something wicked. Good for October

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    1. I believe Thinner was written by him under a pseudonym, and Greg loved The Langoliers, another short story by him, neither of which I’ve read. You are so right: he creates a charming small town atmosphere in autumn, until the devil is released. And yes, it is similar to Something Wicked This Way Comes, “only” much more violent.

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  6. I’ve Ben thinking whether I have any needful objects myself but I suppose the fact I have to think about this means I don’t. The people in this novel all have their needful things front and center in their lives and I can’t think of anything that equates to that in my own home. Like most people I have far too much stuff but very little that is precious. Maybe if you have loads of possessions then each one doesn’t have high value?

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