For the second instalment of my Stephen King book club, my friends and I read Needful Things before watching the 1993 movie adaptation and once again, we discovered exactly why he is the one true King of horror. So, what is it all about? The book takes place in the quiet US town of Castle Rock, where a new shop called Needful Things is being opened by the town’s new and mysterious resident Leland Gaunt. The shop sells curios and antiques which appear to be a steal but inevitably come with a heavy price. Intriguing right?
First of all, the premise is wonderful. I love the idea of the Devil being bored and going place to place selling cursed goodies to unsuspecting punters. The objects in question are always relatively generic- a children’s game, a baseball card, a glass lamp or silver teapot. These items hold no significance to anyone other than the intended victim as each item is chosen specifically based on that individuals NEED. Whether the item reminds them of precious memories, a time they dearly wish they could return to, or offers relief for excruciating pain, the items are irresistible to the intended customer and once you buy, there are no returns. The entire book is a damning indictment on the materialistic, possession obsessed society we now live in. Remember when you were a kid and you would beg your mum for that toy, telling her you had to have it because you NEEDED it and she would say no, you don’t NEED it, you just WANT it? Well, your Mother was inadvertently teaching you how to avoid the trappings of Leland Gaunt and his magical wares. Every one of us has something we need, or at least think we do and this is preyed upon on a daily basis by corporations and companies selling us rubbish every day. Creams that will make us younger, juices that will give us energy and vitality, clothes that will make us fashionable trend setters, this is the world we live in now, surrounded by adverts and bill boards bombarding us with all these Needful Things. Mr Gaunt and his little shop of horrors is the ultimate personification of this and it works perfectly as both horror and wry social commentary.
What the book makes clear however, is that while Gaunt may control a person’s need, he cannot control their will. He has a whole bag of tricks to bamboozle his customers, including putting them in trances, creating elaborate dreams which feel perfectly real to terrible nightmares and warnings which feel even realer, but the customer has to willingly take the item and they have to willingly accept the payment. We, after all, walk our own paths in life and it is up to us how we choose to do so. This book is all about temptation. Just as Satan tempted so many in the bible, Gaunt tempts his customers to sin in order to fulfil those perceived needs. Some of the sins seem minor, like throwing mud on clean sheets, while others are more serious, like slashing tyres or killing a beloved bed, but all the residents of Castle Rock seem more than willing to pay and in doing so sow the seeds of their own destructions. I love that King made sure to show that none of us are immune to such temptation, with the most devout and holy rolling Christians of the town giving in as easily as the local drunk or disgraced politician. Each character has their own flaws, their own personal defects which Gaunt readily exploits. For the lead character Sheriff Pangborn, it is the guilt and grief that he refuses to let go off as a result of the death of his wife and child a year before. For Polly Chalmers, it is her pride. It is the residents who acknowledge these flaws and work to overcome them, that survive intact.
For the most part, I found myself feeling little sympathy for the residents of Castle Rock. After all, they made the choices which led to their grizzly ends and some of them frankly got what they deserved, but there are exceptions. The young Brian Rusk is just a child and he is the first to not only fall prey to Gaunt’s charm but also the first to realise who or what Gaunt truly is. His only sin seems to be a childish attachment, a need for a baseball card he has always coveted but being young and naive is his biggest flaw. He is easily exploited by Gaunt and when he tries to stop, Gaunt changes tactics and uses good old-fashioned fear to control him. Whilst he made the choices he did and did the not very nice ‘pranks’ requested as payment willingly, all for a measly baseball card, I do feel like his youth and innocence make him incapable of truly understanding the ramifications of his actions until it is far too late. Nettie Cobb, the local ‘nut’ suffers from severe mental health issues as a result of the trauma from a past abusive relationship. Again, because of this she seemed an innocent to me and less capable of understanding her actions fully than the other residents. There are also peripheral characters who never entered Gaunt’s shop, who are caught up in the carnage including several state Police officers. Unlike the rest of the town’s residents, I genuinely felt bad when they met their grizzly ends.
There are a lot of characters involved in this book, a whole town’s worth, so it can be a little confusing at first trying to keep the names and storylines straight but it is definitely worth persevering. King paints the perfect picture of small-town life, the kind of place where everyone makes a point of knowing each other’s business but where secrets still dwell. The characters are fleshed out and often you will find yourself recognising the characters from your own home town. Whilst some of the characters are incredibly sympathetic and you find yourself genuinely attached to them and upset by their fates, the young Brian Rusk and Nettie being the two that broke my heart, for the most part I didn’t feel overly invested in the other characters and I think this is due to the sheer number of them being introduced. Also, King seems to have a bit of an obsession with children and animals dying in horrible ways and several pets are executed in this particular tome. You have been warned. The book has a great pace, slowly and steadily building to that big, final crescendo. Some of the book club found it a little slow in parts, but I think that the fact that King takes his time with the reader at first, gradually increasing the pace and action, makes it a far more gripping read and resulted in me being unable to put it down for the last quarter of the book.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I thoroughly recommend it- definite five stars from me!
Now to the movie…If I am honest, I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I have seen a lot of the earlier King adaptations and the movies tend to, well, suck (see my review of the original adaptation for Pet Semetary for a prime example). I was especially wary of how the movie would edit such a massive novel into a viewable length whilst also maintaining the integrity of the story. I was also concerned about how certain parts of the book would appear in film format, for example the spider like parasite which is inside Polly’s necklace is perfect horror written down, but on film it would probably come off as silly rather than scary. Remember the Pennywise spider at the end of the original IT adaptation? Exactly. But the writer of the screenplay not only did a good job or whittling down such a heavy read, they were also smart enough to change certain aspects of the story to suit a movie’s format. The ending of the book was my biggest concern. In the novel, Sheriff Pangborn is an amateur magician, performing tricks, sleight of hand and shadow puppet shows throughout (it sounds weird if you haven’t read it, but it does make sense in the book). He realises that Gaunt’s powers come from need and that he uses that need to create illusions and make the impossible real, like objects that transport their owners when touched. He turns the tables by using Gaunt’s own techniques against him. Gaunt NEEDS his bag, which is now stuffed full of the resident’s souls, so Pangborn performs tricks and puppet shows which become real and alive, just like the forgeries sold by Gaunt. On paper, this is a great ending. It is wonderfully ironic and karmic that Gaunt is defeated using his own methods and it makes for a really interesting read. On film though, I don’t see how this could ever work. Shadow puppets and fake spring snakes attacking the devil on screen would start to resemble some weird sketch show and it definitely wouldn’t be scary. The film smartly changes the ending entirely, with the town’s residents becoming aware of what they are doing, of the ramifications of their actions and decisions and admitting they were wrong. They atone and Gaunt is driven out of Castle Rock. I also like that the fate of Brian Rusk is changed. A young child killing himself on screen would likely turn a lot of viewers off and I personally prefer a version where he is changed, but alive. Some changes don’t make a lot of sense to me however, like why the prim and well to do Wilma Jerzyck of the novel becomes a scruffy red neck turkey farmer in the film, but overall director Fraser Heston successfully translates the books core themes and story and I would definitely enjoy it even without reading the novel it’s based on. Also, on a side note, I now have a huge crush on Ed Harris.
For our next instalment of the King Club we will be reading and watching The Shining. Why not join us? Keep an eye on my Instagram to see when we will be watching the film so you can watch along with us and don’t forget to subscribe to my blog to keep up to date with all the latest posts!