Lessons from Stephen King’s “Needful Things”
Just finished Needful Things, by Stephen King, and I’m still reeling.
King is truly a king and remains one of my favourite writers ever, since discovering him in secondary school.
This 1991 book is a great example of why the King is so good: because he possesses that quality of the greatest writers: a deep understanding of human nature coupled with an ability to put it in words and embody it in characters. His stories amaze me by their revealing of his insights into psychology and motivation and drive, for people in general, but also for me. And he is a master of using his chosen genre of horror to expose the darker aspects of human nature.
That’s just what he does in Needful Things, a dark story about the power of our desires over us.
Yet, in the middle of the darkness of the book, a light (not the only one in the tale, but for me the most powerful) shone in one line on page 761:
“His power is over need, not will… Break his hold on you.”
It’s a very simple statement, but very profound.
It was a reminder that what most binds anyone of us is our needs. Or, as the story reveals, the things we tell ourselves we need.
Because that’s what the story turns out to be about: person after person who spirals down from simply wanting something, to longing and yearning for it, to telling themselves they simply have to have it, to seeing everyone as potential enemies who want to keep it from them or snatch it away to a willingness to do whatever it takes to keep a hold on the thing at the expense of whatever principles or people are in their way.
Well, picture that death spiral ramped up into a 900-page illustration of what might happen in a small town in which almost this need ruled over everything else, and you have an idea of what Stephen King produces in this novel.
The result is, in the most literal sense, a horror show.
But then, doesn’t the real horror potentially lie in every single human being?
Stephen King is, by his own admission, no Christian, but I suspect he might not disagree very much with this passage from the Bible:
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14–15 ESV)
Don’t know about you, but that sounds like an unpacking of the line from King, above. And it ends, like any good horror tale, in death.
And here’s the thing: it turns out there’s one or two person in the entire town who isn’t caught up in the whole mess. And it’s not for lack of a need. Nor is it even by virtue of a strong will (we all know the limitations of willpower — new year’s resolutions, anyone?).
The people who manage, barely, to overcome their instincts to put themselves first are those who decide that some things matter more than getting what they want, even if they can.
And that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it?
The problem is mostly not simply the things we want. The problem is what we are prepared to sacrifice to get them.
Perhaps it is this almost instinctive readiness we share, to get our desires at any expense, that is the true horror story.
And maybe it’s not so much what you want you need to be careful of—but how you want it.
P.S. This is kind of random, but there’s a really good line from the movie made for the book, by the way, where the person behind the whole mess says this: “The young carpenter from Nazareth? I know him well. Promising young man. He died badly.”