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Characters in 'Needful Things' never manage to come to life




Stephen King.


640 pages. $24.95. Being a small town, Castle Rock, Maine, was abuzz with gossip about the new store, Needful Things. It was supposed to open soon, but no delivery trucks had been seen. And the name Needful Things . . . why, that could mean almost anything. It was probably, speculation said, just another trashy tourist trap.

The first person in Castle Rock (location of several other Stephen King stories, including "Dead Zone," "Cujo," "The Body," "The Dark Half" and "The Sun Dog") to find out exactly what Needful Things sold was 11-year-old Brian Rusk.

It was an accident, really. Brian had been pedaling by on his bike when he noticed an OPEN sign on the door. Knowing that the store wasn't supposed to open for another day, he assumed it was a mistake. But he tried the door all the same. It was, indeed, open.

Though well appointed, the shop seemed to Brian to be seriously understocked. And what little stock there was, mostly strange knickknacks and assorted junk, certainly wasn't enough to support a store; obviously the sign was a mistake. But before Brian could make his way to the door, he ran headlong into the proprietor, Leland Gaunt.

Gaunt, a tall, lean man with crooked, yellow teeth and an unpleasant-to-the-touch handshake, assured Brian in a most pleasing voice that no mistake had been made, that he was indeed open for business. To prove it he produced out of the back room a shoe box that contained something Brian had wanted more than anything in the world: a 1956 Topps Sandy Koufax baseball card in mint condition.

Even better, the card was not just signed, but inscribed "To my good friend Brian, with best wishes, Sandy Koufax." Brian knew he could never afford the card, which, without the inscription, was worth at least $100. But Gaunt surprised the boy with what seemed a most reasonable price: 85 cents . . . and a favor.

Brian paid the 85 cents and went on his way. The favor for which Gaunt had asked didn't seem too bad. Sort of like a practical joke. And once he played the prank the card would be his forever.

But as Brian and the rest of Castle Rock learn, the full price for an item purchased at Needful Things is one no one can live with.

If "Needful Things" had been written by almost anyone else, I would have thought it a very good novel. Unfortunately, it's not a very good Stephen King novel. This is particularly unusual because "Needful Things" is exactly the type novel at which he generally excels: one that depends on its characters to work.

Few authors can make a character come alive like Mr. King. But in "Needful Things" he has about 20 chances to do just that, and doesn't really succeed once. Had the characters been stronger, all the rest of the novel's problems could have easily been ignored.

I have also come to expect larger-than-life plots from Mr. King, who has written about everything from vampires to aliens to a super plague. By comparison, the events in "Needful Things" are disappointingly mundane. Adding to the woes, the plot seems to take forever to get going, a problem exacerbated by Mr. King's cliffhanging chapters that, instead of compelling the reader onward, serve only to frustrate.

Finally (and this is a problem regardless of who wrote the book), at least half of the ending just doesn't make sense. If there had been a smidgen of an explanation -- no matter how far-fetched -- I'd have bought it. There wasn't. I didn't.

Perhaps I've just come to expect too much. Maybe this really is a great Stephen King book, and I'm just being too demanding. But I know better.

Mr. Krolczyk is a writer living in Baltimore.

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