I'm reading through three lists of best horror with two friends (DeAnna Knippling and M.B. Partlow), posting reviews as we go. (For more information, including a list of the books, see this post.) To see the books I've reviewed so far, you can view the list at the end of this post where I rank them.
This week I'm reviewing Needful Things, by Stephen King.
I thought I'd read this already, and then I found it on my unread books shelf (yes, I have one of those...doesn't everyone?) and realized I never had. I decided to read it, not realizing it was on this list, so yay!
This novel is about a small town (Castle Rock, which has featured in other stories, like Cujo, The Dead Zone, and The Body (Stand By Me)), and a man who shows up, opening up a mysterious shop called Needful Things. He gives everyone their most secret desires, but he exacts a price, ultimately causing the town to degrade into disturbing violence. It's amazing what people will do out of greed for their desires.
The main characters are the sheriff and his girlfriend, a local seamstress. She has horrific arthritis and is in constant pain. They're also the only ones to be able to see through Leland Gaunt's--owner of Needful Things--friendly veneer.
The first we see violence in the book, a plan come to fruition for Gaunt, it's two women tearing each other apart, literally, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. This is after several awful things have occurred to each woman, attributed to the other woman. Muddied sheets, rocks through windows, and a dead dog.
If you can't stand violence against animals and children, this is not the book for you. Stephen King pulls no punches (does he ever?). No one is safe in this book, not puppies, not cats, not birds, not children. Fair warning.
As always, King gets to the base of each character. He intricately weaves the lives of the townspeople together, hinting at, and eventually telling about, past sins. For a small town, they sure have big secrets.
Once the violence really gets going, it's an insane maelstrom of greed, rage, envy, you name it. In fact, I'd say all of the cardinal sins are covered. And for the most part, the breakdown in civilization in the town of Castle Rock is built up just right, so the violence makes some odd sort of sense. You can see why it happened, anyway.
The people being blamed (and attacked) for committing various evil deeds are not the people actually doing those. The plot is carefully set up, with a bunch of disconnected actions ultimately coming together and making sense as you read on.
As a bonus, there are references to other King novels set in the town, with a character returning from The Body (I won't tell you who, but you'll know when he shows up). If you've seen the film, you'll know why I kept looking for the line, "I killed my wife. Is that wrong?" Yeah, it's not in the book.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, even though the animal and child deaths bothered me. It's a slow (not boring) buildup to an explosive ending.
My new rankings:
1. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
2. The Bottoms (Joe R. Lansdale)
3. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
4. A Choir of Ill Children (Tom Piccirilli)
5. The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2010 (Paula Guran)
6. The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
7. Needful Things (Stephen King)
8. Those Who Hunt the Night (Barbara Hambly)
9. Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror (Ellen Datlow)
10. The Stranger (Albert Camus)
11. Dead in the Water (Nancy Holder)
12. The Witches (Roald Dahl)
13. The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)
14. The Wolf's Hour (Robert McCammon)
15. Berserk (Tim Lebbon)
16. Prime Evil (Douglas E. Winter)
17. Best New Horror, Volume 1 (edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell)
18. Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews)
19. The Tomb (F. Paul Wilson)
20. Shadowland (Peter Straub)
21. Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)
22. The Imago Sequence (Laird Barron)
23. My Soul to Keep (Tananarive Due)
24. Penpal (Dathan Auerbach)
25. World War Z (Max Brooks)
26. From the Dust Returned (Ray Bradbury)
27. The Red Tree (Caitlin R. Kiernan)
28. In Silent Graves (Gary A. Braunbeck)
29. The Cipher (Kathe Koja)
30. Drawing Blood (Poppy Z. Brite)
31. The Doll Who Ate His Mother (Ramsey Campbell)
32. Hotel Transylvania (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro)
33. Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs)
Have you read Needful Things? Where do you rank it among King novels? What did you think of the buildup? What would your weakness be in terms of desires Gaunt could take advantage of?
May you find your Muse.