Stephen King has set many of his novels in the mythical town of Castle Rock, Maine, including The Dead Zone (1979), Cujo (1981), The Tommyknockers (1987), and The Dark Half (1989). In Needful Things, ominously billed as “The Last Castle Rock Story,” he virtually wipes his mythical town off the mythical map. It is hard to keep track of the number of deaths that occur by murder and suicide after the complicated story finally gets into high gear, and the amount of property damage by fires and explosions is horrendous. King often displays a disdain for his hapless creations that is reminiscent of the Old Testament. If William Faulkner had created a great hurricane and flood to obliterate his fictitious Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, it would have been comparable to what King has done to the town of Castle Rock, over which he broods like a wrathful Jehovah. He even blows up the town’s main bridge, as if to symbolize that he is burning his bridges behind him in preparation for some new stage of his career.
What has made King one of the world’s most successful writers is that he builds his stories around personal concerns. For example, The Shining (1977) is about a writer who is suffering from writer’s block because of financial anxiety caused by parental responsibility, and Misery (1987) is about a writer who is getting sick of the pablum he has to produce to please his simple-minded readers. In Needful Things, King, who turned forty-four years old in 1991, seems to be venting his creative frustration. His tale reads like the work of a highly imaginative writer who feels stuck in a rut and is taking radical measures to get out of it, on the Shakespearean principle that “Diseases desperate grown/ By desperate appliance are relieved/ Or not at all.”
Forty-four is a dangerous time in a man’s life, but it can also be a time of great personal growth. The reader gets the impression that King, who lives a simple life in his native Maine in spite of his wealth and fame, is frustrated with writing escapist fantasies for an audience with the median intelligence of a twelve-year-old. Published interviews reveal that he is painfully aware that many critics and fellow writers despise him for turning out comic strips without the pictures. Needful Things, in addition to sounding like a farewell to an epoch in King’s career, also seems to foreshadow things to come: It is a novel with a message, a novel with at least the glimmerings of a social conscience.
King’s new novel, which thematically resembles Mark Twain’s famous short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1900), begins with the opening of an innocent- looking little shop on Main Street. The name of the shop, “Needful Things,” is ironic; the proprietor, Leland Gaunt, sells nothing but curios, knickknacks, novelties, bric-a-brac, bagatelles, and whatnots, none of which possess practical utility or great intrinsic value. At one point, Gaunt describes his wares as follows: “Perhaps all the really special things I sell aren’t what they appear to be. Perhaps they are actually gray things with only one remarkable property—the ability to take the shapes of those things which haunt the dreams of men and women.… Perhaps they are dreams themselves.”
Gaunt’s first customer, an eleven-year-old boy named Brian Rusk, buys a Sandy Koufax baseball trading card which becomes the prized treasure of his collection. Soon, however, something strange begins to happen to Brian: he becomes jealous and suspicious; he is paranoid about showing his new acquisition even to his father and his little brother. This paranoia becomes the common affliction of all Gaunt’s customers. The reader begins to realize that the charming, considerate, smooth-talking shopkeeper is undoubtedly the Devil in disguise and that he intends to sow discord by appealing to the selfish, acquisitive, competitive, and violent instincts of Castle Rock’s citizens.
Gaunt’s customers quickly learn that the low prices on his merchandise are misleading, because the draculean shopkeeper makes each buyer promise that as part of the purchase price he will play “a harmless practical joke” on one of the other townspeople. Gaunt manages to get his customers to accept his strange terms by overpowering them with his dizzying hypnotic stare and implanting suggestions deep in their unconscious minds that make it impossible for them to disobey.
Young Brian Rusk must throw mud at the clean white sheets hanging on a neighbor’s line and later must go back and throw rocks through her windows. She suspects that the vandal is a woman with whom she has been having a feud over a barking dog. Gaunt sees to it...
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