Needful Things was written well in the past. So clearly, it’s not about now, nor even about the recent past. And yet… who do we know who came to a new town and spent his time there riling up the prejudices, grudges, odd conspiracies and paranoias, and hatred of anyone that he could? Who encouraged violence and Second Amendment Solutions — guns? Hmm… I wonder.
You know, all kinds of comparisons were made between Trump and Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone before and during his presidency. And I re-read the book just to see — those were fair comparisons! They weren’t just broad similarities like you might assume — there were some shockingly prescient likenesses there. And on first glance, Leland Gaunt couldn’t be more different from either Greg Stillson or our real-life analog of him.
But maybe he’s more similar than we think. And, perhaps more to the point, maybe the people of Castle Rock are more like real people than we might like, too.
I mean, Leland Gaunt is not the full extent of the problem here, is he? Sure, he gets people worked up. He’s doing it on purpose. Also, he’s very clearly an evil being who’s not really human. But he’s also not bringing anything new. When people can’t be worked up by him, or when they’re likely to see through him, he stays away, doesn’t he? It’s not just Alan Pangborn, though he’s the obvious resistor — Gaunt also names Sheila Brigham as a “tough sell” — someone who won’t fall for his tricks. Gaunt works by appealing to addictions, obsessions, biases, and paranoias that are already there. If the town was full of people who didn’t have those, he wouldn’t get that far. The problem is not Gaunt alone, it’s also the people of Castle Rock and what those people already have in their hearts and minds.
And just to make things more complex and confusing, Gaunt also works by appealing to real, legitimate pain and desperation that people feel. Polly Chalmers is not a bad person. She’s not showing harboring secret hatreds or addictions. She’s in legitimate pain that nothing has been able to touch — of course, she’d respond to the one person who seems to be able to make a difference. There are others, as well. Norris Ridgewick isn’t a hateful guy. Gaunt appealed to him using his grief over the death of his father. He’s touching real pain points — not because he actually wants to help, but because he knows he can use them. And it’s kind of hard to blame a person in pain for reaching for a thing that looks and feels like a solution. Even if it’s really not, and even if it hurts someone else. After a while, you just want relief, at any cost.
This brings me back to watching the Trump candidacy and presidency. (If you’re going to get irritated with my politics, stop reading. Because I’m going to keep going.) Who did Trump appeal to? The people with prejudices, sure. The conspiracists, definitely. The people who already liked and wanted violence. The xenophobes, the racists, the anti-Semites, the sexists — yep, yep, yep, yep. We already had all of those, of course. He just gave them a figurehead, made it more acceptable to walk around chanting “Jews will not replace us” or shoot people in the streets or storm the Capitol building. He was bad — he is a bad guy. But he was always only part of the problem. He may have given those people permission to do what they already wanted to do, but they were already there and already wanted to do it. That was — and is — a bigger problem. Because they’re going to be with us long after he’s completely gone.
And he also appealed to a few people with legitimate pain points that weren’t being addressed by other means. And now that he’s out of power, looking at how those who opposed him are still not addressing those pain points, despite promising to — well, I can still blame them because I’m only human and the situation that we’re all living in is real. But I can also understand them because they’re only human and the situations that they’re living with are real too. It’s complicated.
So maybe Leland Gaunt is like Trump, or like Greg Stillson, at least in some ways. He’s a monster, sure, in a literal sense — he may look human, but there’s no doubt that he actually is not. But as per usual, it’s the human monsters in King’s work that are truly frightening — all the people who can be twisted and turned against each other, just by appealing to their addictions, obsessions, biases, and pain points. Because that’s very real. We’re all living it. When Gaunt starts going off about the importance of his customers protecting their property, I’m reminded of all of the people who equate undocumented immigrants with home invaders, as if coming here without the right paperwork was a property crime. As if, even if it were a property crime, that property were somehow more important than the lives of people escaping who-knows-what by coming here. It’s very upsetting. Because you can get rid of a Gaunt or any one monster. You can also get rid of a real-life demagogue. But what do you do with a huge chunk of the populace like this? You have to live with them, work around them, or something. I don’t have a good answer. I don’t think anyone does.
I know that Needful Things is also a movie. I remember reading the book around the time the movie came out. I was about 13 and so struck with the book then that I didn’t want to see the movie — I was afraid it would mess up my experience with the story. I still feel like the story is pretty striking. Maybe more so now that I’m older and understand more. But I would like to see the movie one of these days. I’ll put it on the list.
Of course, Needful Things is a Castle Rock story — maybe the most famous Castle Rock story. So many of the characters here will definitely be ones that we remember from previous appearances. We know Ace Merrill, and his deceased uncle, Pop. Danforth “Buster” Keeton has been named before. There are references to past Castle Rock snafus, most notably Cujo. And Leland Gaunt may actually be Flagg — or if not, he’s a thing like Flagg. I suspect they may at least be known to each other. And Alan Pangborn is “the White” here and has to “Stand and be true” which is enough to serve as a Dark Tower reference for me. The connections between Needful Things and the rest of King’s canon are some of the thickest and widest yet here.