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Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story Mass Market Paperback – July 8, 1992
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From Publishers Weekly
With the "Last Castle Rock Story" King bids a magnificent farewell to the fictional Maine town where much of his previous work has been set. Of grand proportion, the novel ranks with King's best, in both plot and characterization. A new store, Needful Things, opens in town, and its proprietor, Leland Gaunt, offers seemingly unbeatable (read: Faustian) bargains to Castle Rock's troubled citizens. Among them are Polly Chalmers, lonely seamstress whose arthritis is only one of the physical and psychic pains she must bear; Brian Rusk, the 11-year-old boy whose mother is not precisely attentive; and Alan Pangborn, the new sheriff whose wife and son have recently died. These are only three of the half-dozen or so brilliantly drawn people met in the novel's one-month time span. As the dreams of each strikingly memorable character, major and minor, inexorably turn to nightmare, individuals and soon the community are overwhelmed, while the precise nature of Gaunt's evil thrillingly stays just out of focus. King, like Leland Gaunt, knows just what his customers want. 1.5 million first printing; BOMC main selection.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Kirkus Reviews
The old horrormaster in top form, this time with a demonic dealer in magic and spells selling his wares to the folks of Castle Rock, scene of several King novels including The Dead Zone, Cujo--and how many others? King locates his hokey Our Town in Maine, but as ever it's really Consumerville, USA, with everyone's life festooned with brand names. The cast is huge and largely grotesque, since King--wearing a tremendous cat's-smile--means to close the book on Castle Rock and blow it off the map in one of his best climaxes since Salem's Lot. Editing here is supreme. King braids perhaps a dozen storylines--with hardly a drop of blood spilled for the first 250 or so pages--into ever briefer takes that climax in a hurtling, storm-ripped holocaust whose symphonic energies fill the novel's last third. Perhaps only five characters stand out: Leland Gaunt, a gentlemanly stranger who opens the Needful Things curiosity shop; his first customer, Brian Rusk, 11, who sells his soul for a rare Sandy Koufax baseball card; practical Polly Chalmers, who runs the You Sew `n' Sew shop, welcomes Gaunt with a devil's-food cake, and buys an amulet to relieve her arthritis; her lover, Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who buys nothing but is haunted by the driving deaths of his wife and son; and Ace Merrill, coke dealer in a bind, who becomes Gaunt's handydevil and gets to drive Gaunt's Tucker, a car that's faster than radar and uses no gas. As he has for hundreds of years, Gaunt sells citizens whatever pricks and satisfies their inmost desires. But the price dehumanizes them, and soon all the townsfolk vent their barest aggressions on each other with cleaver, knife, and gun: Gaunt even opens a sideline of automatic weapons. By novel's end, the whole town is on a hysterical, psychotic mass rampage that floods morgue and hospital with the delimbed and obliterated. Then comes the big bang. Mmmmmmmmmmmm! Leland King's glee, or Steven Gaunt's, or rather--well, the author's--as he rubs his palms over his let's-blow-'em-away superclimax is wonderfully catching. (Book-of-the-Month Main Selection for Fall) -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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To me the test of any mystery/horror/science fiction story is if the murder/mysterious event/etc. vanished would I still care about the characters. I felt you could have removed the entire Leland Gaunt angle from the story and the characters in Needful Things would have still kept me utterly interested. While Gaunt is the mechanism that sets the story in motion, for the first half of the novel the characters actions and reactions generally drive the plot. That's what makes the first section so compelling you come to know and understand the "needs" the characters have and how Gaunt plays on those needs to set his plans in motion.
The first half of the book sets us down in Castlerock and explores how the small town jealousies and rivalries provide Gaunt easy fuel for the storm he wants to enact. King has a real feel in these sections for the characters and their relationships and the day to day vibrations of a small town.
The problem is the second half of the novel isn't remotely near the quality of the first half. As others have said no author would better benefit from a tough editor than Stephen King. For whatever reason be it King or the editors or both, all of his books are bloated and overstuffed with plots and characters that frequently detract from the power of his central story. Needful Things which starts out so promisingly just keeps growing and growing. King brings in character after character increasing the plots and the scope of the story. Toward the end he piles on violence and big events as if desperate to give the reader his/her money's worth. The problem is the number of characters and escalation of events actually detract from the power of the story. Rather than giving the story heft, the extraneous material detracts from the narrative. For example King could have cut the entire Baptist versus Catholic subplot. It was unnecessary, unbelievable, and added nothing to the story.
More troublingly the second half of the novel brings in guns and cocaine and a kind of violence that is frankly far less compelling and to my mind unnecessary. What initially made Needful Things so compelling was the way Gaunt played on the town by using the townspeople's greed. That slowly fades as King focuses on gun shipments and cocaine usage.
It's almost like the very interesting themes that drove the first half of the novel are dropped so King can drag in a lot of over the top violence and action. Gaunt who has been mysterious and creepy is revealed to be much more but by the end he's an absolute cartoon and the denouncement becomes a series of escalating violent events.
Which is not to say I didn't enjoy Needful Things. I did. However, I wish King had stuck with the simplicity and straightforwardness of the first half.