Monday, April 12, 2010
Needful Things by Stephen King
Needful Things by Stephen King
This was a very interesting book and, despite it's length, I couldn't stop reading. I don't recommend it because of the bad language and explicit sex in the book. Oh, how I wish authors would leave out this stuff so that I could recommend their books. If it weren't for the language and sex, I would say it is up there with The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. I would be recommending it to everyone instead of to no one.
A small town, named Castle Rock, Maine, welcomes a new store and it's owner, Leland Gaunt. Leland Gaunt is supposedly from Akron, Ohio (could be a play on the name "Acheron" which, in Greek mythology, was the River of Pain) and opens a store named "Needful Things". As the townspeople begin to come in to see what Mr. Gaunt has to sell, they see him in many different ways. Some describe him as having blue eyes, green eyes, hazel eyes, dark brown eyes, etc. They describe him as being handsome, middle-aged, elderly, etc. It seems Mr. Gaunt is everything to everybody. The only thing their descriptions have in common is a disgust when his hands touch them. They all find some item that attracts them and makes them desire it above all else. It usually has some draw to them because of a past memory. And, despite his sign which reads "Caveat Emptor" (Buyer Beware), they want to buy it. Mr. Gaunt sells it to them surprisingly cheap but with a string attached. They must perform some little "prank" on another townsperson. It's usually not someone they have close ties to and they justify it in their mind as a harmless little prank. They are unaware that each prank is devised by someone who knows all the deepest secrets in each person in the town and the pranks are set to deliberately goad the person into a rage or into desperate fear. Mr. Gaunt is setting the town up for a major crisis!
The first to enter the shop is little Brian Rusk who is collecting 1956 baseball cards. He wants a Sandy Koufax '56 TOPPS card and Mr. Gaunt shows him one in pristine condition. It's even autographed and was signed to a boy named "Brian". His lust and covetousness knows no end. He almost falls into a trance. He only has 90 cents in his pocket. But, for eighty-five cents and a prank to be played on Wilma Jerzyck, it's his. From then on, he can't let the card out of his sight. He become obsessive compulsive about the card. He hides it, only to go back and try to find a better place to hide it. He can't leave it alone. Eventually he goes to play the prank on Wilma Jerzyck, a bitter, violent woman who has recently become obsessed with hatred for a neighbor named Nettie Cobb. Nettie has a dog and Wilma has complained about the dog barking. Brian sneaks to Wilma's house while she is away and throws mud at her sheets drying on the line in her yard. At the scene, he leaves a note warning Wilma that it is her "last warning" which were the words that Wilma had used in her latest threat against Nettie. Wilma goes into a rage and presumes the prank and note are from Nettie. Nettie, herself, has a history. She was an abused wife who finally snapped and stabbed her husband with a meat fork. She served some time in a mental hospital but is now out and working for a sweet woman named Polly. But, she's a very timid, easily scared woman whose biggest fear is having to return to the mental hospital. When Wilma starts her tirades and threats, it's almost more than Nettie can take. After the prank, Wilma is beyond reason and starts a campaign to drive Nettie crazy.
So, you can see how Mr. Gaunt uses the pranks to get the disasters going. Little Brian had no idea his prank would start something so terrible. But would he have done the prank anyway, even if he had known? He is so obsessed with his baseball card that he is willing to do anything to keep it. These objects appear to the buyer to be whatever they want most. But, come to find out, that pristine Sandy Koufax card signed "To Brian" is, in reality, a grubby, creased baseball card of an insignificant player with no autograph. Brian had "sold his soul" for a bowl of pottage (referring to the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25: 27-34). Buyers develop severe paranoia and anxiety if they are not physically holding the purchased items. By threatening to either take away the item, destroy it, or remove its power, Gaunt is able to blackmail, coerce, and intimidate his customers into doing whatever he wants. All of the townspeople are duped. Hugh Priest, an alcoholic employed by the town's junkyard, bought a ratty piece of fur. But he sees it as a foxtail that flies on the antennae of a car. It makes him feel sporty, sexy, young but he can't put it on his car antennae because something might happen to it or someone else will see it and try to steal it. So he hides it in a locked closet and finally ends up wearing the smelly, decaying fur piece around his neck. Another woman has a teenager's crush on Elvis Presley that she's never gotten over. She buys a pair of cheap, broken sunglasses thinking Elvis wore them. Her best friend also loves Elvis and buys a common photograph of Elvis thinking she's got a real portrait of him. It goes on and on.
Once the pranks start stirring the waters of the town, people's emotions get out of control. Much like Smealgol in Lord of the Rings, they can't get enough of their precious item. Towards the end of the week, Mr. Gaunt is counseling these irate people and selling them guns with poison tipped bullets. As the book develops, Mr. Gaunt is increasingly revealing his real demonic self. Now neighbor against neighbor, church against church, friend against friend and the town is a boiling cauldron. Sheriff Alan Pangborn is the only one that hasn't been of his town. Even his girlfriend, Polly, has been decieved by a charm she bought from Needful Things.
King used an interesting prologue to begin this book. Someone, in first person narrative, talks to an unknown visitor and describes the town of Castle Rock and it's citizens. In a gossipy, friendly narrator who introduces this bucolic small town. In the end, the epilogue is almost a repeat of the prologue except it's a different small town with different characters. That makes the reader realize that Mr. Gaunt and his demonic tricks go from place to place bringing destruction.
Gaunt's demonic knowledge of every person's secret desires is creepy. He puts his finger on each character's deepest held lusts and then points to a "thing" that appeals to those lusts. Sexual desires, greed, desires to bring back happier times, relief from physical pain, hatreds, mental illness, etc. He appeals to each of them with a "needful thing". Once they have their heart's desire, they drive themselves crazy trying to protect it and keep it. Their inner beast comes alive and they become monsters.
This comes so close to real life human beings. We can let lusts and covetousness get out of control. We become willing to do anything to get what we think we want. We backstab to get that job promotion only to find out the job is a real headache that we hate We go into drastic debt to acquire a house that seems so perfect, built just for us. But within 6 mos we find out the neighbors are dragons or the house wasn't well built and is starting to fall apart. We want to marry J. Doe and we do everything to make it happen only to wake up the day after the wedding to a nighmare. We want to be a millionaire by the time we are 30 yrs old and take shortcuts to get there only to find that money doesn't make us happy. Or we desire to bear a child and will do anything to have one only to find out we get heartache after heartache. As Christians we have to learn (and mostly the hard way) that God knows what is best for us. A long time ago I gave up praying something into being. I don't believe in "Name it, Claim it" theology. I found out the hard way that my will is not always what is best. I can't possibly see or know the best because I'm not God. So I express my desires to my Father in prayer but then I pray, in immitation of my Savior, "Not my will, but Thine be done." I try to accept God's Will in my life even if it disappoints me. It's not easy to submit to God when things don't go our way but it's what is best in the spiritual sense. I may not get that job, make that million, buy that house, have that baby or marry J. Doe but what God gives me comes with no ugly strings attached, no hidden vicious consequences.
Also, once the townspeople acquired their beloved items, it turns them into monsters willing to do anything to keep them. How many times has that happened to real people. I have to think of Michael Jackson. He had it all but look what he did to keep it. To keep his fame he went through extensive cosmetic surgeries to keep looking young and handsome but his poor face became a mask of horror. He had to take all kinds of dangerous drugs to even sleep, he had no one to trust and it drove him crazy. He couldn't let go of his "precious" fame and money and he lost all reality. There are so many like him, especially in the world of the elite and famous. Their desire for fame, fortune, power, control will lead them to do anything to get it and anything to keep it. In this book, Mr. Gaunt didn't have to force anyone to buy his items, in fact, he warned them with his "Caveat Emptor" sign. The people took one look and were hooked by their own desires.
Thee were a few people who were able to overcome their lusts and and this gives hope of redemption. As a Christian, I know the only way to redemption is through Jesus Christ. We CANNOT save ourselves. Jesus is the only way we can get free from our own homemade hell. We can't love someone else enough to save us or them. We are incapable of that. We can only accept Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf. When we do that, we are born again. Our new spirit is born and the Holy Spirit comes to live within our heart to train and grow that new spirit. The Holy Spirit begins the process of sanctification which is a lifelong process. We slowly begin to get untangled from our sins and our messes as we grow spiritually.
Well, enough said about this book or I'll let all the cat's out of the bag. If you read it, remember I warned you about the language and sex and a few very violent scenes.
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