Is Stephen King’s Needful Things a Novel for the Trump Era?

Stephen King, Needful Things (1991)
Stephen King, Needful Things (1991)
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lood. Someone’s reflection in a bathroom mirror. A man in a wide-brimmed hat. These are my fragmented recollections of the 1993 adaptation of Stephen King’s Needful Things, which starred Ed Harris and Max Von Sydow. I caught the end of it on television late one night when I was around ten years old, and these anxious impressions are all that I remember. Actually, that’s not true. I also had the impression that the film’s themes were somehow too grownup for me at the time, remote from the day-to-day concerns of a child still in primary school. Marriage, relationships, mortgages and finance, that sort of thing.

By the age of ten I was already familiar with King’s novel, which had been published back in 1991. In fact, I owned two copies. A shiny paperback published in the mid 1990s, and a hardback that came my way shortly after that. There was a period during my childhood and adolescence when King was about the only author that I read; I avidly collected his books and ordered them neatly on a shelf in my bedroom. But I didn’t read Needful Things back then. I got my kicks reading about killer clowns and supernatural forces, and just wasn’t interested in the idea of a demon shopkeeper mortgaging people’s souls.

On Christmas Day last year, I received my third copy of Needful Things. Decades after I owned (and eventually discarded) those earlier editions, the idea of a demon shopkeeper who mortgages people’s souls is now exactly the kind of story that appeals to me. I finished reading the novel for the first time last week, and thought it was an incredibly entertaining page-turner of a book. Characters from the small, fictional Maine town of Castle Rock purchase one-of-a-kind products at a new curiosity shop with an unusual name. Prompted by the sinister shopkeeper, a Mr Leland Gaunt (who bears more than a resemblance to Bram Stoker’s famous antagonist), the customers play small pranks on their neighbours in exchange for the objects they desire. These simple acts escalate existing tensions in the small town, and the citizens of Castle Rock find themselves valuing material possessions and personal gain over the welfare of the community at large.

Stephen King
Stephen King

At its heart, Needful Things is an undisguised satire of Reagan’s America, a critique of neoliberal ideologies and their corrupting influence on everyday life. It is also a novel that explores the nature of dependency, and has the distinction of being the first work written by King after his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addiction. Discussing his inspiration for the novel, King writes:

“I guess I was one of the few people in the United States who thought the eighties were really funny. It was a decade in which people decided, for awhile, at least, that greed was good and that hypocrisy was simply another tool for getting along. It was the last hurrah for cigarettes, unsafe sex, and all sorts of drugs. It was the final corruption of the Love and Peace Generation–The Big Cop-out–and I thought it was a case of having to laugh. It was either that, or cry. I was thinking about all this one night while driving home from a basketball game, and my thoughts centered on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, of the PTL Club. It occurred to me that in the eighties, everything had come with a price tag, that the decade quite literally was the sale of the century. The final items up on the block had been honor, integrity, self-respect, and innocence. By the time I got home that night, I had decided to turn the eighties into a small-town curio shop called Needful Things and see what happened. I told myself to keep it light and surreal; that if I just kept in mind the Bakkers’ doghouse, which had been equipped with heaters and running water, I would be okay. And that’s what I did. The book didn’t review well. Either a lot of critics didn’t get the joke or didn’t appreciate it. The readers liked it, though, and that’s what matters to me.”

— Source: StephenKing.com

It’s true that critics had a hard time with the didactic messaging of Needful Things, and there are times when the dynamics of King’s metaphor stretch credulity—even within the realms of the horror and fantasy genres. But, as I read the novel for the first time in 2018, I am struck by how prescient the novel is. If Needful Things was intended as a joke (or prank) on Reagan’s American Dream, it now reads like a document of America’s strange and surreal current predicament. A successful businessman comes to town selling powerful nostalgic promises; he gleefully generates conflicts with law enforcement officials and between dominant religious groups; and he sows division among friends, neighbours, and citizens. The people of Castle Rock eventually wake up to the manipulations of Mr Gaunt, and some semblance of order is restored. The price that today’s Americans will pay remains unclear.

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2 Comments

  1. Very timely comparison. It’s interesting that Trump hasn’t invoked Reagan’s name more often in an effort to grant legitimacy to his policies–at least among those who blindly swore allegiance to the ‘Gipper’–but I suppose Trump’s ego (which is larger than our ever-expanding universe) won’t allow it. I met Stephen King in 1985 when we were both in Wilmington, NC working on different film projects and he was a very decent guy. Thanks for reminding us of the absurdity of our times.

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