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Lost & Found: Justin Taylor on Stephen King
In each issue of Tin House, our Lost & Found section champions books that have been waylaid or misshelved, overlooked or underdogged. Every Monday, we’ll be going through our vault to bring you the best of Lost & Found here on the blog. We kick things off this week with Justin Taylor on Stephen King’s Needful Things. For a larger dose of Taylor–and other Tin House writers, including Samantha Hunt, Jim Shepard, and Karen Russell– swing by the Brooklyn Book Festival this Sunday, Sept. 18th, at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.
“What’s the one thing in all the world, the one useless thing, that you want so badly you get it mixed up with needing it?”–Polly Chalmers, in Needful Things
Constant Reader, if you’re reading this essay and you’re not my editor, then it must be Spring 2009 (at the very earliest), so it’s important for you to know I am writing these words over Thanksgiving weekend 2008, a day after an employee at a Long Island Wal-Mart was crushed to death by a stampede of Black Friday bargain-hunters. This free-market capitalist mob literally ripped the store’s front doors off their hinges and, in addition to the man they killed and the property they destroyed, injured a pregnant woman while they were at it.
What could those people have wanted so badly that they were willing to step on a man’s throat to get at it? What did Wal-Mart have that was so valuable and necessary that they kept on shopping while paramedics tried hopelessly to revive the employee, until the police finally ordered the store closed down?
Of course, there are no answers to these questions. No vacuum cleaner or TV is ever discounted deeply enough to be worth killing for, and I guarantee that if you singled out any given member of that mob and sat them down for an interview (or, better yet, interrogation), he would not argue otherwise. He was caught up in the moment, he’d say, hypnotized by the lusty, animal thrill of pure id. It was the craving itself that they all craved, and they now must live out their lives with the knowledge of having murdered for it.
I swear, you can’t make this stuff up. Unless you’re Stephen King, maybe.
Needful Things is a novel about desire–but not the arousing, alluring kind. Don’t think Dirty Sexy Money, or even–if you’re bent that way–Story of the Eye. Think of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. It is a book about our very worst selves, the nastiness sleeping uneasily in all of our hearts, and how little it takes to stir the beast, which always wakes up hungry.
Needful Things came out in 1991, to middling reviews, and was subsequently adapted into a basically forgettable movie. It isn’t King’s best book. It may not even belong in his top five (I would argue, provisionally, that these are: It, The Stand, From a Buick 8, Dolores Claiborne, and Skeleton Crew), but it does have a great deal to be said for it, especially if you read it as he obviously intended: as a satire. The novel is a sweeping indictment of Reagan’s America. Equal parts fun house and haunted house, it seems to owe at least as much to Dickens as to Lovecraft and Stoker (though only the latter two are explicitly referenced in the novel). On his Web site, King describes Needful Things as “light and surreal,” sort of like the story about the Wal-Mart employee would have been if it had been written by George Saunders instead of beat reporters for the New York Daily News.
Like many a King doorstopper before it (and after), the premise of this giant book is simple. A strange man (or something that appears at first to be a man) opens a curio shop in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine, a classic King locale, where his novels Cujo and The Dark Half, as well as the novella “The Body”–aka “Stand By Me”–are all set. One by one, the curious locals come by to check out the new store and meet the eccentric, amiable owner, Leland Gaunt. (That’s Mr. Gaunt to you.) Being reserved and penny-wise by nature, the New Englanders expect to leave empty-handed, but few of them do so. See every person who sets foot into the titular store happens to find something that they really truly covet: an autographed Sandy Koufax card for young Brian Rusk; a splinter of wood from the Holy Land for devout Baptist Sally Ratcliffe; a fishing rod just like the one dear departed Dad used to have for deputy Norris Ridgewick; a gorgeous piece of carnival glass for skittish dormouse Nettie Cobb.
To make the deal even sweeter, the items Mr. Gaunt sells all seem to be…enchanted? Charmed? Charged, certainly, with some kind of deeply affecting psychic power. When Sally holds her splinter she can feel the rocking of Noah’s great boat on the open sea. Brian, clutching his baseball card, lives a dream of meeting the great pitcher and getting his card signed. Meanwhile, in the next room, his mother, Cora, is wearing a pair of Elvis’s own sunglasses. As long as she keeps them on, she’s really in Graceland, getting romanced by a tender-talking version of The King in his prime.
Such rare, valuable items would surely be a bargain at any price. Which is good, because Mr. Gaunt doesn’t seem to care much for money. He takes most of his payment in trade. Mr. Gaunt directs each of his customers to play a very particular “prank” on someone else in town. Usually, it’s someone they aren’t close to or don’t like anyway. Despite initial misgivings, the pranksters find themselves relishing their chance to make mischief. Some discover that destruction unleashes their creative energies. Assigned simply to throw rocks through Wilma Jerzyck’s windows, Brian finds himself aiming through the broken glass at her microwave and new TV.
Mr. Gaunt’s customers are not just perpetrators of viciousness, but victims of it as well. Everyone who plays a prank is also pranked on, so in short order the good people of Castle Rock have become a band of neurotic, suspicious, secretive, irritable solipsists. Instead of making their lives better and brighter, each fulfilled desire births a violent paranoiac. Gaunt makes Gollums out of everyone in town.
Sally Ratcliffe, for example, means to share the miracle of the splinter with her equally devout fiancé, Lester Pratt, but then she…well, she just doesn’t. Hugh Priest, a local drunk, wants to put his classic mint condition fox tail on the antenna of his old junker, then drive straight over to the nearest AA meeting and sign a new lease on life. Only the thought of the tail getting stolen keeps him cooped up in his house, drinking more than ever. Nettie Cobb wants to go check on her arthritic best friend and employer, Polly Chalmers, but every time she walks out her front door, she is nagged by the fear that her piece of carnival glass is somehow unsafe. She ends up calling in sick to work and not leaving the house for days.
Rarely does any person see any other person’s Needful Things purchase. When someone does happen to catch a glimpse, the item in question always appears to the non-owner as a broken, filthy piece of garbage: a sure-fire indicator that the “goods” Mr. Gaunt is selling are something quite other than what they seem.
The only person seemingly not in Mr. Gaunt’s thrall is sheriff Alan Pangborn, a white knight so knightly that he can’t help but be a kind of foil for the rest of the goings-on. Mr. Gaunt rightly identified him from the get-go as the only guy in town capable of spoiling his fun, and so he avoids him at all costs. If the sheriff drives down the street, Mr. Gaunt puts out the CLOSED sign. Later, he uses his minions to keep Pangborn distracted and out of town. The two men’s failure to meet becomes a sort of running joke in the book–one of several, the other truly excellent one being a gleefully cartoonish depiction of Catholic-Baptist enmity, and religious fervor in general.
One of the most impressive things about Stephen King is his ability to put a seemingly impossible number of balls in the air, and then keep them there, without ever breaking a sweat, much less dropping one. If there’s a meta-dimension to Needful Things it’s the way in which a book about desire is so transparently fueled by King’s own appetite for excess. He introduces characters by the score (the several I’ve names are barely the tip of the iceberg) and keeps track not only of each one, but of all their interrelationships: old quarrels, lost loves, secrets that bind.
By the halfway point, at the very latest, it’s clear where Needful Things is headed, but the story is never more compelling–or funny–than during its tidal-wave-of-gore-climax, when the exponentially compounding violence achieves a sort of terminal camp velocity. King makes you eager, breathless, greedy to learn not merely what happens but how, and to whom. Since the story is told in little numbered sections that run no more than a few pages apiece, the characters trade off protagonist-status like it was a game of hot potato (a narrative strategy somewhere between a primetime soap during sweeps week and Altman’s Short Cuts). Every stopping point is a mini-cliffhanger. There’s just never a good place to put it down. As with a box of cookies or a bag of french fries, you always might as well have just one more. Soon enough you’re at the bottom of the bag, licking crumbs off the plastic like an animal–and all you want is more.
Justin Taylor is the author of The Gospel of Anarchy and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever: Stories, and the editor of the short fiction anthology The Apocalypse Reader. For more information, visit him at www.justindtaylor.net.