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Literature: Needful Things

CAVEAT EMPTOR note 

A 1991 Stephen King novel in which a new store with the strange name of "Needful Things" opens in the small Maine town of Castle Rock. It is run by a seemingly kindly old man named Leland Gaunt and happens to have something that each of the main characters wants. They only need to pay a minimal sum...and they have to agree to play a little prank on someone. It goes downhill from there, as the "harmless pranks" eventually trigger a chain reaction leading to plenty of suicides, killings, and Stuff Blowing Up.

The story mainly revolves around Sheriff Alan Pangborn and his attempts to find out just what is going on in his town.

Made into a movie in 1993 starring Max von Sydow as Gaunt and Ed Harris as Sheriff Pangborn.


This book provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Leland Gaunt on his good days.
  • The Alcoholic: Hugh Priest.
  • A Storm Is Coming: The prologue.
  • Author Tract: The book could be seen as a commentary on small-town psychology. On the surface, Castle Rock is an idyllic New England town where everyone is polite and friendly. But Gaunt just pulls a little thread here and there, and in a mere week all the simmering grudges just under the surface boil over until the entire town is killing each other. King being from small-town New England, several of his stories have similar themes.
  • Berserk Button: Don't call Danforth Keeton "Buster." Just...don't.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Nettie and possibly Polly, near the end.
  • Bitch Alert: Wilma Jerzyck. She bullies anyone she can get away with (a favorite target is Nettie Cobb, a victim of Domestic Abuse who killed her husband and spent time in an asylum), is mean as shit to a husband she doesn't love (she would leave him in a heartbeat in the unlikely event that pro wrestler Jay Strongbow expressed an interest in her), and has a Hair-Trigger Temper.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gaunt is defeated, but by then, most of Castle Rock is destroyed. Also, he starts the whole thing again in another town.
    • The shop name, however, implies that Heaven is behind this one, so it may not be quite that bad.
    • Unless it simply means that he has nothing to fear from Heaven, and by extension, God...
  • Black Comedy: There's an unnerving cartoonish quality to many of the deadly pranks Gaunt has his customers carry out, even once the bodies start piling up.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: In both the book and the movie, Nettie comes home after playing her prank on Buster Keeton to find that her dog, Raider, has been killed. The book has him "merely" getting impaled with a corkscrew, but in the movie, Raider was skinned alive and hung up in Nettie's closet.
  • Book Ends: The story starts with a narrator who greets the reader and talks about the people in Castle Rock and the new shop. At the end, a narrator greets the reader in another small town, where a new shop is about to open...
  • Call Back: This book serves as an ending of King's entire Castle Rock saga and makes several Call Backs to the other Castle Rock stories, including The Dead Zone (John Smith and Frank Dodd), "The Body" (Ace Merrill's search for the dead body), Cujo (Polly visits the Camber House, and Cujo himself), The Dark Half (George Stark and the sparrows), and The Sun Dog (Pop Merrill).
  • Corrupt Politician: "Buster" Keeton, who started stealing from the town's funds to cover his gambling addiction.
  • Canon Welding: Remember Ace, the childhood bully from The Body and its adaptation Stand by Me? He's now working for Gaunt.
    • The town seen in the epilogue is from the King novella The Library Policemen, which appeared in the same collection as The Sun Dog.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Tastee-Munch Can and the folding flower trick.
  • Chekhov's Hobby: Sheriff Pangborn's shadow puppet skills come in handy against Gaunt, especially when he creates puppets of Cujo and the sparrows from The Dark Half
  • The Chessmaster: Gaunt, unusually for a Stephen King villain, does most of his evil work by having his customers play "pranks" on various townspeople in such a way that plays up their various feuds and insecurities to the point where people have turned against each other, committed murder, and even been Driven to Suicide.
  • Cool Car: Gaunt's Tucker Talisman... which is more than just a car.
  • Concert Kiss: The photo Myra buys gives her realistic visions about Elvis when she touches it. The first one is him pulling her up on stage at a concert and kissing her.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Keeton believes that "Them", a shadowy group of authority figures is after him. What is actually after him is the Bureau of Taxation, because he's stealing from the town's funds.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Myra's regular visits with the King after she buys a framed photo of Elvis Presley from Mr. Gaunt.
    • Implied with Sally Ratcliffe, feeling unusually excited after playing her prank on Frank Jewett.
  • Deadly Prank: Part of the payment for every item Gaunt sells in the titular shop. Most of them do not directly result in the death of any person or animal, but the combination of all of the "pranks" lead to multiple murders and suicides.
  • Deal with the Devil: Any transaction that Mr. Gaunt makes with a customer. No matter how much of a bargain the item appears to be and no matter how low the price seems, the consequences of whatever prank you play will come to bite you in the end, the item will turn shoddy, and he may or may not get your soul in his valise.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Mr. Gaunt, who uses his affability to his advantage. At first, even the reader is led to believe that he is just a nice guy who owns a little shop that has anything a person would desire and is willing to sell you the thing you desire for a bargain and the only ones who would think otherwise are readers familiar with Stephen King's formula. There are also multiple hints that he is up to no good and may not even be human even from the beginning, yet no one except Brian, and the only one he tells is his little brother before he shoots himself right in front of him, realizes that he's a malign influence until after bodies start piling up.
  • Domestic Abuse: "Buster" Keeton verbally and emotionally abuses his wife, Myrtle, though he doesn't hurt her physically until he goes completely insane and beats her to death with a hammer. Nettie Cobb's husband was a brutal Domestic Abuser, and she eventually killed him. Wilma Jerzyck specializes in utterly breaking down her husband's spirit.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Polly doesn't want anyone to know about her dead son, even her boyfriend. She also tries to hide how much her arthritis torments her.
  • Driven to Suicide: Brian Rusk, Gaunt's first customer, when he sees that the pranks he did on Gaunt's order indirectly led to the deaths of Wilma and Nettie. Sally Ratcliffe also does herself in. Norris Ridgewick attempts suicide for similar reasons, but changes his mind.
  • The Eighties: King has stated that Needful Things is the greedy, negative parts of the decade distilled down into one store.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: "Buster" Keeton hates his nickname.
  • For the Evulz: Gaunt at one point muses that there is no real point to what he's doing anymore. He simply doesn't need any more souls than he already has. But it sure is fun.
  • Freak Out!: Nettie, when she finds her dog dead.
  • Freudian Excuse: One of the main conflicts is between the Catholics and the Baptists of the town, because the Catholics want to hold a "Casino Nite", and the Baptist minister fiercely opposes this, because (though he doesn't admit it) his father was a gambling addict who eventually killed himself.
  • From Bad to Worse
  • The Gambling Addict: "Buster" Keeton, one of the town's selectmen is addicted to gambling at the horse tracks, and started embezzling to cover the costs.
  • Game Face: Gaunt sometimes looks like a charming and handsome man, but he's actually a demon with claws, and a face that is "a horror of eyes and teeth".
  • Genre Blindness: Most of the town. They spend a week playing mean-spirited tricks on people they don't know for reasons they don't understand... not a one of them (except - belatedly - Polly and Eddie) imagines that the mean-spirited tricks played on them might have a similar source.
  • Genre Savvy: Sheriff Pangborn. He has been in a King novel before, after all. Gaunt actually seems to sense this about Pangborn, and avoids interacting with him until the novel's climax.
    Gaunt: "That sheriff is what we in the business call a 'hard sell.'"
  • Glamour Failure: Most of the things that people get from Needful Things are junk, disguised as treasures by an implied magical illusion. The illusion fails sometimes, usually in a My God, What Have I Done? moment or when someone else's treasure is seen.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Wilma Jerzyck.
  • Harmful to Minors: Eleven year old Brian Rusk plays two seemingly harmless pranks on Wilma Jerzyk one, throwing mud on her clean sheets; two, throwing rocks at her house with messages rubber banded to them. This results in her and Nettie Cobb killing each other. He hears of their deaths and the role of his pranks in their deaths and the guilt drives him to commit suicide in his garage in front of his seven year old brother.
  • Hate Plague: Gaunt's influence makes the townspeople more aggressive, to the point that they are willing to commit murder over pranks. When he's finally defeated, all fighting stops immediately.
  • Henpecked Husband: Pete Jerzyck, Wilma's husband.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Gaunt.
  • Hurting Hero: Alan Pangborn has never gotten over his wife and son's death in a car accident several years before.
  • Imposter Forgot One Detail: In an attempt to get Pangborn into the spiral of murder overtaking the town, Gaunt shows him an illusion of his wife and son's car being hit by one driven by Ace. Pangborn realizes it's a fake when he realizes they're wearing their seatbelts in the illusion - the reason they died in real life.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Gaunt, again.
  • Kaleidoscope Eyes: The first clue of Gaunt's supernatural nature is that his eye color is always what his current customer finds the most attractive.
  • Kick the Dog: Nearly every character does it at some point.
  • Last Dance: Nettie and Wilma.
  • Lightning Bruiser: We see hints of this with Alan Pangborn when he reveals uncanny reflexes, and at one point Polly is incredulous that a man as big as him can move so quickly. He's so fast that at the climax, he can take Gaunt by surprise.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Lonely Doll Girl: Myrtle Keeton likes to be alone with the dolls she collects because they don't call her stupid, unlike her husband.
  • Louis Cypher: Gaunt is some kind of a demon that has been wandering on Earth for years, collecting souls and triggering chaos and death wherever he goes. In the movie, they explicitly try to show he is Satan himself.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Gaunt is like Iago on a large scale. He takes the already existing grudges between the townspeople and makes them worse with his pranks, until they kill each other.
  • Mercy Kill: Ace does this to Buster, after Norris shoots him in the stomach.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Non-comedic example. Gaunt manipulates both Sally Ratcliffe and Lester Pratt (who are engaged to each other) to believe that the other one is cheating. This eventually causes their deaths.
  • Mutual Kill: Several examples.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Several of Gaunt's pawns have this reaction as they manage to break free of his influence. Three of them try to commit suicide. Two succeed. The third, Deputy Norris Ridgewick, stops himself when he realizes just how badly he was tricked, and takes a level in badass, as seen below, to help stop Gaunt.
  • Nervous Wreck: Nettie is always tense and jumpy due to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. Keeton also gradually becomes this as paranoia sets in.
  • Noodle Incident: Unusually, a future one (only in the movie):
    Gaunt: Oh, by the way, give my regards to your grandson. Bob will be his name, international trade his game. I'll see him in Jakarta, 2053. August 14th. 10 a.m. A nice, sunny day. We'll make headlines.
  • Only Sane Man: Alan Pangborn, and even he is very nearly caught up in Gaunt's treachery.
  • Paranoia Gambit: Gaunt basically pulls a huge one on the entire town. Everyone is assigned to pull a "prank" on someone they have no particular attachment to, positive or negative. Everyone on the receiving end thinks the prank was done by their worst enemy, and sets out for revenge on the wrong person.
    • On a smaller scale, Wilma Jerzyck does this to Nettie Cobb, making threatening phone calls and slow drive-bys of her house just to freak her out.
  • Parental Neglect: After Cora gets the sunglasses from Mr. Gaunt, she pretty much stops paying attention to her sons. When Brian commits suicide, she doesn't even realize what happened.
  • Pet the Dog: After Gaunt is defeated, Reverend Willie and Father Brigham (who had just been trying to kill each other) are seen, badly injured, leaning on each other for support. Doubles as a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming.
  • Please Put Some Clothes On: When Cora Rusk angrily storms to Needful Things to see Mr. Gaunt after her visit with the King has been rudely interrupted by the presence of another woman,she doesn't realize that her nightgown is only partially buttoned and showing her privates until Mr. Gaunt points it out to her.
  • Poisoned Weapons: The bullets from the guns Gaunt sells have some kind of unknown toxin on them, which causes slow and painful death (if the bullet wound itself isn't fatal).
  • Police Are Useless: Averted. Sheriff Pangborn is 100% solid Badass to the point that even Gaunt knows to stay clear of him, and deputies Norris, Andy, and John all pull their weight in trying to save the town, even after getting the crap kicked out of them.
  • Precocious Crush: Eleven-year-old Brian has a crush on the teacher of his speech therapy class, Sally Ratcliffe.
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: The shop has this motto on the wall: I DO NOT ISSUE REFUNDS OR MAKE EXCHANGES CAVEAT EMPTOR! (Latin for "let the buyer beware".)
  • Pride: Polly's Fatal Flaw and what Gaunt uses to turn her against Pangborn. She eventually snaps out of it.
  • Re Cut: TBS aired a version of the movie that was extended almost a full hour, restoring a ton a character scenes and story.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Buster Keaton in the film.
  • Red Right Hand: One of the early signs that something's wrong with Gaunt are his hands: peculiarly long-fingered, and the first and second finger are exactly the same length. They're also rough and extremely unpleasant and even sickening to the touch.
  • Shout-Out: The book contains several Shout Outs to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Night-Gaunts are a fictional race that appears in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Gaunt says that he got his cocaine from the Plains of Leng, a place that appears in several Lovecraft stories. Ace sees a graffiti that reads "Yog-Sothoth Rules". Yog-Sothoth is a cosmic entity in Lovecraft's work.
  • Slasher Smile: Mr. Gaunt does this in private after he sells Brian the Sandy Koufax baseball card. Just one of the multiple hints that he is a Devil in Plain Sight and possibly the most obvious of the early ones.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Gaunt.
  • Soul Jar: Gaunt collects the souls of people who died because of him, and somehow traps them in a valise.
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: Somewhat subverted, as the building itself was there yesterday and will be there tomorrow: it's run as a perfectly normal small town curio store, complete with "coming soon" signs before the grand opening and regular business hours. (Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment.) Less suspicious that way.
  • The Tape Knew You Would Say That: Gaunt leaves a tape for his Dragon, Ace Merrill, giving instructions for what he should do. When Ace considers ignoring the instructions and just stealing Gaunt's stuff, the tape starts up again on its own and threatens him with a fate worse than death. It's at this point that Ace realizes that the tape player isn't even plugged in.
  • Too Awesome to Use: Used in-universe; most people who buy their personal "needful thing" from Gaunt become too obsessed with protecting and guarding it to ever use it in the manner intended. It's implied that this is by design, lest someone else see and point out that their treasure is really junk. Unfortunately, the trope doesn't hold true when Gaunt starts selling guns...
  • Took a Level in Badass: Norris Ridgewick, who first appeared as a Clueless Deputy in the previous novel The Dark Half. Here, he finishes off Gaunt's henchmen "Buster" Keeton and Ace. Bag of Bones reveals he goes on to become sheriff of Castle County.
  • Treasure Map: Ace buys a Treasure Map from Gaunt to his uncle's fortune. At least that's what he thinks.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Visiting with the King.
  • Vomiting Cop: As previously established in The Dark Half, Norris Ridgewick is a sensitive soul. He tends to throw up when working bad car wrecks. He even does so when the driver has managed to escape injury because of how bad it could have been.
  • Went to the Great X in the Sky: "Pop Merrill's gone to that big flea-market in the sky".
  • What Have We Ear?: Sheriff Pangborn, an amateur magician does the trick with Sean Rusk. He also attempts it with Brian, who's too far gone by this point to react with anything but mild relief that it wasn't something horrible.

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alternative title(s): Needful Things
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