Because in America, you could have anything you wanted, just as long as you could pay for it. If you couldn’t pay, or refused to pay, you would remain needful forever.
A new business has opened in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. The proprietor, Leland Gaunt, will sell you whatever your heart desires in exchange for a small fee and a favor. The favor varies from person to person, but it often falls in the realm of a prank to be played on other townsfolk. As Leland’s business continues to prosper and pranks begin to pile up, Castle Rock falls into utter chaos.
By 1991, King had spent a few years in this cursed town. His novels The Dead Zone, Cujo and The Dark Half as well as a few short stories and novellas are drawn upon to flesh out the town’s history and residents. Sheriff Alan Pangborn, introduced in The Dark Half, returns as one of the story’s heroes while John “Ace” Merill from King’s novella The Body, resurfaces as a villain. This is one of the best things about King’s work and what I believe sets him apart from many of his contemporaries given the popularity of shared universes in storytelling nowadays.
Billed as “The Last Castle Rock Novel”, Needful Things certainly tries to live up to the hype. King does a number on the town and its residents by building tensions to a crescendo that ultimately brings Castle Rock to its knees. My issue lies in the fact that it takes far too long to get there. Like with all lengthy King novels, I respect the need to lay the groundwork so that what eventually happens means as much as possible, but this could have easily been about two hundred pages shorter than its final length. I really struggled through the first two hundred and fifty pages as the plot seemed to move at a snail’s pace. I believe it took me about a week and a half to get to page three hundred. When things kick into gear, I flew through this one, tearing through the remaining four hundred pages in about three or four days. The action moves much more swiftly as the novel goes on.
I didn’t care for Leland Gaunt as villain. His meticulous plan to destroy the town from within was mostly airtight, but I didn’t really enjoy any of the scenes he was in. He came across as hokey and goofy. Even when he tried to be aggressive or creepy, it didn’t have the jarring effect I believe King intended. When you line him up with the great pantheon of King villains, I don’t believe he holds a candle to someone like Randal Flagg or Henry Bowers.
Some of the violence here is top notch stuff. In fact, there’s a moment about halfway through that made me audibly say, “holy shit”. If that isn’t an endorsement, I don’t know what is. From there, the bloodshed only increases. There are a few moments, however, that didn’t sit well with me because it involved the killing of pets but at least one of them is very brief. I also couldn’t tell if it was meant to be funny? King has an odd sense of humour. It didn’t work for me either way.
To be honest, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I’ve read a lot of King over the years and while I’m not a huge fan of his newer stuff, I find it hard to find a lot I don’t like in his work in the 70s and 80s. I believe this is the first of King’s 90s work I’ve read (Dark Tower excluded) and while it’s better than most of what he churns out today, it’s not as good as some of his earlier novels. Maybe lies somewhere in the middle.