Novel * Stephen King * The Devil Went, Uh, Up to Maine * 1991
This is one of those Stephen King novels that I’ve read to death. I’m still rocking my 1992 paperback edition, even though the cover is mostly tape at this point. Also, I haven’t read Needful Things in probably fifteen years or so. So what we have is a book I easily read 20 times in my teens, and not at all since like, Incubus was cool. The question is obvious: does it hold up? Yeah, kinda. Needful Things is an odd novel, in that it works best if you’re familiar with King’s earlier works. There’s a good deal of inter-book referencing and name dropping and the like, none of which is absolutely vital to the story but is still helpful. King’s work has always been self-referential, that’s why something like that new Castle Rock series isn’t an unusual concept, and Needful Things is a culmination of a lot of fictional threads. My paperback edition even has the tagline “the last Castle Rock story” front and center on the cover, so King’s intent is fairly clear. Here’s a big story with tons of characters in a setting King’s “Constant Reader” knows and loves, and now it’s time to blow all that the fuck up and move on.
Needful Things is not King’s best work, let’s get that out of the way right up front, but even so it’s still pretty good. It’s a summer-ass summer read, but it’s a well-crafted summer read. I know the man has his critics, but he’s still such a skillful craftsman that pretty much anything the dude writes is compelling in some way. Needful Things is a typical King novel in that the characters are all well-realized small town personalities, and the ensuing plot is directly interfaced into these people’s conflicts. If The Long Walk is a masterclass in the skill of narrative pacing, then Needful Things is a lesson in intricate plotting. Seriously, the machinery of the plot is working from page one, and as someone who’s greatest struggle in writing fiction is with plotting, it makes me kind of sick. There are points in the story where I almost wish I had a flowchart to keep track of who is moving toward which end, but as it happens it’s not needed. King wrangles his massive character ensemble and their various goings-on cleanly, and makes it look effortless. Bastard.
The plot, if you’re not familiar, sounds simple. A new store opens up in Castle Rock’s quaint downtown. It’s run by a dapper older man named Leland Gaunt, who is extremely charming. He runs a curio shop, with a little bit of all kinds of seemingly random merchandise. Oh but here’s the thing though. Turns out, Leland Gaunt’s main skill as a salesman is obtaining specific items for specific people, and selling it to that person a price that at first sounds reasonable but then becomes less so. An example: Gaunt’s first customer is a boy named Brian Rusk. This kid collects baseball cards, and the one he needs most is just out of his eleven-year-old reach, because it’s an old Sandy Koufax card and I guess that’s expensive or something (I have never understood baseball cards, not even when I was a kid and tried collecting them for like two weeks because my friends did). Anyway, Leland Gaunt just happens to have the exact card Brian needs, and is happy to sell it to the boy for a handful of change… and a favor.
At no point does Needful Things try to obfuscate its intentions. We know pretty much right away what kind of salesman Leland Gaunt is and what he’s doing in Castle Rock. For his part, King doesn’t really waste time trying to create red herrings and divert our attention from the true nature of Gaunt. There are very few surprises as you work through the novel, revelations and plot twists are not the point of the story. No, this is a book where the pleasure comes from watching events unfold. Brian, the proud owner of the exact card he needed, is now saddled with a relatively innocuous task, which is to huck some mud at some lady’s clean sheets. Of course, this lady is feuding with some other lady and immediately blames her instead of poor, invisible Brian. Every “special” item Leland Gaunt sells comes with a similar string attached, and pretty soon everyone in town has been cross-wired with someone else all the while forgetting that they’re up to their own petty shit in order to keep their weird item. It’s fascinating to watch unfold, and you can tell that King was enjoying himself by blowing up one of his oldest creations.
What makes Needful Things especially fun for the reader is watching all the various events and character interactions slowly but surely snowball into the inevitable apocalypse. The ending to this novel is never in doubt; there’s no real drama surrounding the fate of Castle Rock. You could say that King foreshadows the ending throughout the novel, but that suggests some kind of subtlety. Rather, the narrator just straight up tells you the town is fucked and that Gaunt is going to wreck everyone’s shit all up. It’s even a reasonable deduction as to how the town’s apocalyptic ending is going to come about – those pesky Baptists and Catholics going at it combined with that incredibly conspicuous order of dynamite that shows up like halfway through the novel. Again, King places all his cards face up, and that makes its own kind of fun.
This kind of story only really works if the individual pieces are compelling in and of themselves. There are a ton of characters here, but King does what King do, and they’re all somehow well-drawn and highly considered. They have to be, since the crux of the complicated plot is Gaunt pairing off people according to the person most likely to set them off in a spree of irrational violence. Obviously some characters are deeper than others, and if there’s a protagonist, it’s Alan Pangborn, the sheriff. He’s the one Gaunt is scared of, presumably because he’s so smart and dreamy. He’s not my favorite though, that’s probably his Barney Fife-ass deputy Norris Ridgewick. I dunno, I appreciate his sad-sack sensibilities and his death-feud with that turbo-douche Danforth Keaton. That said, there are points during Needful Things where the plot takes over to the point where the characters feel like they inhabit a spreadsheet. The pairing-off of personalities and their particular needful thing feels a bit contrived because, well, it’s extremely contrived. You know, in a good way.
All right, let’s talk about the poor, doomed town of Castle Rock and we can all get out of here. First of all, small towns are gross. I know they have an idyllic reputation as the backbone of America and whatnot, but in my experience they’re often a huge bummer. Perhaps this is because most of the small towns I know are half-dead and dying, specifically the post-logging towns of the Pacific Northwest. Now, Needful Things isn’t about the slow rot of small-town life, at least not explicitly. Castle Rock seems to be doing okay on its own merits as a tourist town, and when it all comes crashing down it does so all at once. It’s not the same kind of slow degradation that you see in like, Aberdeen, Washington. Still, the festering humanity underneath it all is still there, and that’s what Leland Gaunt is able to tap into so easily. The very thought of knowing everyone I see on the street, even peripherally, makes my anxiety get all twitchy. I live in a small city, but even that affords me anonymity and the luxury of the cushion between my private and public life. Not so in a place like Castle Rock, which is great news if you’re Leland Gaunt.
He’s not the devil. Which is to say, I do not believe Leland Gaunt is a manifestation of Satan, the fallen angel Lucifer from the kingdom Hell. Of course, this is troubled by the fact that Gaunt is out here actually collecting souls, which is a detail I never liked, although I do appreciate Gaunt acting like he’s too cool for reaping souls only to be called out by Pangborn. Anyway, whatever, I choose to believe that he’s just a work-a-day demon out there hustlin’. I mean, the occasional destruction of a small town isn’t exactly the big time, you know? Plus, there’s that weird sequence where Ace Merrill drives to Boston to retrieve Gaunt’s magical Tucker and he ends up in that eerie Lovecraftian industrial hellscape. Personally, I think old Leland Gaunt is in thick with the Elder Ones, which is certainly more fun than some banal Christian devil forgoing the traditional fiddle contest to simply fuck around with some townies. I guess in the end, if you live in Castle Rock, it doesn’t matter so much considering your town is a smoldering crater in the Maine woods. Regardless, it freed Stephen King from having to worry too much about his legacy overshadowing the new stories he wanted to write. Of course, after this novel was published he was pretty much beholden to the Dark Tower mythos, but that’s a whole other thing.