The Last Castle Rock Story
Viking • 1991 • 690 pages
A Novel Critique
Stephen King's first original novel of the 1990s came billed as "The Last Castle Rock Story." After having spent the bulk of his career mapping and populating his famous town, King draws on events from The Dead Zone, Cujo, "The Body," The Dark Half, and "The Sun Dog" to put paid to the fictional microcosm he created. Similarly to the way King chose to end his recurrent "children and monsters" motif with It, his intention with Needful Things is a final statement on a significant portion of his career. Just as the concrete finality of It led to King's new internal directions with Misery and The Dark Half, so does the wholesale destruction of Needful Things (and, in effect, the motif of a "town under siege" King had been exploring since 'Salem's Lot) point the way toward the more intimate character studies of Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder.
An unnamed narrator opens Needful Things with a folksy, down-home patois that King will later use to great effect in The Colorado Kid and Blockade Billy; "You've been here before," he says, directly addressing the reader and assuming he or she has a knowledge of King's other Castle Rock stories. Aside from being an ingenious way to concretely include Needful Things as part of a specific sequence of tales, King also takes this opportunity to introduce most of the major players in this novel, delineating the complex relationships and allowing readers to observe the myriad characters before meeting them.
The novel concerns a new shop in Castle Rock named Needful Things, and its charming elderly owner, Leland Gaunt. Already readers should be on alert - this is a scenario reminiscent of 'Salem's Lot. Gaunt, though, is nothing as straightforward as a vampire. He sells material dreams, offering his customers the very things they believe they cannot live without. For these things, he extracts a nominal price ... and a promise to play a prank on someone. At first these pranks seem harmless, even fun: for example, in return for an extremely rare baseball card, young Brian Rusk promises to sling mud at Wilma Jerzyck's clean sheets. Brian isn't suspected because Gaunt has done his homework on Castle Rock, knowing that Wilma Jerzyck will more likely blame Nettie Cobb, with whom she has nurtured a petty feud.
The pranks escalate, as do the repercussions: Wilma and Nettie end up destroying each other in a bloody medieval-type duel fought with kitchen implements - one of King's most violent and effective action sequences. Wilma and Nettie are far from the only ones Gaunt is interested in. Systematically, he exploits all types of unease and distrust in the town, intensifying religion, nostalgia, romance, sex, money, and power into various manias and setting opposing forces against one another. Here, King borrows another device from 'Salem's Lot, using his townspeople's inherent miscommunication against one another (King would later explore the opposite - the negative effects of towns banding together - in Bag of Bones and Storm of the Century).
Alan Pangborn, the town's sheriff, is not only struggling to comprehend the death of his wife and son, but is also attempting to come to terms with the events of King's The Dark Half, in which Alan played a significant part. It's a situation unique to both horror literature and recurring characters - the concept of a "regular" person affected by the supernatural, and how he incorporates that into his regular life. The fact that those events - and Alan's reactions to them - prepare him for a confrontation with Gaunt is fascinating and important.
Though characters and events have been referred to from book to book, this marks the first time that the outcome of one story directly impacts the events of another (with the exception of actual sequels The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands). Fluidity from work to work becomes vital in King's later career, not only in terms of the macroverse inclusiveness of the Dark Tower series, but also the spiritual connectivity of Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne and the mirror universe connections between Desperation and The Regulators (not to mention the character of Cynthia Smith, who appears as a minor character in Rose Madder and ascends to major character status in both Desperation and The Regulators). Also interesting is the continuing story of Thad Beaumont; after the violent finale of The Dark Half, we are allowed to see his continuing struggles in Needful Things, a sad story that concludes in Bag of Bones.
One of King's more interesting developments is his take on adult romantic relationships. In The Tommyknockers, King crafted a believable couple out of adult singles Bobbi Anderson and Jim Gardener. Here, recently widowed Alan Pangborn is making his first tentative steps toward dating Polly Chalmers. It's a compelling courtship because both Alan and Polly are both fascinating, fully realized characters. More, their relationship is folded into the overarching story of Needful Things, with both Alan and Polly tempted by Gaunt; again, King's use of horror to amplify the minor problems in a "mainstream" relationship (as with Jack and Wendy Torrance's marriage in The Shining, or Arnie and Leigh's teenage romance in Christine) is terrifically effective.
Where Needful Things differs most from 'Salem's Lot is the fact that, other than Gaunt himself, none of the characters are explicitly supernatural. Thus, Needful Things becomes a cynical look at human nature, a metaphor for the destructive nature of greed and consumerism. King later stated, "To me, [Needful Things] was a hilarious concept. And the way that it played out was funny, in a black-comedy way. It really satirized that American idea that it's good to have everything that you want. I don't think it is."
Black comedy or not, Needful Things addresses serious themes resonant throughout King's canon. Addiction and obsession in a broad sense define every character, and emerge more specifically in characters like Danforth "Buster" Keaton, who suffers from a gambling addiction; his behavior is consistent with that of Jack Torrance's alcoholism in The Shining, Eddie Dean's addiction to heroin in The Drawing of the Three, and even Arnie Cunningham's obsessive attitudes toward Christine. Religious mania has been a consistent motif in King's fiction since Carrie. Here, two religious factions do battle over ideological differences with only minor interference from Gaunt. Alan Pangborn's need to understand the circumstances of his wife's death become a central element in Bag of Bones. Mental illness, class and gender inequality, pedophilia, and suicide have served to underscore the overarching supernatural horrors in King's novels before and after. That all surface in this novel makes Needful Things not only a terminal point for one of King's favorite fictional places, but also a hub for his favorite dark fascinations.
Needful Things comes at a crucial point in King's career, seeming to thematically sum up his work in the mid- to late-1980s. Following this critical juncture, King's fiction would branch out into several interesting new directions. New and resurgent interests would come to define his 1990s work. Post-Needful Things, King would tackle a loose trilogy featuring female protagonists (Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder), a duo of books focusing on elderly men (Insomnia and The Green Mile), and a group of stories that tackle the nature of God (Desperation, Storm of the Century, and The Green Mile again.) King would experiment with publishing conventions, begin to publish his Dark Tower novels for the masses, and switch publishers for the first time since the 1970s. While It stood as a sort of closure on King's early career, so Needful Things is a finale of his mid-career. The wholesale destruction of the town King had been constructing since The Dead Zone is a statement that King was not content to rest and revel in his past successes, and would instead be trying new things while looking toward the future.