Friday, 27 July 2012
Devouring Stephen King: Needful Things
In a very Stephen-King-like way, and with this being the last Castle Rock book and all, there is reference to all the other stories that have taken place in Castle Rock (The Dead Zone, The Body, Cujo, The Dark Half and Sun Dog... and I think that's it!) and because I'm a sucker for things like that I just love love love it! But the thing is, these mentions really aren't shoved down your throat, and they feel entirely natural- there's a hint, for example, that Cujo, or the spirit of Cujo or something might be back, and a big showdown happens where that guy in The Dead Zone had a big vision, and it just all feels comfortable and homey, almost, that you know the setting even if you don't know all these characters yet.
So! These characters. King brings back Sheriff Pangborn from The Dark Half, which I really think was a stellar decision, because that dude? He's got charisma! Sadly, they also kill off his wife in between the books (not a spoiler, because it actually doesn't happen in either book. Ha!) which makes him sadder and kind of deeper, and also gives him a new love interest, Polly Chalmers who is a super awesome female character (read: she's not a wife and owns her own business) which is such a refreshing change for King. Even if all the other ladies in the book are wives... Hmmm. Anyway, they're an adorable couple and the perfect protagonists to set against the new and extremely sinister guy in town, Leland Gaunt, owner of Needful Things (it's a shop), chief hypnotiser and all round bad guy to anyone observing goings on in this book, but a generally well received guy in town. He gives the people what they want, and they love him for it.
And honestly, there is so much about this book that feels so... clever to me, because while there are of course big gory battle scenes (swinging intestines, anyone?) and many sinister moments, and a big scary monster who looks like a dude, there's also a lot more to this book that makes it kind of awesome. In looking really deeply into a small town and seeing what makes it tick, King uncovers so many deep buried hurt and angry feelings that Gaunt is able to use to his advantage in order to fuck shit up, but the point is, he wouldn't be able to do it without their consent. And so, by preying on both people's need to acquire things AND their petty squabbles and hatred, Gaunt is able to do a lot of damage just by tipping everyone over the edge- making them feel like they need to 'protect what's theirs' and hurting anyone who gets in the way of that.
In this, it's really a look at what people really need as opposed to what they want, and in spite of the name of his shop, Gaunt doesn't really sell anyone what they need, and the things he does sell them that they want make them forget what it is they really need- the love of their families, a sense of common decency, and some goddamn order around their town! But, while Gaunt is the ringleader and obviously a supernatural presence, he wouldn't be able to do the things he does if the people weren't as they were, and, as in basically all the Castle Rock stories, the supernatural element becomes almost incidental to the story- Gaunt doesn't directly kill anyone, I don't think, and while he is undeniably the ringleader of all the events, the people still do what they do, which is kind of the scariest part of all.
My only slight criticism is that it's possible Needful Things could maybe have been slightly shorter- I realise that King wanted to get a full cross-section of the townspeople involved (lots of juicy deaths!) but there were at least a few conflicts that perhaps didn't need to be included. Actually, this isn't even a criticism from me, because although it was long, it didn't really ever drag for me, but I can easily see how it could for other people. At this point, I'm just grateful for any King book that isn't The Tommyknockers, but this one really is the best I've probably read (excluding The Dark Tower books) since Misery. Not that it's as good as Misery! But still, it's pretty great.
I read this book as part of the Fuck the Patriarchy Readathon. If you'd like to donate to Rape Crisis, please visit this Justgiving page. Thanks!