Tuesday, October 7, 2014

It Might Be Just As Well If There Was a Witness: "Needful Things" Revisited, Part 1

It's about damn time.


 
  
I've been looking forward to revisiting Needful Things for quite a while.  The novel will always hold a special place in my heart due to the fact that it was one of the first King books to be published after I became a fan.  (The second, actually, after Four Past Midnight.)  I'd burned my way through his entire bibliography in just a few months, and those first few new publications which came next revved me up: I was no longer catching up on King's work, I was experiencing it as it happened.
  
I read it as soon as I could get a copy.  I remember the bulk of this reading being done in a biology lab in my high school, which was where I had homeroom; I'd spend as much time as I could prior to school beginning in there, reading away contentedly.
  
Despite that huge wave of excitement, Needful Things never became one of my favorite King novels.  I can't remember ever reading the book a second time.  I know that at some point a few years later I found a used copy of the box set that contained all three volumes of the audiobook (on cassette!), and bought it.  I know I listened to it, so if we count that, that makes two read-throughs.
  
But other than that, I never returned to it the way I did with stuff like The Waste Lands or 'salem's Lot or The Stand or It.
  
If this sounds familiar, it's almost certainly because I wrote a version of the exact same sentiment when I reread and reviewed Four Past Midnight.  (Like many hacks, I am prone to repetition.)  And I'm sure I said the same thing about it that I shall now say about Needful Things: because of the lack of revisits, my memory of the book had grown quite dim over the years, meaning that the revisit would be almost like reading a new King book for the first time.  Not quite; but close.  Close enough to be excited about, at any rate.
  
I came away from my revisit with Four Past Midnight somewhat underwhelmed by the experience.  I enjoyed reading the four stories contained therein, but none of them really enthused me.

I enjoyed revisiting Needful Things quite a bit more.  The last time I ranked all of King's books, I placed this one at #43, and this is what I had to say about it:
Lots of terrific characters here, and while it’s comedic in a dark way, it’s also frequently horrifying.  As with Under the Dome, the chills are mostly human-induced, too, rather than monster-induced.  That might make for an interesting critical essay one of these days.  Are there other King tales that also feature that element?  I bet there are.
  
Looking back on it, I'm not entirely sure I understand why King felt the need to "destroy" Castle Rock.  It wasn't hurting anybody, Steve!  Except maybe for itself...
  
If you're asking yourself how I could fairly rank the novel at all given my shoddy memory of the novel, well, you've asked a good question.  Answer: subjectivity and a willingness to run on instinct.
  
So, looking at those tellingly brief comments, how would I assess their accuracy in terms of the way they reflect my feelings upon finally rereading the book?
  • "terrific characters" -- check; not as strong as in 'salem's Lot, but (among similar works) stronger than Under the Dome and maybe stronger than The Tommyknockers
  • "comedic in a dark way" -- eh . . . occasionally, but not really; King has asserted in interviews that he intended the novel as a satire, and I was probably thinking of that
  • "frequently horrifying" -- absolutely
  • "the chills are mostly human-induced" -- that's how I remembered it, but the novel makes it fairly clear that people are acting the way they are acting mostly because Leland Gaunt is exerting some sort of supernatural influence over them; maybe not quite mind-control, but certainly mind-poisoning of a sort


*****

Before we get continue, I have a confession to make: much of the rest of this post is shit.  Shit, shit, shit; shitty-ass shit.
  
I don't know why, but writing these posts about Needful Things has proven to be ridiculously difficult for me to pull off.  I've been reworking the remainder of this particular one for what seems like weeks now, and it never gets less shitty.  I'm not sure if that's because I'm simply failing to connect with my own ideas or if it's because those ideas are fundamentally incorrect.  It might even be both. 
  
But whatever the case, I'm tired of wrestling with myself, so what we're going to do is this: I'm going to just post what I've got on this first part.  Shitty though it may be, I'm ready to be done with it.
 
Then, for part 2, I'm going to round up all of my notes from the rest of the novel and post them in chronological order.  Sort of like a commentary track for the novel, if you will.  From there, I'll move on to the movie and maybe the audiobook, and after that, maybe this sorry mess will be behind me.
 
And just so we're clear, this is in no way the novel's fault: this is my fault, and my next task will be to figure out how to avoid repeating the mistakes I've made here.  Once I figure out why I made them, that might even be doable.
  
So, let's talk about perspective.


The novel begins with a prologue, which is subtitled You've Been Here Before and runs about seven pages.  "Sure you have," reads the first line, seemingly continuing on from the title of the prologue.  "Sure.  I never forget a face."

We begin, then, in a first-person perspective.  Whose perspective?  We do not know, and we will never find out; whoever it is never becomes involved in the novel's events.  In fact, the vast majority of the novel is written from what appears to be -- but may not actually be (more on that in a bit) -- a third-person omniscient perspective.  What gives?  If the bulk of the novel is third-person, why does King begin it in first-person?
  
The degree to which you care about the answer to that question may depend on how much time you've spent in literary-analysis courses.  I spent enough time in them to get a bachelor's degree, but not enough to get a master's degree; so my give-a-shit rating is probably a 7/10.  Maybe even 8/10.

And for me, the question of why King begins the novel as he does is much more important than the question of who (i.e., what character) the narrator of the prologue is. 

Our first clue is found in the "first" line continuing on from the prologue's title.  I put "first" in quotation marks because "Sure you have." is not, in fact, the novel's first line.  "You've been here before" is.  That line/title is 100% intended to be read as part of the narrative.  If you want proof of that, give the audiobook a listen; and remember, it's narrated by King himself, so he ought to know.

This begs another question: if it is intended to be read as a line of the actual narrative, why present it as a title to a subsection?  And let's have no mistakes: that IS how it is presented.  In fact, let's have a look at the page in question:


Dig those lovely scanner-created shadows.  My tech is ever so advanced.


Note the excess capitalization and the lack of punctuation.  Visually, in terms of the way most books and their contents are presented, that is demonstrably a title, and not a sentence in the typical prose sense of the word.  However, one's mind turns it into a sentence anyways; assuming, that is, that one has not flipped straight past the prologue's title page.

I'm keenly aware that most people don't give half a shit about this issue.  And there's a good reason for that: each reader's mind, in reading this novel, will instantaneously make the decision as to whether to treat "you've been here before" as a part of the narrative.  And I'd wager that 99.999% of us do treat it as narrative.  Because really, what choice do the next few lines leave us?

Why, then, am I putting this much energy into discussing the issue?  Simple: I think it's meaningful.  I'm sure most of you will agree that King is given to precision in his writing.  He doesn't do things haphazardly; he is thoughtful, contemplative.  So if he has written the beginning of Needful Things in this way, he surely has a reason for doing so.

I can't speak to what that reason might be, on account of how I'm not Stephen King.  All I can do is speak to the effect it has upon me, and for me, what's going on here is that King is deliberately playing with the format of the novel itself.  Things like title pages and epigraph sections are not generally considered to be part of the narrative of a novel, so for King to alter that customary arrangement between novelist and reader is a hint that Needful Things might be slightly different from what we are used to.  Whether that implication bears out is another matter; but, for me, that is the foot upon which King is standing as this particular work gets underway.

We've established that the narrator of this prologue is not a character in the story.  Now, allow me to cast that assertion into doubt by mentioning that there comes a point (a bit shy of halfway through the novel) at which King lapses very briefly into first-person again.  It happens during the first and second paragraphs of Chapter Ten, which begin with a brief noting of exotically-named towns (Sweden, Etna, Calais, etc.) in Maine.  "Someone may know how or why so many wide places in the road ended up with such an exotic variety of names, but I do not," King writes.  "What I do know," begins the next sentence/paragraph, and after that, the first-person disappears again until the novel's brief epilogue.  (Assuming I didn't miss it elsewhere . . . and I don't think I did.)
 
I mention this to bring the issue of the narrator to a head.  As I've said, it's my assessment that Stephen King is a deliberate and precise prose stylist.  In other words: if King suddenly inserts two sentences' worth of first-person perspective into a predominantly third-person novel, we can rest assured that he has not somehow fucked up and forgotten what he's doing.  If he does something like that, he's doing it for a reason. 
In the case of that little bit from Chapter Ten, I think the reason is to very gently remind us of what the prologue makes clear: this is a story, one which is being told to us.  And not to just any old "us," but to each of us, individually.  Remember how the prologue begins: "Sure you have.  Sure.  I never forget a face."  And from there, King continues: "Come on over here, let me shake your hand!"

The upshot of all this is that we are being welcomed into the novel.  We are, in a way, becoming participants.  Participants at a remove, granted; after all, once the prologue is over, the narrator retreats into the background, taking us with him, and he makes only that one little whisper until the epilogue rolls around nearly seven hundred pages later.  But we're there, all the same; even if we've forgotten it, we're there.

One could argue that that is the case with virtually any novel; one would, of course, be correct.  What's different here is that King has formalized the arrangement; we've even shaken hands on it, in a strange way.  And, to my way of thinking, the point of all this has been to enter us into an arrangement we may not even be aware we've made.  By accepting that handshake -- and, since we've continued reading, we HAVE accepted it -- we are agreeing to join the nameless narrator as silent witnesses to and (more importantly) participants in the proceedings that will follow.

In other words, Needful Things is about us.  So remember, kiddies: when Brian Rusk buys that baseball card, we are buying it right along with him; and when he pays Wilma Jerzyck's house a visit and flings mud at her sheets, we are there beside him the whole time.  And again, that presence is arguably the case with anything that happens in any novel we read; but remember that here it has been formalized, and maybe King wants those of us who are prone to read the fine print to know that we've been involved.

I think that's an important element of what King is up to in this novel.  Needful Things is -- partially, at least -- about the deep-seated need we all have to find things to make us happy.  It's also about how we will all, when pushed sufficiently to an extreme, sell our soul in one way or another.  Some of you may object to that idea, which is fine; but that's what I believe King is saying here.  These characters will sell their souls, King is whispering, but it's more than that: I will sell my soul, and YOU will sell YOURS, too . . . provided the devil knows how to find out what we are most needful for.
  
It's almost surprising that King didn't try to find a way to keep "us" more involved in the course of the novel's events, but perhaps the thought never actually crossed his mind in any conscious way.  Or perhaps he was content to, as I've implied, make it a fine-print sort of arrangement.  I think it arguably makes things a bit more chilling for that to be the case, don't you?  Like we've gotten ourselves into something and it's too late to back out.
 
We've made it a mere five sentences into the novel so far, and we've already uncovered more meaning than we've probably expected.  Fun, isn't it?

We won't work quite so hard going forward, though, so let's pick up the pace a bit.  The rest of the prologue consists primarily of the narrator pointing out various people characters with whom we will become familiar over the next few hundred pages: Hugh Priest, Wanda Hemphill, Reverend Willie, Nan Roberts, etc.  He also wants to fill us in on some of the events since we've last been in town: the Frank Dodd incident, and the one with the rabid dog named Cujo.  And did we know about the fire that burned down the Emporium Galorium and killed Pop Merrill?
 
"Look up the street one more time," he'll eventually say to us.

You see that boy , don't you?  The one who's walking his bike and looks like he's havin the sweetest daydream any boy ever had?  Keep your eye on him, friend.  I think he's the one who's gonna get it started.
     No, I told you.  I don't know what . . . not exactly.  But watch that kid.  And stick around town for a little while, would you?  Things just feel wrong, and if something happens, it might be just as well if there was a witness.
     I know that kid -- the one who's pushin his bike.  Maybe you do, too.  His name's Brian-something.  His dad installs siding and doors over in Oxford or South Paris, I think.
     Keep an eye on him, I tell you.  Keep an eye on everything.  You've been here before, but things are about to change.
     I know it.
     I feel it.
     There's a storm on the way.

In this bit, which marks the end of the prologue, our role is made clear: we're to serve as witnesses.
     

I can't help but think of Mary Poppins here.  To be specific:


video


What keys the association there, of course, is the mention of a "wind coming in," which is not unlike there being "a storm on the way."  But, of course, there's also a storm on the way at the end of The Terminator, yet it's not Sarah Connor I'm thinking of; it's Bert the chimney-sweep.  This is probably due to the fact that I saw a rather superb production of the stage musical based on Mary Poppins this summer, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (which does on occasion step away from the Bard for a bit).  In that stage production, Bert is more or less delivering the same words with which that video above ends (wind's in the east, there's a mist coming in / like something is brewing, about to begin / can't put me finger on what lies in store / but I feel what's to happen all happened before...), but he is delivering them almost directly to the audience.  In fact (as you can see here, if'n you're so inclined), he is facing the audience the entire time.  And in the stage production, he leads straightaway into introducing us to the Banks family who will so occupy us for the next couple of hours.

There is obviously no direct parallel -- and certainly no intentional one -- between Needful Things and Mary Poppins, but once that idea of King setting the stage popped into my brain, it refused to leave.  He's up to some the same tricks, too: implicitly involving his audience in the proceedings, and hinting at something awesome on the horizon.  In the case of Needful Things it is a horrible thing ("an 'orrible thing," Bert might say), whereas in Mary Poppins it is a wonderful one; but, awesome nevertheless.  And as that prologue of Needful Things comes to its close, you can practically see a curtain being raised.

(And hey, while we're playing the association game, I suppose I also ought to confess to being put in mind of the following lines from the full version of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" later in the movie: "up where the smoke is all billered and curled / 'tween pavement and stars is the chimney sweep world / where there's hardly no day and hardly no night / there's things half in shadow and halfway in light."  The lines are darkly majestic and mysterious within the context of the movie, but if you are in a more macabre mindset -- the sort brought on by Needful Things, say -- then those last two lines can turn into spine-tinglers, and no mistake about it.)

King then dives into the novel proper, and there we remain for quite some time, until another page appears bearing the inscription You've Been Here Before.  (This time, with a period at the end.  Rest assured, I have no intention of spending several paragraphs pondering why this one has a period at the end whereas the first one does not.  Beats me, to be honest.)  "Sure you have," the narrator tells us.  "Sure.  I never forget a face."  Once again, the exhortation to come over and shake hands.

This time, however, we are in Junction City, Iowa, rather than Castle Rock, Maine; and we are left to wonder: is the narrator of the epilogue the same narrator from the prologue?  We'll get no definitive answer to that.  For my part, I tend to be tempted to think that it is, and that the narrator is Mr. Leland Gaunt himself.  But while it is a tempting reading, I think it would be an incorrect reading.

I think, instead, that King is bringing the novel to an ominous sort of full-circle close.  The epilogue is very similar to the prologue, and in certain cases things are phrased exactly the same.  What I get from this is the implication that whether we are in Castle Rock or Junction City (or, one might suppose via extrapolation, in your town, wherever that may be), the scene is essentially the same: there is a new store opening soon, and people will wonder what's for sale.

The answer: everything.  And there is something for everyone, so come inside, one and all, and find your own private treasure.  We're all in the market for a treasure, and somewhere out there is a shopkeep more than willing to sell us that treasure . . . for the right price, of course.

The novel Needful Things may have ended, King is hinting; but human needfulness has no end.

14 comments:

  1. uhhh, I read that novel many many times -- and never noticed the lack of a period. (Or, more precisely, I listened to it.) Interesting -- very interesting actually -- post. You're right, King does make Needful Things about US. And the novel is clunky -- but I think it has some of the best scenes in the King canon.

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    1. The audiobook is great! I always love it when King narrates his own books. I wish he did it every time, but I can only imagine how time-consuming and energy-draining it must be; so I can't say I blame him.

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    2. By the way, your comment made me think of something I hadn't thought of before. More on that in a second...

      First, I should mention that I reread the novel via the UK hardcover. I'd bought a spare hardback specifically so I could mark it up and put all sorts of notes in it. I didn't want to do that to my first-edition, of course, so I just bought a spare, and it happened to be a UK edition.

      Well, your comment made me wonder if the American edition was laid out the same way, so I checked. Turns out, it isn't -- the prologue's title DOES have a period in the US edition!

      Not that it's a big deal, but I still thought it was worth mentioning. Proof positive that reading TOO closely sometimes doesn't necessarily result in beneficial results.

      I'd also forgotten that the US edition has those lovely Bill Russell illustrations. Now I feel like I cheated myself ever so slightly by not rereading the American edition.

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    3. as I recall, King reads it as a title.
      very interesting about the difference.

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  2. Ah, finally! This is one of my first King books I ever took an interest in, mainly down I think to the original hardcover artwork (seriously, does anyone else think there's iconic about that cover?). Along with the covers for It and Nightmares and Dreamscapes, they sort of help sum up Stephen King.

    That idea about the format is interesting. The in the book/screenplay for Storm of the Century, King writes "The question of form remained to be answered. I don't worry about it, ever - no more than I do the question of voice. The voice of a story (usually third person, sometimes first person) always comes with the package. So does the form (King, Storm, pg. x)".

    What this says about the nature of the narration and (any possible) narrator of the book, I don't know. It is possible, I suppose, that King deliberately made the decision that Needful Things would be the last Rock story he ever wrote or told (a promise which he promptly proceeded to break, more or less) and decided this curtain raising format was the right way to go about it. If so, whether it was worth the effort or not is up to the reader. My own take on Things is that it is a lot like The Stand, good buildup, I just wish the payoff had been a bit reworked (more widespread carnage please! (he asked with fork and knife).

    As a technique in storytelling, I have no objections to such theatrics, and can point to other formats where it's been neatly utilized. Would you believe that Alan Parsons Project did just such a prologue for their instrumental House of Usher (featuring dialogue by some young hot shot named Orson Welles or something like that)?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meGloxIMd2s&index=7&list=PL82F08DBFD7D9374D

    And here is how Ray Bradbury frames an intro to one of his stories:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Be8vfy2pOcY

    I list these because of possible comparison of technique in relation to one another. Parsons does their work by quoting from an actual journal entry from Poe as a sort of general intro to the subject matter, whereas Bradbury is sort of like an Uncle perching a kid on his knee in order to narrate the events. These (along, possibly, with the Disney clip) all seem to be riffs on a technique, to me; a more or less standard practice that the author (and audience) must choose as to whether or not the story deserves such intros.

    ChrisC

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    1. Those are good examples of similarity.

      I agree that the cover art is iconic; why oh why can't they all be that good? (Lookin' at you, "Revival.")

      Thanks for that quote from King about form/voice. Very appropriate to this particular conversation! I take him at his word when he says he doesn't worry about it, but even if a choice is made instinctively, it's made for a reason.

      I suspect he probably did so for much the same reason Bradbury and APP may have: they wanted to foreground the idea that they were telling a story.

      The question for me then becomes, what impact does that have on the audience's reception of the story?

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    2. I can't say I really know what effect such stylistic choices have on an audience, really. I do know that a line from John Lennon applies here, sort of, "I never noticed his nose until just now". That serves as a good metaphor for my take on such choices of narration. Basically I read them and then read right past them and got into the story proper (if indeed I wasn't already in it to begin with?!?) and I never really gave them any thought in terms of style and presentation until just now. I also don't remember anyone else making that much of a note of those narrative styles. I think for most people style may be secondary in a sense. Not to say that style isn't important. If an author can't find or define his or her voice when writing, odds are they're not going to at least stand out from the pack in terms of a career. However style exists for the sake of the story one has to tell, really. I don't know, but maybe the odds are that most people in the audience aren't really paying attention all that much. My guess is they might treat such authorial acrobatics as similar to the old Tales from the Crypt of Alfred Hitchcock intros to the stories they told, more like host segments than the story proper.

      I don't know, that's just one idea.

      ChrisC

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    3. Oh, I definitely think you are correct in assuming that most readers will pay zero attention to that sort of thing.

      I'd also agree that style is important only to the degree which it serves the story being told. I think that's true for movies, as well, by the way; and comics, for that matter. Probably other media as well.

      I'd say the Crypt/Hitchcock comparison is probably very appropriate. I wish I could remember how I felt about the opening when I first read the novel; I suspect I probably took it in exactly that manner.

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  3. I'd never considered the similarities between Mary Poppins and Leland Gaunt. I like it.

    The big difference between the omniscient narrator of the prologue and epilogue seems to be the vaguest hint of wanting the inevitable outcome to be different in the prologue, i.e. the "stick around, watch that kid, I've got a bad feeling about this" remarks. The epilogue voice seems not to issue this mild warning.

    I like the effect of the prologue/ epilogue narration book-ending the events and perspectives between. Sort of like the Cryptkeeper, albeit one with a more Maturin-esque temperament.

    I look forward to the Truth Inside the Lie "commentary track" on the book! As well as all future Needful Things destinations.

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    1. That's a good point about the epilogue not having the same note of warning that the prologue has. I suppose you could make the argument that the forgoing 700ish pages was ample warning, freeing the epilogue up to instead be more focused on hinting that though (metaphorically) one inning is over there's plenty more ball to be played.

      Good point about the Cryptkeeper, too. King could very easily have tweaked that approach ever so slightly and turned this into the first in a series of anthology novels. Not a bad idea, that.

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  4. btw, read and enjoyed that one, but I just don't know what to add to it. I mean yes, of course the title is of course supposed to be a part of the narrative. The Mary Poppins comparison sounds funny at first, but is surprisingly fitting. Also in other aspects. Like both Gaunt an Mary Poppins dissappearing into thin air (both quite literally) once their job is done, and restarting their job at the next place.
    ...
    Now I really wish to see a fan art of a Gaunt - Mary Poppins Crossover, like him wearing her clothes (and umbrella, of course) or something like that. XD

    cu in part 2

    Dan

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    1. Thanks, Dan!

      I'm not sure what a Gaunt/Poppins crossover would look like, but I'll say this: it couldn't possibly top the use to which Alan Moore puts Mary in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 3: Century."

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    2. If only Leland Gaunt had popped up in Century! Or any King character, come to think of it.

      (Wait, DO any?)

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    3. The only King-verse appearance in all of League that I am aware of is in . . . I think it's the prose sections of the second volume, which contain a reference to one of the characters visiting a town called Jerusalem's Lot.

      If Moore were to produce some sort of story that pastiched numerous King characters, I'd be so happy I might pop like Kananga.

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