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Literature / Needful Things

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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.

Needful Things provides examples of:

  • The '80s: King has stated that Needful Things is all of the greedy, negative parts of the decade distilled down into one store.
  • 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 Mundanity: While Gaunt is practically stated outright to be a demon, 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.
  • 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).
  • Affectionate Nickname: Everybody calls Patricia Chalmers "Polly", except for her Aunt Evvie, who called her Trisha.
  • The Alcoholic: Hugh Priest.
  • All Gays Are Pedophiles: Frank Jewett keeps magazines of naked little boys in his office. He and his "friend" George Nelson also once went to a party with very underage boys.
  • 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.
  • Asshole Victim: Wilma Jerzyck has the dubious honor of being the least sympathetic of all of Gaunt's victims. And this list includes an animal-abusing alcoholic, a domestic abuser who believes he's being "persecuted" by Them rather than face up to his embezzlement and general dickheadery, a racist white man, a racist African American, and two pedophiles, among others.
  • Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption: While walking home, Brian Rusk has a fantasy about going on a date with his teacher, Sally Ratcliffe. It gets interrupted when he walks in front of Hugh Priest's truck and Hugh yells at him:
    “No,” she murmurs, and now her eyes are so wide and so close that he seems almost to drown in them, “you mustn’t, Bri ... it’s wrong ...”
    “It’s right, baby, ” he says, and presses his lips to hers.
    She draws away after a few moments and whispers tenderly:
    “Hey, kid, watch out where the fuck you’re goin!”
  • 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 things start unraveling fast. 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.
  • Bad Boss: While Ace Merrill pretty much serves as Gaunt's dragon for a solid portion of the novel, Gaunt views him no differently than anyone else in the town, and magically creates a video of Merrill driving Alan's wife and son off the road to their deaths in an effort that he leaves for Pangborn to view to get Pangborn to kill Ace as Ace has already been wound up into killing Pangborn.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Two big examples, one of which makes it into the film and one of which does not.
    • Hugh Priest initially comes across as more pathetic than loathsome, but what he does to Raider puts him up there with Wilma Jerzyck in the Asshole Victim category.
    • Frank Jewett, who kills a parakeet with a steak knife at one point.
  • Bantering Baddie Buddies: The "Flying Corson Brothers" Mike and Dave, Connecticut arms dealers and drug-runners who only appear once in a flashback to give Ace Merrill a sufficient motivation to return to Castle Rock.
  • Been There, Shaped History: Gaunt gets to play with this in the film on a grand scale. Not only are several disasters of the 20th century implied to be his handiwork, he directly namedrops Jesus 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. He died badly.
  • Berserk Button: Don't call Danforth Keeton "Buster." Just... don't.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Nettie and possibly Polly, near the end.
  • Big Damn Heroes: After playing from behind for much of the novel, Alan Pangborn finally gets to go one-on-one vs. Gaunt. While he doesn't kill Gaunt, because he doesn't have the power, he does seriously incapacitate him, gets all the souls back that Gaunt took, and forces Gaunt to flee.
    • Norris Ridgewick of all people gets one in the finale as well. Ace Merrill takes Polly hostage during the final confrontation and Norris Ridgewick pulls a Boom, Headshot! on him from a distance.
  • 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.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: And in contrast to the obviously unpleasant Wilma Jerzyck, there's Nan Roberts, owner of her titular lunchonette. She's the very model of a sweet small-town lady, but the narrative later reveals there's "a pile of account books where her heart should be" and that she owns a very large chunk of Castle Rock. When the Baptists and Catholics are pitted against each other, she fights ferociously on the Baptist side.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gaunt is defeated, but by then, most of Castle Rock is destroyed. Also, he starts the whole thing again in another town.
  • 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.
  • Blood Knight: Wilma Jerzyck is the small-town housewife version of this, as it is noted several times that she loves nothing more than a good feud, and goes out of her way to pick fights with people over slights both real and imagined. She ultimately becomes the full version of this trope after coming to believe that Nettie has thrown rocks in her house and destroyed much of her property.
  • 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...
  • Boom, Headshot!: In the novel, Ace Merrill goes out this way, courtesy of Norris.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Wilma likes picking feuds and considers a murderer who just left an asylum to be a good target. Nettie is generally a gentle and timid woman, but picking a fight with someone mentally unstable is probably not a great idea. As we find out, that's putting it mildly.
  • 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).
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Subverted. There are aspects of Gaunt's character (like the Exact Words prices he negotiates, and his visible anger when accused of deception) which suggest that, like the stories of The Fair Folk or other supernatural bargain-makers, he is not able to lie directly and someone who isn't blinded by their desire would be able to catch him out. As it turns out, he lies directly and frequently, which actually bites him at the climax as he now wants to negotiate but has absolutely no power to any more because nobody trusts his words at all, while a supernatural being that could be trusted to abide by its word would still have some leverage.
  • 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.
    • Polly visits the location where a mother and her son were trapped in a car by a formerly peaceful St Bernard and this incident gets mentioned a couple of other times throughout the book.
  • 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. He ups the ante a tad bit in the final act by selling guns to the now-enraged residents of the town that have bullets that are laced with some sort of poison that will eventually kill a person, even if they are wounded in a non-fatal area, but still he leaves it up to the residents to kill each other, he just makes it easier.
  • Church Militant: Gaunt's pranks culminate in the town's Baptist and Catholic congregations to literally become this, forming mobs and going to war in the streets with each other.
  • 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. It's never entirely clear how much of this is some sort of hereditary mental illness, and how much of it is him preferring to blame Them for "persecuting" him rather than face up the fact that he's an embezzler and all-round asshole who is universally disliked for perfectly sound reasons.
  • Cool Car:
    • Book Gaunt's canary yellow Tucker Talisman, a proposed ultra-sleek prototype car that only ever existed in concept art form. It practically drives itself, has no license plates, doesn't need to be refueled, pays its own tolls, happily cruises at 100+ MPH and doesn't get any attention from the police.
    • Movie Gaunt's car is a black 1958 Mercedes-Benz 300d Adenauer with dark tinted windows that has an unusual-sounding engine and the ability to appear and disappear out of thin air. It does pretty well in a high-speed chase against a more modern police cruiser. It disappears after getting wrecked and blown up and returns as Gaunt's getaway car at the end. He also owns a more humble-looking green Volvo station wagon when he first arrives at his new store.
  • Cool Old Guy: In the novel, Seaton Thomas. While he's not really seen until the third act, he more than makes up for it once he becomes part of the narrative. He's older, and has a weak heart, but when all Hell breaks loose, he's one of the few people in town that hasn't been corrupted by Gaunt, and aids the wounded Norris Ridgewick by driving the car for him in the finale when Norris is trying to help Alan. When Gaunt is driven out of town, Seaton, completely perky, drives Alan, Polly, and wounded Norris to the hospital.
  • Cool Old Lady: Although Polly's parents heavily pressured her to either have her baby in secret and give up for adoption or marry the father out of fear that her rich great-aunt would disinherit them for the embarrassment, it turns out Evvy Chalmers is this. She's the most supportive member of Polly's family in the end, and is calmly practical, plus is the only person Polly feels immediately comfortable telling the whole story of her baby to. When Polly starts to have misgivings about her own "needful thing" and the fake letter saying Alan was investigating her, it starts as her imagining Aunt Evvy calling her out.
  • Corrupt Politician: "Buster" Keeton, who started stealing from the town's funds to cover his gambling addiction.
  • Dead Animal Warning: Nettie's dog, Raider, is skewered with a swiss army knife and left with the note for her to find.
  • 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.
  • Depraved Homosexual: The book has two, both of whom work for the city's school system: Frank Jewett (principal) and George T. Nelson (shop teacher). They're both gay, and also both pedophiles. While Jewett makes a minor appearance in the film, for obvious reasons his subplot with George T. Nelson was left out.
  • 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.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: Keeton and Ace both end up as this. They're set up as major antagonists and assistants to Gaunt, but Norris Ridgewick manages to mortally wound Keeton before Ace finishes him off, and Ridgewick later kills Ace Merrill. Adding to the trope is the fact that Alan Pangborn and Leland Gaunt are so focused on each other they don't even hardly notice Ace has been killed.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Gaunt typically sets people off by having their possessions or reputations damaged, which causes them to lash out in murderous rage. While the people involved would probably cool off eventually, they aren't given the chance.
  • Domestic Abuse: The book contains a number of example, most of which survive the transition between book and film.
    • "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: Several residents commit suicide or try. The first example is tragic, the second has hints of condemnation for cowardice and the third is averted by someone actually taking responsibility for their actions.
    • 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. His suicide helps majorly clue Alan in to what is going on because it was simply so bizarre.
    • Sally Ratcliffe also does herself in, but the scene in question shows she still couldn't give up the supposed fragment of the ark she bought. She never really tried to fix things either.
    • Norris Ridgewick attempts suicide for similar reasons, but changes his mind. As such he plays a crucial role in the resolution of the climax.
  • 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 childhood nickname.
    • Reverend Rose is also called "Steamboat Willie" behind his back.
  • Enforced Cold War: Played with: even before Gaunt comes to town Castle Rock's Baptist and Catholic churches hate each other, and their respective leaders have apparently made a habit of weekly sermons decrying the moral failings of the other. This cold war is enforced by the rule of law as well as neither side really hating each other to the point of committing violence (though with some members it's a close thing) but Gaunt is easily able to fire up these tensions to the point of both congregations going to war with each other.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the extended version of the film, we're introduced to three of the main characters; Pangborn, Norris and Gaunt. Sheriff Pangborn is fixing Norris' cruiser. It's quickly established that the Sheriff is A Father to His Men as they're on a first-name basis and reassures Norris that the breakdown isn't his fault. We then have Gaunt—a bell that hangs on the Mercedes' rear view mirror shows up on a green Volvo station wagon and later the main door of the shop—enter the picture in his Mercedes, who proceeds to shear off Norris door, nearly killing them both, and lead Alan on a chase that leads to a crash and his subsequent disappearance. This establishes Gaunt as petty, dangerous, devious, and mysterious.
  • Evil Is Petty: In the extended version of the film, one of the very first things that Gaunt does when he arrives in Castle Rock is shear the door off of Norris' police cruiser and nearly hit both him and Pangborn with his Mercedes, then goad the latter into a pursuit.
  • Expy:
    • Leland Gaunt, of Iago, playing people off each other with flattery and slyness, and sowing discord for no discernible human purpose other than that he finds it "diverting" and it's second nature to him by this point.
    • Alan Pangborn also mentally compares his twisted sense of humor to that of the Joker, and the description lines up there, too: he's a tall, lean trickster with a penchant for violence and a disturbingly wide smile, feigning kindness when things are going his way and flying off the handle when they aren't. He even has a Jokermobile of sorts in the Talisman.
  • Eye Colour Change: Book Gaunt's eyes change color depending on who he is talking to, and seems to adopt whatever color will soothe or ingratiate him to his clientele most. In one chapter with Ace Merrill, Ace even sees them as Kaleidoscope Eyes after he's already enthralled to Gaunt by force and there's no longer any reason to please the customer.
  • A Father to His Men: Sheriff Pangborn. Much more pronounced in the book than the movie, though. The extended version does add several moments to show that he does have a good personal and professional relationship with his people.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Leland Gaunt initially presents himself as a genial and charismatic shopkeeper, if a bit eccentric. As the novel goes on he begins to drop the pleasantries more and more frequently, showing he is not only crude and nasty, but a profoundly evil being who plays with and destroys people's lives purely for his own amusement. Notably, as soon as Ace Merrill fills the "help" position, Gaunt's pleasant demeanor with him takes on a much more artificial, wry tone.
  • 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.
  • Fuzz Therapy: Nettie Cobb's dog Raider was given to her by Polly for this purpose. Sadly Raider does not make it through the film or the novel, and his death is what causes Nettie to finally snap.
  • 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".
  • Gaslighting: This is Gaunt's M.O. He does this both directly and indirectly to his victims. He has others play "pranks" on someone else and blame it on their enemy. This drives his victims to paranoia and anger. Eventually, it causes them to snap and kill the person the prank is pinned on.
  • 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 somewhat subverted in the film, which has Gaunt meet with Pangborn early—in the extended version, Gaunt's first interaction with him is a police pursuit—and even in the climax has no fear at all of him. However, Pangborn isn't swayed by Gaunt. After his first in-person meeting with him, he is immediately suspicious and writes down a reminder in his notebook to check him out. After Brian Rusk's attempted suicide, he tells Norris to contact the State Attorney General and have them do a background check on Gaunt stating that he's running some kind of con and is involved somehow.
    • Gaunt himself also qualifies for the reasons stated above in the novel. He senses immediately that Pangborn is no easy mark, and spends 95% of the novel actively avoiding him. Even when he leaves Pangborn a "Needful Thing," he's nowhere to be found. Justified in that when Pangborn and Gaunt finally do meet face to face, the confrontation ends with Gaunt losing his souls, being severely incapacitated, and being forced to flee. He was 100% right to avoid Pangborn.
  • Glamour Failure:
    • Gaunt admits that most of the things that people get from Needful Things are junk, disguised as treasures by both an implied magical illusion and the desires of the recipients. The illusion fails sometimes, usually in a My God, What Have I Done? moment or when someone else's treasure is seen.
      "Perhaps all the really special things I sell aren't what they appear to be. Perhaps they are actually gray things with only one remarkable property — the ability to take the shapes of those things which haunt the dreams of men and women." He paused, then added thoughtfully: "Perhaps they are dreams themselves."
    • 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.
    • Gaunt's glamour always fails whenever it involves touch rather than sight or sound; even while appearing fully human (albeit one with strange hands) and being as charming and comforting as he can, people always feel viscerally disgusted if he ever makes physical contact with them. The narration specifically notes that he makes the movement of giving comforting pats to a crying customer without actually touching her, implying that he is genuinely unable to prevent people being revolted by his touch.
  • 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. In the film, after warning him about Gaunt, Brian attempts suicide in front of Pangborn who saves him and he ends up in the hospital.
  • 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. The narration states that he wasn't merely afraid of Wilma, "he lived in awe of her, as natives in certain tropical climes once supposedly lived in awe and superstitious dread of the Great God Thunder Mountain."
  • Here We Go Again!: The epilogue mentions Answered Prayers, a new kind of store opening soon in Junction City, Iowa.
  • Heroic BSoD: Alan Pangborn suffers this when Gaunt seemingly finds the one "Needful Thing" Pangborn is looking for: a video the truth behind what happened during his wife and son's off-screen accident. It drives the up-to-then collected Pangborn into a murderous rage, and it's only thanks to Polly he snaps out of it.
  • Hidden Wire: An unknown bar patron warns Ace Merrill: "Man you be talking to wearing a wire". Ace gets the hell out of there, and wonders afterwards whether the warning was sincere or just a trick by some random guy having a laugh.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Gaunt's biggest loss comes because his main magical power (the ability to make bits of junk become real things with real power provided someone believes that they're seeing exactly what they want) gets used against him when Pangborn's simple stage magic and shadow puppets take on real power in Gaunt's presence.
  • Hope Spot: One of the few items Gaunt sells that seems to actually do anything at all is seemingly magical board game that lets "Buster" predict race winners. He earns a lot of money quickly and plans to use it to cover his embezzlement by reducing it to a level people could overlook, but then one of Alan's deputies plays a little "prank" that makes him go into full blown paranoia mode. He never recovers from this.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Gaunt looks like a charming older man, but his eyes are not a constant color and his hands are misshapen and extremely unpleasant to the touch. His true form is rather less appealing.
  • 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.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Hugh Priest starts the story as a reasonable sympathetic alcoholic until he straight up stabs a lonely woman's dog to death with a corkscrew just so he can keep a foxtail that he refuses to even risk by putting it on his car like he intended. He realizes after doing it that he just destroyed the only thing this woman has going for her, only to shrug and walk out.
  • Imposter Forgot One Detail: It's implied that there is always some sort of mistake or overlooked detail with Gaunt's illusions or at least that the illusion always fails at least once. It's up to the buyer to notice the deception and acknowledge it.
    • 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 deliberately 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, and in San Francisco she never used Patricia, not even on official documents.
  • 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 fun.
  • 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 impossible for Alan 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.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: Ace Merrill was a Karma Houdini in The Body. Then he comes back for this one and Norris blows his brains out in the climax.
  • Keeping the Handicap: Polly goes to Gaunt to get a magical cure for her crippling arthritis, but eventually she realizes his evil ways and refuses the cure:
    Polly: That was what I wanted, but I don't need it to be gone. I can love you and I can love life and bear the pain all at the same time. I think the pain might even make the rest better, the way a good setting can make a diamond look better.
  • Kick the Dog: Nearly every character does it at some point, but Hugh Priest takes it literally with poor Raider.
  • Large Ham: Reverend Rose-uh, in keeping with the Baptist-preacher stereotype.
  • 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. However, it does seem to be mysteriously closed at inconvenient moments, with a different sign in the door each time. However, the fact that once Gaunt's decided to leave the store has a coating of dust thick enough to suggest the premises have been undisturbed for years, and the only footprints in it are those of the man whose discovered this worrying detail, makes it quite likely that the dozens of people who've walked through the door of Gaunt's shop have been somewhere else during their time there.
  • 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 centuries, 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. It's still impossible for Alan Pangborn to actually kill the monster, but he does manage to drive it away and implicitly free the souls he had taken.
  • 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.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Gaunt is explicitly a supernatural being, and Alan is able to pull off a few magical stunts himself at the climax, but it's not clear whether the "ghost" of Polly's great-aunt Evvy is a true supernatural visitation or just her own subconscious.
  • Meaningful Name: 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.
  • Mile-High Club: In one of Myra's visions about Elvis, they're having sex on his private jet, the "Lisa Marie".
  • 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.
  • Moral Guardians: Reverend William "Steamboat Willie" Rose of the Baptists is one of these, as he is morally outraged by the Catholic Church's "Casino Nite" event which involves some (very soft) gambling. Late in the book it's revealed through narration that his father was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, explaining his fanatical stance of the issue.
  • Mutual Kill: Most of the townsfolk set up to fight each other end up killing both their opponent and themselves in the process. It's even enforced by the "guns" Gaunt sells near the end, which are implied to be guns no more than his car is really a car. Even if the victim survives the bullet wound, their heart will eventually explode. Though gunshot victims who survive until Gaunt is driven out of town seem to survive.
  • 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. Polly also realizes her mistake and destroys her arthritis charm in the process. Subverted with Alan, who was on his way to murder Ace after being wrongly convinced Ace murdered his wife and son, but he has an epiphany before he acts on his rage and realizes the tape was faked and Ace didn't kill them.
    • Two of Gaunt's victims manage to somehow both fire at each other and miss their bullets, which snaps them back to their senses. They move to reconcile only for the building to explode next to them and kill both. Good riddance: Both were child molesters and one dealt drugs.
    • In the film, Brian Rusk realizes what his two harmless pranks have done and is Driven to Suicide but is saved by Pangborn.
  • The Needless: Ironically, Gaunt himself; the only way he seems to get tired is by emotional exhaustion, and the apartment above his storefront is completely bare — no furniture, no bed, no anything save for curtains on the windows to keep it from looking suspicious at street-level. The only "necessary" thing he gets out of his little game is entertainment, his primary reason to exist at this point.
  • Nervous Wreck: Nettie is always tense and jumpy due to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and her own mental instability. Keeton also gradually becomes this as paranoia sets in.
  • The Nondescript: In the book, essentially nothing about Leland Gaunt's physical appearance is ever revealed, save for his more peculiar features. He seems to be a tall, thin man somewhere in later middle-age based on Brian's initial impression, and later interactions with other characters bear at least this out, but only two things are described in explicit, consistent detail — his crooked teeth, which "jostle" and overlap in a very wide smile, and his hands, on which the first and second finger are exactly the same length. The narration also makes it abundantly clear that his eyes change color to whatever the customer finds most trustworthy, and that he can do it himself at will, so it's more accurate to say that Leland Gaunt looks like however you expect him to.
  • 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.
  • Number of the Beast: Polly Chalmers had ominous memories of the Department of Child Welfare at 666 Geary Street, San Francisco.
  • 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.
  • Oh, Crap!: Movie Myrtle has one when she ends up accidentally pressing her husband's Berserk Button.
    Danforth Keaton: Norris Ridgewick. Did you fuck him?! After the two of you put up all those goddamn parking tickets all over my house?!
    Myrtle Keaton: No! And it's our house buster!
    (Myrtle quickly covers her mouth, realizing that she just said the absolutely wrong thing at the wrong time. She backs up against the garage wall and shuts her eyes as her husband approaches her holding a hammer)
  • 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; those on the receiving end think the prank was done by their worst enemy (as Gaunt chooses what the pranks will be as well, and makes them look as suspicious as possible), then set out for revenge on the wrong person. Even if one of the feuders should come to their senses and restrain themselves from committing any violent acts, the other half of the feud will make sure that there is a violent and fatal confrontation.
    • 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, nor does she care. The little we see of her before she falls under Gaunt's influence shows she was pretty detached and uncaring even then.
  • 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.
  • 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. She doesn't even bother to button up even after it's been pointed out.
  • 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). It may be more supernatural, however, as the "poison" seems to dissipate after the climax.
  • 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.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain:
    • In the book, Buster's participation in blowing up the town includes him taking special care to place a package on the desk of the municipal building's one high-ranking woman, because "women don't belong in politics". While he is stark raving mad by this point, this bit is totally within his previous character.
    • Minor character Sonny Jackett is a bluntly racist mechanic who overcharged for poor service on Eddie Warburton's car, then took Eddie to small claims court for trying to get out of the bill, accusing him of playing the race card; Sonny won the case, and enmity has existed between the two ever since, especially after Eddie's car was later ruined by a mysterious electrical fire.note  Gaunt even entices Sonny to let his guard down not only by showing knowledge of cars and tools, but by turning the conversation to politics and encouraging his use of racial slurs.
  • Porn Stash: Frank Jewett, the school principal is secretly a pedophile, and he's actually dumb enough to keep his collection of child pornography magazines in his own office, albeit in a locked drawer. The "prank" Sally Ratcliffe plays on him is to force that drawer open and scatter the magazines all over the floor of the office.
  • 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).
  • The Power of Trust: Played with. Gaunt's pranks on Polly, Sally and Lester would have been completely nullified if they had trusted the people they loved enough to at least talk to them about what they've apparently done (which Polly realises after the fact). Unfortunately, he has targeted their insecurities sufficiently accurately that they don't until it's too late.
  • The Prankster: A notably dark example. Gaunt encourages his customers into playing seemingly harmless practical jokes on one another, all for the purpose of escalating long-held grudges that will eventually turn violent. Pangborn compares him to the Joker.
  • Precocious Crush: Eleven-year-old Brian has a crush on the teacher of his speech therapy class, Sally Ratcliffe.
  • Pretender Diss: When Alan advises Reverend Rose to let the Catholics hold a casino night and not to escalate the conflict any further, Rose brings up Jesus chasing out the moneylenders from the Temple.
    Rose: When-uh Jesus saw those evil men and women defiling the house of the Lord-uh, He looked for no line of infringement. Our Lord did what He-uh knew to be right!
    Alan: Yes. But you're not Him.
  • 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. The TNT extended version with its censored language includes even more childish insults, which further reinforces this trope.
  • 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.
    • Father Brigham, the town's Catholic priest, has long since grown used to the anti-Catholic insults and slights and slurs he hears pretty regularly — it's part of the job, and they don't bother him too much. But Gaunt's machinations and the resulting "pranks" push him over the edge.
  • 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.
  • 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. In the book, it is mentioned that he was active in Europe during the The Black Death. 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.
  • The Resenter: Some thirty-forty years later, and Ace Merrill still hasn't gotten over Gordie LaChance and his friends getting the better of him in The Body, to say nothing of the great success LaChance has found in his adulthood as a writer. When Gaunt asks him how he feels about the prospect of blowing Castle Rock to kingdom come, Ace doesn't think about the catastrophic loss of life or the millions of dollars in property damage of the act. No, he thinks about Gordie, and how his old nemesis "probably wipes his ass with ten dollar bills" now.
  • Sanity Slippage: Frank Jewett and Buster Keeton, never the most stable of individuals, are driven totally off the deep end thanks to Gaunt's machinations. Frank actually acknowledges that he has lost his mind, and gleefully embraces it.
  • Selective Obliviousness: When the principal of an elementary school has his desk busted open and all his child pornography strewn about his office, at least one teacher seemingly makes a conscious decision to believe the magazines were planted rather than face the truth.
  • Self-Abuse:
    • Myra's regular visits with the King after she buys a framed photo of Elvis Presley from Mr. Gaunt, which she starts spending more and more time doing and neglecting everything else. Same case with Cora Rusk, only with a pair of (supposedly) the King's sunglasses.
    • Implied with The Fundamentalist Sally Ratcliffe, who feels unusually excited after playing her prank on Frank Jewett.
  • Series Fauxnale: The original front cover billed the book as "the last Castle Rock story", but King has brought it back for several stories that were published later. It still remains the last solo full-length novel of King's to be set in Castle Rock, in part because the town is nearly razed to the ground in the climax.
  • Serial Killer: Supernatural and immortal elements aside, this is exactly what Mr. Gaunt is. Only his murder weapon of choice is gaslighting his victims into killing each other.
  • 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.
    • It also contains several nods to Twin Peaks. The book has sometimes been described as Stephen King's version of Twin Peaks, being that it's about an apparently peaceful small town community full of colorful characters in which things are actually much darker than they seem and a demon entity is wreaking havoc. Specifically, not only is the show directly title dropped when Deputy Norris Ridgewick is compared to Deputy Andy, but it contains a subtler nod: the villain of the piece is called Leland Gaunt and claims to be from Akron, Ohio. Actor Ray Wise, who played Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks, is from Akron, Ohio.
  • 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.
  • Sleight of Handiness: Alan Pangborn is seen performing simple sleight-of-hand tricks and shadow puppets throughout the novel; when he finally confronts Leland Gaunt at the climax, he finds himself tapping into Gaunt's magic, and his tricks become real (attacking Gaunt with shadow-puppets of sparrows and a certain legendarily vicious St. Bernard).
  • Small Town, Big Hell: The sinister Leland Gaunt sets up shop in Castle Rock, and begins turning up the simmering personal and religious tensions between the townsfolk.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Gaunt. He loses the sophistication at the end of the novel.
  • Sore Loser: As Alan realizes at the very end, Gaunt is so accustomed to winning that he can't remember exactly how it feels to lose, just that he doesn't want to at any cost, and won't accept it with dignity. The film makes him a Graceful Loser.
  • 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.
  • Southern Gothic Satan: An example where the Tall Dark Stranger explicitly is the Devil or at least a demon. Leland Gaunt shows up in a shop that wasn't there before, and gives the townsfolk of Castle Rock special little things in exchange for pranks. The little pranks eventually set the townsfolk against each other till dozens are dead and the town on fire.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Brian Rusk survives his suicide attempt in the movie; in the book, he isn't so lucky.
  • A Storm Is Coming: The book's prologue, and stated outright by Gaunt in the movie.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Sheriff Pangborn’s wife and son, last seen alive and kicking in The Dark Half, have died in a car crash sometime before the novel starts.
  • The Omniscient: Gaunt's knowledge appears to extend to: knowing exactly what he needs to in order to lure people in with (apparently) their heart's desire, knowing their names before being told, knowing what eye colour they find most appealing so he can make his eyes appear the right shade, knowing exactly what prank will set off which person, and knowing exactly when it needs to be played to have the most effect (though the latter doesn't appear to be infallible, as he frequently psychically communicates with his pawns to guide them through unexpected obstacles, but the guidance he provides is still flawlessly accurate).
    • It is not clear whether two "mistakes" with his pranks ( using Polly's current name on the fake xerox rather than the one the alleged senders would have known her by, and showing Annie Pangborn's car crash with her wearing the seatbelt) are gaps in his knowledge, laziness/haste/clumsiness on his part, or whether the single wrong detail (which gives the victim a chance to realise they're being tricked if they have the self-discipline to think things through) is something he puts in for his own amusement. It's also possible that, like many other stories involving a deal with supernatural entities, he has to give the victims that chance to see through his lies in order for the rest of the snare to work.
  • 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 Gaunt relies on this, 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...
  • Too Dumb to Live: Frank Jewett, a school principal and pedophile, keeps child pornography in his office desk at the school. It's bad enough that he has those proclivities to begin with, but having a position of trust where he is responsible for children, to keep the evidence at his place of work is a special kind of stupid, which he himself ackowledges after being exposed.
  • 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 (to cover the costs of his gambling addiction) 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. The treasure is trash and, while Ace refuses to accept it, it's implied that that his uncle never hid or invested his money at all and it simply burned with him.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Visiting with the King, i.e. masturbating to a magic picture of Elvis that transports you to a dreamworld with him.
  • 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.