It’s actually the only Stephen King novel I still keep in my over-laden bookcase, “Needful Things”. And I think it would even work without the occult edge.
Why am I thinking of this today? Because of the rerun they had on TV yesterday in the late evening. I actually like the movie as well (as both versions of “Salem’s Lot” – though the new one’s a little bit better).
I haven’t been thinking of the novel for quite a while ... and it’s been even longer since I read it for the last time. But from the first time I read it, I’ve been fascinated by it. It’s the way the story works out.
“Needful Things” is neither the first nor the last novel by King set in a small town somewhere in New England. That’s where a lot of his novels – including “It” and “Cycle of the Werewolf” and “Salem’s Lot” – are set. It is, I guess, his favourite setting. But in this case, with the story he tells in the novel (which is retold really good in the movie), it wouldn’t work anywhere else. King always was and still is best at building up the tension in his stories – and in “Needful Things” it works out marvellously.
The new shop in town (not un-similar to the one set up by the vampire’s helper in “Salem’s Lot”) is just concentrating all the tension underneath the neat surface of the town. There’s little wars going on everywhere, all which is needed is a catalyst. Gaunt is that catalyst, building up his army by giving away ‘special objects’ to some people. In return, he asks for favours – favours which actually fan the hatred between the people in town.
In essence (sorry, if I’m spoiling something for you here, but both the movie and the novel are quite old already), Gaunt is some sort of demon, an evil spirit walking the earth since the dawn of mankind. Wherever he goes, hatred, war, death and destruction follow. He gives people what they need – or rather think they need. He makes them play practical jokes on other people, to make those other people think someone else – someone they hate already – did it. And, finally, he gives the people of a place he comes to the weapons they need to destroy each other. Then he moves on, to start over somewhere else.
Other novels written by king deal with the same or similar motives. “Salem’s Lot” diminishes the population of a small town until basically all inhabitants are vampires. (Which really is a stupid idea – whom are they supposed to live off afterwards?) Pennywise in “It” lives underneath a town, killing children in more or less regular intervals, but it takes a long time before someone (children who fight him twice in their lives) finally realizes what happens. In “Cycle of the Werewolf” (at least I think that’s the title – the German one would translate into “Year of the Werewolf”) it takes twelve months until the werewolf is found and killed – which is a relief, even to the creature itself.
It’s not the big cities, King tells us over and over again, which we should fear. Even with all the crimes happening there, they’re still harmless, compared to what lurks underneath the surface of the peaceful, little town people want to live in.
Of course, that is what we fear most, isn’t it? We know we’re not safe in the big cities, we know it’s dangerous, living there. We know about the dangerous areas (the ‘no-go areas’, as they’re called today). We know we have to be careful.
But what about the small towns, the places we know from the happy, positive family series? What about the places everyone wants to live in? The places people know each other, care about each other? That’s where we let our guards down. That’s where we think we’re safe. That’s where we become careless. And that’s where we’re vulnerable.
King’s stories work out that well, because deep inside we know that. We know not all the bad people live in the big cities. We know there’s crimes happening everywhere. Murder is not just something for the ‘boys from the hood’ who grow up in a society in which only violence and strength count. Murder does happen anywhere: among the poor, among the rich, among those from the middle-class. It’s done by men and women alike (though quite often in different ways).
The supernatural (or the occult ... whatever you prefer) serves as a way to make it more bearable for the reader, I think. It’s not just us humans, being ourselves. There is something evil out there (a demon, an ancient vampire, a monster, a werewolf ... whatever) and it is poised to destroy us. That’s why bad things happen in the stories.
But even if Gaunt (to return to the topic of this post) were a mere human, the story of “Needful things” would still work. It doesn’t take the supernatural to see through the cobweb of hate in a small town and set the people against each other. And it doesn’t take special powers to sell weapons to those people, once the hatred has grown enough.
“Needful things” is a nice story to read (or watch) ... provided you like horror stories. And it’s a wonderful study of the human behaviour that should not be underestimated simply because it comes in the form of a novel and not a scientific thesis.