Needful Things

by Stephen King

Rating: ★★★★

There's a very satisfying sense of value for money to King's more brick-like novels. Never mind the fact that I got this tome from a free library, the simple pleasurable heft of this gently-used paperback is in itself convincing. This, you feel, as you settle down with a cup of coffee and listen to the rain, is a book for a book-reading day.

And it delivers. For all I wish someone would explain to King the difference between "awhile" and "a while", you cannot deny that the guy knows how to write a story. There is a magic here that makes 800 pages skip by without trouble, engrossing you with small-town troubles and individual foibles while slowly dealing from a deck of the supernatural, rising stakes and schemes. It's a blockbuster movie, but with just that bit more to it; underlying themes and meditations that would make it an instant classic if rendered in film.

The core focuses of the book are quite transparently on the topics of possession and debt. Leland Gaunt sells people what they desire, like any merchant, but his specialism is items that people desire for highly personal reasons. The one baseball card that the child is unreasonably fixated upon, the fishing rod that reminds a man of time with his father, a car accessory that makes an alcoholic remember a time when he was better. There are magical items, too -- a cure for excruciating arthritis, a photograph that lets you have sex with Elvis, a piece of Noah's Ark -- but these merely extend from the same root; Gaunt sells items of sentimental value to people, and the price he puts on them is not capital, but service. The twist on the plausibly anti-capitalist theme is that the victims of this book are working off a debt that they cannot price in dollars. This is why they can be made to do things they feel are not right.

Valued possessions, King illustrates, can be controlling. As well as the debt Gaunt leverages, the fixation on keeping something so valuable safe appears again and again in Gaunt's victims. This fixation means that the car accessory is never affixed to the car, for fear it might be stolen, the baseball card is never shown to others, the fishing rod is never used lest it break, the unique lamp is locked away safe in a cupboard. Valuing these things so highly not only causes you to do wrong, it can mean you never enjoy them at all.

There is also, of course, lies and vengeance and old tensions being stirred and poked. When people already hate someone, it's much easier to get them to ignore the inconsistency, the weirdness of a faked provocation -- an exploit reused repeatedly in the conflicts drawn by Gaunt. It's only with a rare outside intervention that this can be made clear, the anger defused.

I feel like King is often undervalued by critics because his books are so popular -- a situation that perhaps says more about critics than anyone else -- but I have to in general side with popular opinion here. This is a good read.