The sun was out this week, so, as ever, this prompted me to drop my planned reading list like a hot potato and crack out a Stephen King in the garden. This time is was Needful Things, the last Castle Rock story.
What can you say about Stephen King that hasn't been said before? Yes his books are about 20% too long. Yes his metaphors are crafted with the subtly of a chainsaw. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that when King writes a dog, that dog gon' die. However, nobody understands the inherent potential for destruction, the suppressed darkness of the human animal quite like Stephen King. He knows exactly how to take ordinary, unremarkable people and pinpoint the precise thing that would drive them to murder. He knows how badly people secretly want to destroy each other, how badly they want to destroy themselves. Civilisation tries to tame it out of the populace, but there is a germ of carnage in everyone and SK knows exactly how to propagate that.
So. Needful Things is the name of a new store opening in the small town of Castle Rock- a town so small town-ish that this constitutes quite a big deal. A town so small that the Sheriff's office has about 5 members of staff whose duties involve escorting a few drunks home at the weekend and issuing parking tickets. Leland Gaunt, the shops gentlemanly proprietor seems to have *just the thing* for each and every individual that tinkles the shop's bell, that elusive last piece to finish their collection, an exact copy of a treasured item lost during adolescence, the one thing that they have always wanted- and at such a bargain price. Plus one, harmless prank to be played on another townsperson. This formula is replicated all over the town over the course of a week- a normal, ordinary person buys the one Needed Thing, they get possessive and sweaty over it, convinced their nemesis is lying in wait to steal it, just to spite them. Gaunt seems to have done his homework- he knows just how each person feels persecuted, he knows just which small town grudges are held between whom, which suspicions, resentments and hatred are being nursed around the Rock. He knows who the prank-ee will blame, he knows they will be frenzied enough to retaliate. Gaunt spends the majority of the book setting up seemingly unrelated characters to escalate simmering, petty grudges to their murderous boiling points. There are murders. There is madness. There is dynamite.
Trying to work out what the hell is unfolding in the Rock is the Almost Too Good To Be True Sheriff Alan Pangborne, who you might remember from such SK adventures as The Dark Half. He has his usual protagonist baggage (dead wife and son) and a kook that might make him annoying in another context- amateur magic, shadow puppets and lithe, almost supernaturally fast reflexes. He seems to be the fly in the ointment of Mr Gaunt, the incorruptible. Along with his girlfriend, the mysterious Polly Chalmers, debilitated by her painful arthritis, they are the investigative force of the novel.
Needful Things has a complex web of supporting and incidental characters, and whilst I struggled to remember some of them if they didn't appear for a while, they are all real and believable, each with their own flaws, secrets, jobs and resentments, eating away at them over the years. I really felt like this community was a solid, living and ancient thing. Something with its own rules, mythology and customs. Only SK could create such an apparently strange mixture of small-town normal and big-time evil working in harmonious conjunction with one another. My favourite I think was Norris Ridgewick, eventual hero of Gerald's Game and Andy from Twin Peaks doppleganger. I loved his simple goodness and commitment to his job, and the brilliant relationship he had with Sheriff P. Norris is the sort of small town good guy, unlikely hero you hope might just step up in times of crisis.
Needful Things falls into King's best category- the Supernatural Catalyst that Retreats and Lets the Humans Unleash the Havoc. It's his strongest formula- people are weak, and once they let the darkness in, the monstrous urges of human nature will out. Whether that's Demonic hotels that unlock that nature, murderous clowns, alien interference, telekinetic abilities or forbidden resurrection knowledge, the supernatural element just provides a gateway to the horror that was inside human nature all along. In this case, an omniscient demon with a repulsive touch and colour changing eyes.
Though it is not one of his strongest novels, I really enjoyed it and read it quickly. I felt invested in what happened to a lot of the characters and genuinely shocked at how quickly the dominoes fell down towards the book's firey conclusion. As a heavy handed metaphor for addiction, it works brilliantly. It demonstrates how obsession becomes all consuming, how I loved the themes of need and want, of when something stops becoming enjoyable and becomes a horrendous burden. I liked