Literature / Needful Things

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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:

  • The '80s: King has stated that Needful Things is the greedy, negative parts of the decade distilled down into one store.
  • A Father to His Men: Sheriff Pangborn. Much more pronounced in the book than the movie, though.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Danforth "Buster" Keeton in the books is an unpleasant person through-and-through, even before he goes crazy. He browbeats his wife (and later murders her), bullies skinny Norris Ridgewick and is so rotten that even mild-mannered Sheriff Pangborn finds himself quietly wishing Buster would just die and spare everyone around him his presence. In the movie, however, a lot of this is toned down: his personality is more small-town yokel than pompous prick, he confesses his embezzlement to Alan outright and levels with him as an equal (something book Buster would never do), and in the movie's climax he even turns on Gaunt outright.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Gaunt in the books is no saint, but in the movie he is all-but-stated to be Satan himself, and in the Needful Things basement Sheriff Pangborn finds a number of old newspapers implying Gaunt to be responsible or at least involved in various disasters of the 20th century. He also gets to add Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil to his belt.
  • Adapted Out: Too many to count, but a special mention should be made for John "Ace" Merrill, the villain of earlier King work The Body (adapted into the film Stand by Me). In the book he is a main character, acting as Gaunt's Psycho for Hire and the closest thing he has to a Dragon, but in the movie he simply never returns to Castle Rock and Gaunt is never given an accomplice at all (he tricks Buster into doing his bidding for a time, but even he turns on Gaunt eventually).
  • Affably Evil: Leland Gaunt on his good days.
  • The Alcoholic: Hugh Priest.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse; Ace Merrill, who is deep in debt to mobsters and has been given a set time to pay them back lest they execute him.
  • A Storm Is Coming: The book's prologue, and stated outright by Gaunt in the movie.
  • Asshole Victim: Wilma Jerzyck has the dubious honor of being the least sympathetic of all of Gaunt's victims.
  • 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.
    • Downer Ending: The film version is this, due to Gaunt being allowed to get away with his crimes completely scot-free.
  • 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.
    • Sheriff Pangborn in the climax wields the mystical force of The White against Gaunt, which is later made a significant element in the The Dark Tower series.
  • 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: Book Gaunt's Tucker Talisman... which is more than just a car. In the movie it's just a black Mercedes with no supernatural elements.
  • 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. Same case with Cora Rusk, only with a pair of (supposedly) the King's sunglasses.
    • 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.
    • The stink bombs kill at least one person and injure many others, since they cause a stampede toward doors that had been barred beforehand.
  • 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.
  • Doing In the Wizard: Of a sort in the movie. While Gaunt is practically stated outright to be the devil, very few of his supernatural elements and abilities actually survive the transition between the book and the film. The climax in particular, which is much more epic in the book, is downgraded to Gaunt simply tanking a huge explosion and then arrogantly sauntering to his car.
  • 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.
  • Dueling Messiahs: Reverend Rose of the Baptists and Father Brigham of the Catholics. Made explicit in the movie when Reverend Rose shows up at Wilma's funeral and both pastors start trying to drown each other out with their respective prayers for the deceased.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: "Buster" Keeton hates his nickname.
  • Eye Colour Change: Book Gaunt's eyes change color depending on who he is talking to. He seems to adopt whatever color whatever color will soothe or ingratiate him to his customers most. In one chapter he even goes full Kaleidoscope Eyes.
  • 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. And besides, he's a BORED immortal.
  • 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 story in a nutshell.
  • 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'.
    • This is disappointingly subverted in the film, which has Gaunt meet with Pangborn early and even in the climax has no fear at all of him.
  • 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.
    • Gaunt himself also experiences significant glamour failure in the book, particularly in the climax where being pressed by Sheriff Pangborn makes it much harder for him to maintain his disguise. After being trashed by Sheriff Pangborn armed with the power of the White, his true form is revealed for all to see and he rides out of town screaming in his Cool Car, which is also quickly revealed to be demonic in nature.
  • 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.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Keeton is outraged when Mr. Gaunt sends Ace Merrill to help him — Ace is, after all, a criminal. If this is meant to be Played for Laughs, though, it's a very dark joke indeed: Keeton has been embezzling for years, just beat his long-suffering wife's head in with a hammer, and is now planning to blow up most of the town with dynamite. Of course, by this point, Keeton is completely insane.
  • 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 - when they died in real life specifically because they weren't.
    • How Polly realizes the letter from San Francisco is fake; it uses Patricia, not Polly.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Gaunt, again.
  • It Amused Me: Gaunt takes souls from those who die as a result of his machinations, but he admits that he's not really doing any of this for the souls. He has plenty of them at this point. He just finds all of this really, really funny.
  • Jesus: Directly namedropped by Gaunt in the movie as part of his upgrade from demonic entity to the actual devil.
    Gaunt: The young carpenter from Nazareth? I knew him well. Promising young man. Died badly.
  • 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.
  • Karma Houdini: Movie Gaunt never gets taken down a peg at all and to the very end is untouchable. While book Gaunt is just as hard to kill, he experiences significantly more retribution and is forced to flee Castle Rock in defeat rather than being allowed to taunt the heroes and then drive out of town like he does in the movie.
  • Kick the Dog: Nearly every character does it at some point, but Hugh Priest takes it literally with poor Raider.
  • The 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. Subverted with movie Pangborn, who is allowed to save Brian Rusk only to be unceremoniously shot in the climax.
  • 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.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Particularly in the novel. Many of them were Adapted Out of the movie out of sheer practicality's sake.
  • Lonely Doll Girl: Myrtle Keeton likes to be alone with the dolls she collects because they don't call her stupid, unlike her husband. This is adapted out in the movie, which seems to merge her character with the snooty Lenore Potter to make Buster more sympathetic.
  • 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.
  • Made of Iron: Movie Gaunt walks out of an explosion large enough to blow his whole shop to smithereens none the worse for wear. The book version was not nearly so untouchable, experiencing a slow but steady Glamour Failure in the chapters leading up to the climax.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name: In a work chock-full of references to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, it's a pretty safe bet that Leland Gaunt wasn't named at random.
  • Mercy Kill: Ace does this to Buster in the book, 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.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Gaunt in the movie gives Dan Keeton the manhandling he gives Ace in the books in response to catching him praying "on his time". Later in the climax he hectors and calls him "Buster" one time too many.
  • 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.
  • Non-Fatal Explosions: Averted Frank Jewett and George Nelson do NOT escape after their last-minute reconciliation.
  • 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.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: The movie soundtrack is full of it.
  • One-Winged Angel: Hinted at in the book when Gaunt advises Ace not to make him mad. Ace asks if he would "Hulk out", and though Gaunt seems annoyed at first, yes, he assents, he would "Hulk Out". And later, when Ace does make him angry, Gaunt's face turns into "a horror of eyes and teeth" blowing steam, his hands become talons and he threatens to disembowel Ace.
  • 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, John, and Seat all pull their weight in trying to save the town, even after getting the crap kicked out of them. The importance of dispatchers are also highlighted late in the book, playing an important role in saving the town, both by simply being dispatch as well as joining in the brawl when the police station is under attack.
    • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Aside from Alan himself, this is what the Castle County Sheriff's Office seems to be made up of. Alan is quite aware of it, but he's A Father to His Men and won't have anyone mistreating them. His loyalty to them is repaid in spades, as their inner badasses are all brought out over the course of the book.
  • Portal Crossroad World: Whipple Street in Cambridge, which is heavily implied to be connected to Leng, a place in the works of Lovecraft where different realities converge. Gaunt sends Ace Merrill there to retrieve his Tucker Talisman (which is later revealed to be a demonic hellwagon).
  • 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.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Buster and to some degree even Gaunt himself in the movie. The way he eggs on Pangborn and Buster with grade-school taunts like "Wussy!" destroys his Sophisticated as Hell façade more effectively than any bomb ever could.
  • Rage Breaking Point: Nettie Cobb endured years of abuse from her husband...until he broke one of her pieces of carnival glass and she stabbed him to death in his sleep.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Gaunt in the books is fairly indifferent to sex outside of one strange conversation with Myra Evans. In the movie he has not one but two sexual encounters with Polly Chalmers, and in both of them he's pretty obviously using his supernatural powers to mind whammy her into indulging him.
  • Re Cut: TBS aired a version of the movie that was extended almost a full hour, restoring a ton a character scenes and story.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Gaunt. Practically spelled out for viewers in the movie:
    Norris Ridgewick: Come on, Alan... 1894?
  • Redemption Equals Death: Buster Keeton 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, and later Gaunt sends Ace to a Cambridge slum that is heavily implied to be at least a part of Leng itself. While examining Gaunt's garage, 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: Book Gaunt collects the souls of people who died because of him, and somehow traps them in a valise.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The brutal fight/murder between Nettie and Wilma in the movie is set to Schubert's "Ave Maria", a composition commonly used for this trope.
    • The audiobook version (read by King himself) features a weird, bouncy, jangly carnival organ, especially during the most violent scenes. This along with King's slightly nasal Yankee twang makes the death scenes sound much goofier than they should be.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Brian Rusk survives his suicide attempt in the movie, in the book he is not so lucky.
  • 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: All of Alan's deputies over the course of the novel, but especially 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.
  • Trapped by Gambling Debts: Buster and Ace are both deep in debt, Buster from his embezzling and Ace from a cocaine deal gone bad. Gaunt gleefully uses it against both of them.
  • 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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