First edition cover
|Cover artist||Rob Wood|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
Needful Things is a 1991 horror novel by American author Stephen King. It is the first novel King wrote after his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addiction. The story is about a shopkeeper who runs his business by exchanging goods for money and mysterious deeds performed by the customer. According to the cover, it is "The Last Castle Rock Story". However, the town later serves as the setting for the short story "It Grows on You" (published in King's 1993 collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes which, according to King, serves as an epilogue to Needful Things) as well as King's 2018 novella Elevation. It was made into a film of the same name in 1993 which was directed by Fraser C. Heston.
A new shop named "Needful Things" opens in the town of Castle Rock, Maine, sparking the curiosity of its citizens. The proprietor, Leland Gaunt, is a charming elderly gentleman who always seems to have an item in stock that is perfectly suited to any customer who comes through his door. The prices are surprisingly low, considering the merchandise – such as a rare Sandy Koufax baseball card, a carnival glass lampshade, and a fragment of wood believed to be from Noah's Ark – but he expects each customer also to play a little prank on someone else in Castle Rock. Gaunt knows about the long-standing private grudges, arguments, and feuds between the various townspeople, and the pranks are his means of forcing them to escalate until the whole town is eventually caught up in madness and violence.
Sheriff Alan Pangborn becomes wary of Gaunt as soon as the shop opens. However, Alan's lover, Polly Chalmers, dismisses his suspicions and buys an ancient charm that relieves the arthritis pain in her hands. Tensions rapidly grow after Nettie Cobb, Polly's housekeeper, and her enemy Wilma Jerzyck kill each other in a confrontation sparked by pranks played on them by local boy Brian Rusk and alcoholic Hugh Priest. Many other rivalries begin to fester, spurred by the personal motives of the people involved (drugs, secret pedophilia, bad business dealings, religious disagreements, etc.).
Gaunt eventually hires petty criminal John "Ace" Merrill as his assistant, providing him with high-quality cocaine and hinting at buried treasure that could relieve the debt he owes to a pair of drug dealers. Ace's first assignment is to retrieve crates of pistols, ammunition, and blasting caps from a garage in Boston; Gaunt soon begins to sell the pistols to his customers so they can protect their property. For centuries, he has tricked unsuspecting people into buying worthless junk that appears to be whatever they treasure most. They become so paranoid about keeping their items safe that they eagerly buy up the weapons that he inevitably offers and trade away their souls. Ace begins to suspect the supernatural background of his new employer, but Gaunt keeps him in line through intimidation and promises of revenge against Alan and the town. Soon, several cases of violence happen simultaneously: gym coach Lester Pratt attacks Deputy John LaPointe and is shot in self-defense, Priest and bar owner Henry Beaufort kill each other in a shootout, Brian commits suicide out of guilt for his role in Wilma and Nettie’s deaths, and town selectman Danforth “Buster” Keeton (who has been embezzling thousands of dollars from public funds) attacks Deputy Norris Ridgewick, before escaping to his home and killing his wife Myrtle with a hammer.
With the violence in Castle Rock rapidly escalating, Ace and Keeton plant dynamite all over town, using the caps Ace brought back. Alan sets out to kill Ace, wrongly believing him to be responsible for a car accident that killed his wife and son, and Polly realizes the evil of the charm she bought and destroys it. Ridgewick attempts suicide, realizing that his prank on Priest led to the fatal shootout, but decides against it and goes to the police station to help. As the dynamite bombs explode, Keeton is wounded by Ridgewick and is put out of his misery by Ace. Taking Polly hostage, Ace demands that Alan hand over a hoard of cash he allegedly stole from one of the sites Ace dug up. Ridgewick kills Ace, leaving Alan to face off against Gaunt. Using sleight of hand and magic novelties that suddenly come to life, Alan forces Gaunt back and grabs his valise, which contains the souls of his customers. Gaunt flees the scene, his car turning into a horse-drawn wagon, and the survivors are left to ponder an uncertain future.
The novel ends as it begins, with a second-person narrative indicating that a new and mysterious shop called "Answered Prayers" is about to open in a small Iowa town – an ominous implication that Gaunt is ready to begin his business cycle all over again.
- Alan Pangborn: the Sheriff of Castle Rock and the main protagonist. He appeared in The Dark Half, another novel by King.
- Leland Gaunt: Presumably a demon (or Satan himself) in human form, who has spent centuries traveling about the world and tricking people into selling their souls to him, usually in exchange for useless objects disguised as the things they want most. Gaunt’s plans are ultimately thwarted, and Gaunt is forced to leave Castle Rock without the souls he collected.
- Brian Rusk: An 11-year-old boy who becomes the first customer of Needful Things, buying a rare Sandy Koufax baseball card. Brian’s prank leads to the death of Nettie and Wilma. Brian is overcome with guilt, sinking into depression and beginning to contemplate suicide. Brian ultimately shoots himself with his father’s gun in front of his little brother Sean, warning Sean to stay out of Needful Things.
- Patricia "Polly" Chalmers: known as the town's most eccentric woman, Polly was originally a Castle Rock native who became an "out-of-towner" after living in San Francisco for years before returning. Polly is turned against Alan by one of the pranks, making her believe that he investigated the death of her child. Polly thinks it over and realizes Alan is innocent, throws away her charm, and convinces him not to kill Ace.
- Norris Ridgewick: one of the town's deputies and Sheriff Pangborn's closest ally. Norris buys a Bazun fishing rod from Gaunt in exchange for a prank on Hugh Priest, leading to the deaths of both Priest and Henry Beaumont. Ridgewick is assaulted by Keeton, and disappears. Ridgewick attempts suicide, but sees how worthless his fishing rod is and decides to help, playing a key role in Gaunt’s defeat.
- John "Ace" Merrill: the town's resident "bad boy" and petty criminal. Gaunt hires Ace into his service, and manipulates him into deciding to kill Alan. Ace is ultimately shot dead by Ridgewick when he goes after Polly, his death not being noticed by Alan or Gaunt.
- Danforth "Buster" Keeton: the town's head selectman, who often uses the authority of his office to intimidate others. He is also a gambling addict who has embezzled funds from the town. Keeton suffers from paranoid delusions, believing that a group known as “They” are out to get him. Keeton is mortally wounded by a gunshot from Norris, and Ace finishes him off with a headshot.
- Wilma Jerzyck: The town bully and first victim of one of Mr. Gaunt's pranks, performed by Brian Rusk, which starts the cycle. Wilma is a cruel woman, often starting fights and begins tormenting Nettie after the prank. Wilma and Nettie both attack and kill each other.
- Netitia "Nettie" Cobb: Polly's best friend and housekeeper, and enemy of Wilma Jerzyck. Nettie is mentally unstable, having killed her abusive husband. Nettie is implied to develop a crush on Gaunt, and is ultimately killed when she attacks Wilma for killing her dog (a deed actually committed by Hugh Priest).
- Myrtle Keeton: Lonely wife of Buster Keeton. Myrtle buys a porcelain doll from Mr. Gaunt. Myrtle is ultimately beaten to death by a deranged Keeton with a hammer.
- Hugh Priest: Local drunk who purchases a foxtail from Gaunt. Priest kills Nettie’s dog Raider for a prank, and spirals into madness. Priest is killed in a firefight with Henry Beaumont.
- Henry Beaumont: Owner of the local bar; incurs Hugh's wrath after refusing to serve him any more alcohol one night and then taking his car keys because he was too drunk to drive home. He and Hugh kill each other in a shootout at the bar.
- Sally Radcliffe: A speech teacher and a deeply religious woman, who buys a wooden splinter from Gaunt that is supposedly a remnant of Noah's Ark. She later hangs herself out of guilt after taking part in the town-wide pranks and discovering that her fiancé has supposedly cheated on her with another woman.
In 1993, a film adaptation of King's book directed by Fraser C. Heston and starring Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia and J. T. Walsh was released in theaters. It received generally negative reviews from critics, with an overall rating of 26% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In popular culture
- "Stephen King, The Art of Fiction No. 189". The Paris Review.
- "Needful Things (1993)". the New York Times. Retrieved March 30, 2015.
- "Needful Things(1993)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 30, 2015.
- Handlen, Zack (March 24, 2014). "Review: Rick And Morty: "Something Ricked This Way Comes"". AV Club. Retrieved March 30, 2015.