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This article is about the Stephen King novel. For the movie based on this story see Needful Things .

Needful Things is a 1991 horror novel by Stephen King.

Plot summary

The story is set in the small fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, where a new shop named "Needful Things" opens, to the curiosity of the townspeople. The story starts out in first person with the narrator greeting the reader and moves to third-person, introducing each of the book's diverse cast of characters and their complicated histories. Castle Rock's citizens then begin to come into Needful Things, each of them drawn by an item they want more than anything else.

They are all greeted by the seemingly kind old man claiming to be from Akron, Ohiomarker (a possible reference to Acheronmarker), Leland Gaunt, and they all ignore the sign hanging in his shop, "Caveat emptor" ("Let the buyer beware"). One person after another buys the treasures he has in stock, paying surprisingly low prices and performing small "favors" (pranks) at his request. The person doing a prank usually knows the target, but has no real quarrel or relationship with him/her. Little by little, the pranks worsen existing grudges between the townspeople until they start turning against each other or themselves, nearly bringing about the violent destruction of the entire town.

Characters

Main Characters

  • Sheriff Alan Pangborn: the Sheriff of Castle Rock and the main protagonist. Gaunt was wary of Pangborn from the start, knowing he would not be nearly as easy to fool as the others and that Gaunt would need a lot of help before he would be able to face Pangborn head-on. Pangborn once had a wife and son, but they both died in a mysterious, unsolved car accident.


  • Patricia Chalmers: known as the town's most eccentric woman, Patricia "Polly" Chalmers was originally a Castle Rock native who became an "out-of-towner" after living in San Franciscomarker for years before returning. She had left to escape the iron heel of her devout parents after getting pregnant, planning to give up the baby and start a new life in the city, but she kept the child out of love. When she returns to Castle Rock without him, gossip surrounds her but she refuses to explain herself and her life remains a mystery.


  • Leland Gaunt: described as an older man, appearing physically to be in his late 50s or early 60s, with graying hair. He is extremely charming, gentlemanly, and urbane—the very ideal of the perfect small town shop proprietor.


  • Norris Ridgewick: one of the town's deputies and Sheriff Pangborn's closest ally. Norris was an avid fisherman who had learned the craft from his father, and had a strong liking for Bazun fishing rods. He bought one of these rods from Gaunt, thus entangling himself in the web of evil.


  • Ace Merrill: the town's resident "bad boy". Ace was a notorious bully in high school but left the town, becoming a drug dealer, occasional cocaine user and gunrunner. After being tricked in one of his deals, Ace became heavily indebted to a pair of fellow dealers known as the Flying Corson Brothers, and only had a short time to pay them before being subjected to a horrific and painful death. In a bid of desperation, he returned to Castle Rock, finding Gaunt and swiftly becoming his faithful employee.


  • Danforth "Buster" Keeton: Danforth was one of the town's selectmen and thus enjoyed a position of little authority. He was a large man with a brutal, fiery temper who constantly abused his wife, Myrtle. Unknown to just about everyone, he was actually deep in debt from his constant gambling at the horse tracks, which he paid for out of the town's funds. He was guilty of a long list of crimes, including theft, fraud, and embezzlement. Mentally unstable, he was paranoid and believed in "Them", the shadowy cabal of authority figures that he believed persecuted him at every turn and intended to drive him insane.


Supporting Characters

  • Brian Rusk: an ordinary, happy boy, Brian is the first to visit Needful Things and the first to receive the object of his desire - a 1956, specially autographed (to Brian) Sandy Koufax baseball card.


  • Nettie Cobb: one of many townspeople who was already somewhat unbalanced before Gaunt arrived, Cobb was formerly in a mental hospital for killing her abusive husband of many years in his sleep. She was only released and allowed to start over in Castle Rock because of the efforts of Patricia Chalmers, and as such she is grateful to her and serves as an employee in her sewing shop.


  • Cora Rusk: Brian's mother, Cora had an unhealthy obsession with Elvis Presley, and as a result became remote and detached after buying a pair of aviator sunglasses that formerly belonged to "the King".


  • Wilma Jerzyck: one of the rare characters who did not purchase an item from Gaunt, Wilma was a Polish woman with a fiery temper who had even cowed her husband, Peter Jerzyck, into a state of animal-like subservience. She was one of the most violent and aggressive of the townspeople, already having a long list of crimes under her name and a notorious reputation.


  • Myra Evans: an Elvis fan who had a minor rivalry with her friend Cora Rusk even before Gaunt came to town. After she buys her own bit of Elvis memorabilia, that rivalry turns ugly and the friendship is destroyed.


  • Hugh Priest: a well-known dirty and sleazy man who worked in the town's junkyard, Priest bought a foxtail from Gaunt.


  • Henry Beaufort: The owner and operator of Castle Rock's only bar; The Mellow Tiger. Another of the townspeople who had not purchased anything from Gaunt.


  • Andy Clutterbuck, Sheila Brigham, and John LaPointe: three people who worked under Sheriff Pangborn at the local department. Clutterbuck, called Clut, and LaPointe were both deputies while Sheila was their secretary. The three had nothing to do with Gaunt and did not purchase anything from him, but were nonetheless caught in the chaos.


  • Sonny Jackett: a well-known mechanic of Castle Rock. He had bought a box of double-measure adjustable socket wrenches.


  • Eddie Warburton: a man who had a strong grudge against Sonny Jackett, believing him to have cheated him once when he fixed his car.


  • Sally Ratcliffe: a young, Christian speech teacher. She was very attractive and was the talk of the town, as well as being the object of Brian Rusk's recurring sexual fantasies. She had a nice relationship with fellow teacher Lester Pratt, intending to both marry him and give her virginity to him before Gaunt interfered.


  • Lester Pratt: the school physical education teacher, a hulking athlete of a man who was both a devout Christian and a loyal boyfriend.


  • Father Brigham: the leader of the local Catholic populace.


  • Reverend Rose: the leader of the local Baptist populace.


Minor Characters

  • Henry Payton: the leader of the State police, Payton was called in to Castle Rock with a whole regiment of State Troopers after the Cobb-Jerzyck double murder, but he and all of his men were sadly, not even remotely prepared for Gaunt, and they were unable to contain the situation in Castle Rock. Many of his squad died as they attempted to stop the Catholic-Baptist brawl, the various shootings, and were caught in the many dynamite explosions.


  • Myrtle Keeton: Danforth's meek and helpless wife, who had convinced herself that she deserved his constant verbal and physical abuse. After years of constant torment, she had been trained into a submissive state, always expecting his abuse. She had bought a doll from Gaunt to add to her collection, which she took refuge in whenever Danforth was particularly mad. She was eventually beaten to death by Danforth after mistakenly calling him by his childhood nickname, Buster.


  • Pete Jerzyck: Wilma Jerzyck's submissive husband. During the first years of his marriage to Wilma, Pete was a regular middle-aged husband, doing little housework and working extra time at work. However, after some years of living with her, Wilma trains him into a submissive state, where he does pretty much everything his wife says, without any type of objection. Despite his submissive and well-behaved ways, Pete drugs Wilma with Xanax pills when she really loses her temper. When Wilma is killed by Nettie Cobb, the people who show up at the funeral are mentioned to be there only to console Pete, not because they lament Wilma's death.


  • "Slopey" Dodd: another ordinary school student, Slopey had a bad stutter and as a result was ostracized and humiliated constantly by the other students. He had bought a teapot from Gaunt, paying for it by planting a note for Sally Ratcliffe to find and then later tricking Lester Pratt into a murderous rage.


  • Frank Jewett: the principal of the Castle Rock high school, Jewett was a closet pedophile, and had a secret, large collection of pornographic magazines featuring young boys. He had revealed this secret to only one person, his friend George T. Nelson, whom he had also shared his crack habit with. After being led into believing Nelson was blackmailing him, Jewett killed Nelson's pet parakeet and desecrated a picture of Nelson's mother, and eventually confronted Nelson himself outside the Castle Rock Municipal Building, they faced off and both fired and missed. the two moved to embrace when the building exploded and killed both men.


  • George T. Nelson: a cocaine addict and pedophile, Nelson was a friend and confidante to Frank Jewett. After finding his parakeet dead and his mother's picture fouled, Nelson bought a pistol from Gaunt and confronted Jewett, both fired at each other and missed, they moved to embrace each other only for both men to die in an explosion.


About the book

Needful Things marks a watershed in King's career, as he bids farewell to the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, a place he visited in The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Body, The Sun Dog and The Dark Half.

This book is also considered by King to be the final part of an unofficial, loosely-linked trilogy of stories - the first of which was The Dark Half, and the second of which was "The Sun Dog", a short story that was part of his Four Past Midnight collection. As a result, the Sheriff often thinks about Thad Beaumont from The Dark Half.

Stephen King has said his inspiration for the story was the decadence of the Eighties: "It occurred to me that in the eighties, everything had come with a price tag, that the decade quite literally was the sale of the century. The final items up on the block had been honor, integrity, self-respect, and innocence... I decided to turn the eighties into a small-town curio shop called Needful Things and see what happened."

References to other King works in Needful Things

Needful Things is Stephen King's novel with most references or connections with other King works.

(In chronological order by publication date)

The Dead Zone, 1979

  • In the foreword of the novel, an unnamed narrator explains to us that 'not all [our] troubles in Castle Rock are ordinary' and lists several occurrences in Castle Rock that King had written of previously, starting with 'No one has forgotten Frank Dodd, the crossing guard who went crazy here twelve years ago and killed those women.' Johnny Smith ends up breaking this case in The Dead Zone. A minor character in Needful Things, an ostracized stutterer "Slopey" Dodd, may be related to the murderer.


  • During the final portion of the novel, lightning strikes the Town Common: ". . . blowing the bandstand, where a tormented young man named Johnny Smith had once discovered the name of a killer, to flaming matchwood."


  • Polly remembers seeing an ad for a healing "pinwheel gadget" in a copy of "Inside View", a fictional tabloid magazine that tried to recruit Johnny Smith after his psychic powers are publicized, and for which Richard Dees works for in The Night Flier.


Cujo, 1981

  • There are several references to Cujo in Needful Things, mostly in passing. They also begin in the foreword of the novel, where the unnamed narrator goes on: 'the dog. . . the one that came down with rabies and killed Joe Camber and the old rummy down the road from him. The dog killed good old Sheriff George Bannerman, too.'


  • Cujo himself is referenced once by name, as is 'the old Camber place'.


  • Polly goes to the Camber place and thinks about a small boy and Sheriff Bannerman who died in the dooryard, which is reputed to be haunted. Later, she hears a growl issuing from the barn, and thinks she sees 'two sunken red circles of light peering out', which prompts her to get into her car. The car, for a fraction of a second, will not start. She thinks, wildly, that no one knows where she is. During this period we get a lot of consideration about the characters—from the Cambers to Donna Trenton.


  • Polly's Aunt Evie Chalmers is the woman who accurately predicted the weather at the beginning of Cujo.


  • During the final showdown, Alan makes a shadow shape of a dog, and we're given an aside of how it might just be a Saint Bernard.


"Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption", from Different Seasons, 1982

  • In a flashback, Ace Merrill is warned by his uncle, 'Pop', that 'careless people end up in the Shank'. Later, he's proven correct, as Ace spends a brief turn in Shawshank Prison.


"The Body", from Different Seasons, 1982

  • Ace Merrill, who appears in the novel as Mr. Gaunt's 'employee', is the same Ace Merrill who led the group of bullies that tormented Gordon Lachance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio, finally confronting them after they find the body; upon Ace's entrance to the story, we're told that "The boys Ace Merrill had once terrorized--boys like Teddy Duchamp, Chris Chambers, and Vern Tessio--would have recognized him at once in spite of his graying hair."


  • Ace remembers the happenings of "The Body": "He thought back all the way to a time, many years ago, when four snotnosed kids had cheated him and his friends (Ace had had friends back in those days, or at least a reasonable approximation thereof) out of something Ace had wanted. They had caught one of the snotnoses - Gordie LaChance - later on and had beaten the living shit out of him, but it hadn't mattered. These days LaChance was a bigshot writer living in another part of the state, and he probably wiped his ass with ten-dollar bills. Somehow the snotnoses had won, and things had never been the same for Ace after that. That was when his luck had turned bad. Doors that had been open to him had begun to close, one by one. Little by little he had begun to realize that he was not a king and Castle Rock was not his kingdom. If that had ever been true, those days had begun to pass that Labor Day weekend when he was sixteen, when the snots had cheated him and his friends out of what was rightfully theirs. By the time Ace was old enough to drink legally in The Mellow Tiger, he had gone from being a king to being a soldier without a uniform, skulking through enemy territory."


Christine, 1983

  • When Ace Merrill gets into Leland Gaunt's Tucker Talisman, the car is described as still having "that incomparable new-car smell, nothing like it in the world (except maybe for pussy)..." This is a reference to what Roland Lebay, from whom Arnie purchases Christine, says about new-car smell.


It, 1986

  • Nettie Cobb had recently been released from Juniper Hill (on a work-release program with the aid of Polly Chalmers). Juniper Hill is a mental institution/prison for the criminally dangerous. It's where Henry Bowers was put after he murdered his father, and from which he broke free to hunt down the Losers years later.


The Dark Half, 1989

  • The character George Stark, Thad Beaumont's alter ego from The Dark Half, makes a cameo appearance in several of Sheriff Pangborn's dreams, driving his trademark black Toronado.


  • Norris remembers finding the corpse of Homer Gamache, beaten to death with his own artificial arm. (pg. 96). Gamache was Stark's first victim.


  • Throughout the story and in the final battle, the sheriff is reminded of his episode with the sparrows, and often makes them in the shadows.


"The Sun Dog" from Four Past Midnight, 1990

  • The fire that destroyed The Emporium Galorium (and killed Reginald 'Pop' Merrill) is referenced in the foreword, citing that Pop's nephew Ace 'says somethin' spooky happened to his uncle before that fire'. The Sun Dog chronicles that story, from the 'spooky' occurrence to the fire itself.


"The Library Policeman" from Four Past Midnight, 1990

  • Sam Peebles and Naomi Higgins, the main characters of this novella, are mentioned briefly in the epilogue of Needful Things. Mr. Gaunt sets up his new shop, Answered Prayers, in Sam's former office. In the time since the events of the story, Sam and Naomi have married and moved away.


"The Dark Tower"

  • When Alan opens up the trick flower bouquet that turns into blazing light, he thinks, "The white! The coming of the white!" The phrase "the white" appears in many places throughout the Dark Tower series, and Mordred often refers to Roland as his "White father." This exact phrase was coined by John "Jake" Chambers from the Dark Tower series in the third book on the day that he escaped into Mid-World.


  • In the book Wizard and Glass, different faces/characters are said to be seen in the moon during different seasons. One is called "Peddler's Moon", and features an old man carrying a "bulging bag of souls", almost certainly a reference to Gaunt, who is called the Peddler near the end of the novel.


References to other works in Needful Things

Cthulhu Mythos

An interesting subtext in the book is frequent, subtle references to H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, which lends to the possibility that Leland Gaunt may be an avatar of the sadistic shapeshifting deity Nyarlathotep, sometimes associated with Satan by other authors (see also Randall Flagg). "Gaunts", or "Nightgaunts" feature in Cthulhu Mythos stories, and the name Leland Gaunt references this fact.

  • After giving Ace some very powerful cocaine, Mr. Gaunt tells him that he obtained it from 'The Plains of Leng'. This, perhaps, gives us a clue as to Mr. Gaunt's origins.


  • During his trip to Boston under the behest of Mr. Gaunt, Ace Merrill reads the following graffiti: 'Yog-Sothoth Rules'. This is a reference to "The Freshman," a humorous Cthulhu mythos short story in which "Yog-Sothoth sucks!" is found graffitied across the Miskatonic University campus.


  • When asked where he got the Tucker Talisman (by a Mobil Gas jockey), Ace says "The Plains of Leng. Yog-Sothoth Vintage Motors".


Young Guns



Dawn of the Dead

  • Crime scene onlookers remind Sheriff Alan Pangborn of the "mall zombies from Dawn of the Dead," a movie directed by George Romero. Romero directed Creepshow (from a screenplay written by King) and The Dark Half, a 1993 movie adaptation of King's novel.


Dracula

  • When greeting some of the visitors to his shop, Gaunt asks them to "leave some of the happiness you bring!" Count Dracula invites Jonathan Harker to do the same in chapter two of Dracula.


Film

References

External links




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