Sunday, October 5, 2014

Needful Things


            We, all of us, have some crap in our lives. I could refer to it as something stronger or something weaker, but no. Crap is the word for it, crap is what it is, crap is what we say to ourselves when we realize that we've lucked into more of it. It is, was, and will be, crap. Worse yet, this crap takes a long time to work through. And crap has many different varieties. There's simple crap, complex crap, mental crap, emotional crap, physical crap...all different kinds. Because it takes a long time to work through, and because that time is a horrible slog filled with diversions as we try to make ourselves happy enough to balance out the crap, we find ourselves in some small moments going "Oh, if only there were some way to clear away the crap, some kind of quick fix that would instantly make our lives that much better and give us the security and stability we so need." There isn't, sometimes it'll take years, I'm still plagued by the crap from almost three years ago, and there's crap going back even further than that, crap I'll probably never be over. But still. If only there were a way to clear the crap. If only there were something to remove the clouds, to get the fog to clear...wouldn't you give anything to take the shortcut?

And this, dear reader, brings us to this week's selection and the start of Stephen King Month, Needful Things

                               Because Needful Things is about a town that's offered a chance to get rid of their crap with a little help from a friendly shopkeeper. The easy way out. All for the price of whatever they think it's worth, plus a little extra "good deed" for Mr. Leland Gaunt. It's a book about doing recovery the hard way, and how easy it is to take the quick solutions out. It's a small-town morality play narrated by a deranged version of the Stage Manager from Our Town who has decided that the people of his tiny small town need to learn some important lessons and also burn down. 

                              And...well, it's not brilliant, or great, or even something I'd describe as good. But despite its numerous flaws, when Needful Things is on, it is very, very on. If nothing else, it's a curiosity with some interesting characters and a cool central premise and some interesting meditations, but not something I could wholly recommend picking up. Give it a read if you're curious, but it's entirely nonessential. 

More, as always, below. 

"Just a harmless little prank."
- Leland Gaunt

"The sparrows are flying again, Mr. Gaunt."
- Alan Pangborn

                              Castle Rock is the most average of average small towns. Located in a rural part of Castle County, the town rarely sees enough action for them to even warrant the police department a fax machine. While it's seen trouble before-- there were more than a few weird events that happened throughout the '70s and '80s*-- Castle Rock is a sleepy kind of town. The kind of suburb where everyone keeps their secrets to themselves, and there's rarely any trouble that isn't dealt with quickly and simply with a little sternness. There are, of course, the usual small-town dynamics involving passive-aggression and neighbors talking behind each others' backs, but it's nothing to get upset over, and certainly nothing that would cause any friction. It's a nice place, despite the sometime rivalry between the Baptists and the Catholics, and the kind of place anyone in their right mind would want to live.

                          And it is to Castle Rock that one fine day, a shop sets up in Castle Rock. A curious shop that calls itself Needful Things and seems to sell bizarre curiosities and antiques. The shop's propreitor, one Leland Gaunt, is curious himself, a tall, thin man who speaks with an aristocratic air but claims to be from Akron, Ohio. Gaunt charms the populace of the small town, and seems to offer them things they always wanted, but never quite knew existed. And, as Brian Rusk learns when he goes into the store to buy a '56 Sandy Koufax Topps card (signed, even!), Mr. Gaunt is willing to let go of his treasures for absolutely ridiculous prices. Prices that amount to "whatever the buyer can afford to pay", plus one small, harmless prank played on a neighbor. The pranks are little things. Slinging mud on someone's clean sheets, or delivering a letter to someone else in town. Things people wouldn't normally think of as terribly wrong. 

                              But Mr. Gaunt isn't actually interested in selling knick-knacks and antiques. He's playing what might be called "the long game". He has big plans for Castle Rock, big plans that will drive the town to the breaking point and cause the small, peaceful community to rip itself apart from the inside out. Plans for Castle Rock to give Mr. Gaunt what he wants, not for any particular purpose, but just for the love of the game. Plans that rely on a series of harmless pranks, on deeds he asks the townspeople to do as part of their price for buying the object. Because, as Mr. Gaunt knows, everything is for sale. And while people might not always realize what they're buying or selling, what's important is that they know they're making a deal with Mr. Gaunt. It's a game he's played before, it's a game he'll want to play again. And all people have to do is find something they need...

                             Unless, that is, someone gets wise. Someone like the sleight-of-hand-obsessed sheriff of Castle County, Alan Pangborn. Alan's seen his share of the strange events in the town, and he doesn't take kindly to anyone screwing with him and his. And very soon, he may have to prove that to one Leland Gaunt-- if the entire town doesn't burn down in the process.

                                 The biggest strength Needful Things has going for it is the narrator. The narration, a detached, folksy kind of narration, starts up as soon as the first page, and then continues like that until the last fifty pages, when the town finally descends into chaos**. It starts out, as I said earlier, with a kind of Our Town or Lake Wobegon feel to it. Even in the book's most horrifying scenes, scenes that I won't reprint here because they actually are one of the big surprises the book throws, the narration stays completely detached and folksy, in a move that only adds to the disturbance. It actually turns the book into something approaching a pitch-black comedy, with Gaunt eagerly puppeting the townspeople around with their own insecurities and desires and finally pushing them into open warfare. It would be a drama if it weren't so cartoonish at certain points, and it helps sell the utter twistedness of what's going on. I once remembered someone telling me about Magnus Mills's classic novel All Quiet on the Orient Express, and saying most of the horror came from the casual way everything was handled. Needful Things works on a similar premise. It's because of the contrast that things seem particularly grotesque. 

                               And the other major strength is the town itself. King makes Castle Rock feel alive, and where he could rely on cheap shorthand and write "for the fans", he actually takes the time to flesh everything out. He manages to use the town to set up an impressive series of dominoes, one leading to another leading to another, all of them falling down methodically until the last fifty pages. It says something that, when one pays attention, one can start calling the changes that happen before they actually do. Of course, in the first half or two-thirds of the novel, most of the pranks seem pretty harmless. It's only until the knife-fight halfway through the book that things really heat up, and even then, the aforementioned narration keeps it from impacting as much as it should. It says something that every character, no matter how small, does get a bit of time "onstage". It makes the entire town feel fleshed-out, and raises the stakes to just high enough that when the Rock does head towards collapse, it doesn't feel as detached. It felt like I had skin in the game. 

                            But, saying that now, the story isn't actually about the town of Castle Rock. Not really. The story is more a meditation on recovery after a long period of wallowing, a way to get out of the well. A reminder that things are hard. Nettie Cobb, one of the first people to visit Needful Things, is a survivor of some intense trauma who killed her abusive husband with a meat-fork. She buys a carnival glass lampshade because she wants to recapture the young woman she was, instead of the broken-down person she is. Alan Pangborn, the closest thing the book has to a hero (he spends a lot of the early pages on the fringes), is wracked with guilt and depression at the death of his wife and son. He occasionally wonders what could have been done differently, who was really to blame, and tries to find some way to defeat his tragedy. Polly Chalmers wrestles with arthritis, and has kind of accepted it won't go away until Mr. Gaunt gives her a mysterious charm known as an Azka. These people are all looking for a quick fix, and it's only when they realize they have to take the long way that things start to look up for them and they can defeat Mr. Gaunt. In fact, the only innocent victim in the whole book is Brian Rusk, who is too young to understand what it is he's done. 

                               The book is not without, however, many flaws. There are entire sections where it does little more than meander, some of the things Gaunt says are kind of appalling and break his character a little for me, and then there's the biggest problem: The people of Castle Rock are kind of idiots. Some of this can be explained away by the town being small, some of it can be explained away by them being angry, but it isn't rocket surgery to figure out that a middle-aged woman is going to have different-sized feet than an eleven-year-old boy. There's also the scene where two of Gaunt's customers meet one another, and exchange knowing glances as they both play pranks on other people. Part of this can be explained by Gaunt's influence. Part. But not all. Also, you'd think more people would have connected the events and surmised the town was a weirdness magnet than just Alan, but nope.

                              These are, however, redeemed by one thing. The climax. I'm not going to tell you about those last fifty pages when the town descends into chaos. I'm not going to tell you it's entirely worth it. I'm just going to tell you this: I sort of knew what was coming, but I didn't know how. It was an incredibly redemptive passage for me, and watching the final fates of the town of Castle Rock (okay, not final, the town of Castle Rock is still limping along over twenty-three years after Needful Things, though barely) actually made up for a lot of the hokey setup. And there are some genuinely funny things that go on during that time. And some genuinely cool things. And someone getting over their trauma to the point where they charge in out of their depth, and it's all awesome. King also handles depression and recovery expertly, and I refuse to comment why or what was going on. So there's that.

                            So in closing, read it if you're a fan of King. Read it if you have some time to kill. Don't read it if you want a great book-- this is the book equivalent of a B-movie. A good B-movie, or at least a solid one, but a B-picture nonetheless. You won't find something expertly-crafted, but Big Steve King (as Joe Bob Briggs calls him) knows how to tell a good story, and that's all Needful Things is or should want to be. A good story. So if you have some time, it's not a bad read. 

Just remember, the hard way's more rewarding. And you get to keep your soul that way.

Rose Madder

The Eyes of the Dragon
From A Buick 8
and much more

*The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, The Body, and The Sun Dog being the major ones, though stories throughout Skeleton Crew and Night Shift also work it in.
** Not technically a spoiler, as any Stephen King story after Needful Things that mentions Castle Rock mentions that the town fell into disaster and economic depression after the events of Needful Things

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