Stephen King’s 1991 bestseller Needful Things is set in Castle Rock, Maine as were his earlier bestsellers like Cujo, The Dead Zone, and The Tommyknockers. Some of the characters from those novels reappear here.
Castle Rock residents are surprised to see a new store called Needful Things preparing to open. Owner Leland Gaunt is a stranger to town. His business practices are odd. He opens his store before he has enough merchandise to fill his cases, and sidesteps questions about his background.
Gaunt has an instinct for knowing exactly what each customer most desires, and—most peculiar of all—Gaunt typically lets customers set their own price. All Gaunt asks in addition is that each buyer play a harmless trick of his devising on someone in town.
Even Gaunt’s most enthusiastic customers sense something sinister about him.
Once they secure their treasure, each buyer becomes paranoid, totally obsessed with the idea that someone else is plotting to steal their treasure away. Customers take steps to protect their things.
Needful Things is usually categorized as horror, but the book overall reads like a parable about human nature. Perhaps that explains why the book is still worth reading while the film version, which concentrated on horror, fizzled.
In 1978 Stephen King published a shorter version of The Stand to critical acclaim. He reworked and restored the cuts, added new material, and this 1,153-page novel became a 1990 bestseller.
A flu virus being tested by U.S. government labs as a biological weapon is accidentally released, causing the deaths of 90 percent of the American population. Survivors, who had natural immunity to the virus, begin to migrate in search of other survivors.
One group drifts into Boulder, Colorado, where a 108-year-old black woman with a deep Christian faith becomes the figurehead around which people attempt to rebuild America according to its Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
A second group drifts into Las Vegas, where a “dark man” attracts people who are uncomfortable with religion and representative democracy.
A clash between them is inevitable.
Although there is a supernatural element to the novel, its most terrifying elements are all-too-familiar aspects of human nature we see on daily newscasts. King draws all his threads together into a plausible ending, leaving readers with a great deal of uncomfortable reality to think about.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid readers in 2020 won’t read such a long book, no matter how good—and The Stand is the best of the King bestsellers I’ve read.
Four Past Midnight is a set of four Stephen King novellas in a single wrapper, each with a different way of scaring readers.
The first novella, “The Langoliers,” takes a science fiction approach. In it, 11 passengers on a flight from L.A. to Boston wake to find they’ve slipped into a people-less world where they are the likely next victims of some unseen menace eating its way across America.
In the “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” a novelist is menaced by someone who claims the novelist stole his story.
“The Library Policeman” turns a child’s fear of what will happen if library books aren’t returned on time into a tale of a real monster who sexually abuses children while maintaining the guise of something other-worldly.
“The Sun Dog” is a tale of technology: A Polaroid camera takes photographs of objects that aren’t visible to the naked eye.
King is at his best in the stories that open with situations that make adult readers uncomfortable. “Secret Window” revolves around a perennial problem for fiction writers: Is their work really original? The “Library” story opens with a man who is picked at the last minute to give a speech to Rotary and has to ask the librarian for help.
The Eyes of the Dragon is a once-upon-a-time fantasy written by Stephen King for his daughter, who didn’t want to read his horror stories.
Old, and never-smart King Roland favored his older son, Peter, over the younger, Thomas. Peter is handsomer and smarter than Tom and he’s had the advantage of being instructed by their mother, who died when Tom was born.
Roland’s magician, Flagg, takes advantage of Roland’s infirmities and Thomas’s jealousies.
When Roland dies under suspicious circumstances, blame falls on Peter.
He’s confined to the tower for life.
Flagg is not only an expert on killing with poisons. He’s also a master of killing peasants with excessive taxation. That and a dog are what cause Flagg’s not-a-moment-too-soon downfall.
Eyes of the Dragon will appeal to young adult readers (and older ones) who, like Naomi King, don’t care for Stephen King’s horror stories.
Eyes has time-honored features of fantasy fiction—a handsome prince, a loyal sidekick, an evil wizard, and a tall tower from which no prisoner can possibly escape.
It also has David Palladini’s charming art work to give the story a feel of antiquity.
Eyesdoesn’t have a princess for Peter, but even in fantasy, you can’t have everything.
Stephen King terrifies most when his stories most closely reflect everyday life. In Misery, King weaves together two familiar memes, throws in a couple of over-the-top bits of nastiness, and produces a novel which can terrify on two levels.
The story begins with Paul Sheldon waking in a strange place in incredible pain.
A few days before, Paul had typed the last page of Fast Cars, which he thinks is his best novel, way superior to the “Misery” series that made him rich and famous.
Somewhere in the Colorado Rockies, Paul crashed his car. He’s had the misfortune to be rescued by his “number one fan,” an ex-nurse.
Annie Wilkes can’t wait for Paul’s next book.
When she learns Paul killed off that novel’s lead character, Annie insists he write a novel just for her in which Misery Chastain doesn’t die.
Despite the blur of the pilfered drugs Annie feeds him, Paul realizes she’s a pathological killer and he will be her next victim.
The pathological killer in medical settings was already a familiar and terrifying figure in the ’80s.
Nearly 40 years later, we’re now getting accustomed to the other terror in King’s novel: The adoring fans determined to control the artists they idolize.
by Stephen King
Viking, 1987. 310 p.
1987 bestseller #4; my grade: A-
It, Stephen King’s 1986 addition to his portfolio of horror fiction, packs a double whammy.
Not only is it about one of childhood’s nightmares—the hidden, devouring creature in the drains—but its 1100+ pages embody one of older adults’ nightmares: sprained wrists from extended periods holding a heavy object.
It contains a two-part story set in Derry, New Hampshire, in 1958 and 1985.
In 1958, the Losers, seven 11 and 12-year-olds whose backgrounds and interests isolate them, investigate the evil creature they believe has lived for decades in the town’s drains, emerging about every 27 years to lure children to their deaths.
After battling, but not killing It, the Losers break up.
In 1985, the Loser who stayed in Derry calls the six who have left Derry and become highly successful, reminding them of their promise to return if It emerged again.
As in many of King’s stories, the truly evil thing is human nature. Many of the incidental stories within the main narrative are about abuse of power—fraud, kickbacks, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, incest—and failure to fight those abuses.
The novel’s focus swings from 1985 to 1958, diluting the horror of both the fictional monster and the human ones.
It by Stephen King
Viking, 1986. 1138 p.
1986 bestseller # 1; my grade: C
Skeleton Crew is a collection of 22 Stephen King short stories of varying lengths and varying degrees of weirdness.
The hefty volume rings all the bells King fans enjoy and adds a few notes about the creative process behind them.
King has a particularly good ear for children’s memories, which he demonstrates in “The Monkey,” a story about a toy that has the ability to kill, and “Gramma,” a story of an 11-year-old left to care for his senile grandmother when his mother must go to the hospital because his older brother has been injured at football practice.
My favorites stories from the collection are built around situations that would be unsettling even without any supernatural flounces, such as:
“Here There Be Tygers” in which a third grader has to go to the bathroom which is in the school basement, a very scary place.
“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” in which a crazy writer feeds a creature called a fornit that lives in his typewriter and produces words for him: What else could explain them?
There may not be a story here for every reader’s taste, but there’s enough variety that most readers will find something intriguing.
Skeleton Crew by Stephen King
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1985. 512 p.
1985 bestseller #5; my grade: B+
The Talisman is a tour de force by a pair of authors known respectively for horror and fantasy novels: Stephen King and Peter Straub.
The novel’s hero is 12-year-old Jack Sawyer. Jack’s father is dead; his mother, Lily, dying of cancer.
The pair are holed up in a New Hampshire hotel in the off-season to get away from his uncle, Morgan Sloat, who is trying to get Lily to sign over property she inherited on her husband’s death.
Jack meets an old, black handyman, who encourages Jack to journey into a parallel universe called “The Territories” to bring back the Talisman to cure his mother’s cancer.
Jack develops the ability to flip between universes. In the Territories, Jack pushes west, running into all kinds of nasty creatures—some bestial, some humanoid—on his odyssey to find the Talisman.
The Talisman oozes blood and gore, but the most frightening elements are those that are most closely modeled after 20th century America: An employer who takes advantage of his employees and a sadistic preacher who runs a home for boys with behavior problems.
The Talisman is proof that novel writing by committees, even a two-person committee, leaves a great deal to be desired