Needful Things is a 1991 horror novel by American author Stephen King. It is the first novel King wrote after his rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol. The story is about a shopkeeper who runs his business by exchanging goods for money and mysterious deeds performed by the customer. According to the cover, it is "The Last Castle Rock Story". However, the town later serves as the setting for the short story "It Grows on You", published in King's 1993 collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes which, according to King, serves as an epilogue to Needful Things. It was made into a film of the same name in 1993 which was directed by Fraser C. Heston.
- A new shop named "Needful Things" opens in the town of Castle Rock, Maine, sparking the curiosity of its citizens. The proprietor, Leland Gaunt, is a charming elderly gentleman who always seems to have an item in stock that is perfectly suited to any customer who comes through his door. The prices are surprisingly low, considering the merchandise – such as a rare Sandy Koufax baseball card, a carnival glass lampshade, and a fragment of wood believed to be from Noah's Ark – but he expects each customer also to play a little prank on someone else in Castle Rock. Gaunt knows about the long-standing private grudges, arguments, and feuds between the various townspeople, and the pranks are his means of forcing them to escalate until the whole town is eventually caught up in madness and violence.
The story is set in the small fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, where a new shop named "Needful Things" opens, to the curiosity of the townspeople. The story starts out in first person with the narrator greeting the reader and moves to third-person, introducing each of the book's diverse cast of characters and their complicated histories. Castle Rock's citizens then begin to come into Needful Things, each of them drawn by an item they want more than anything else.
They are all greeted by the seemingly kind old man claiming to be from Akron, Ohio, Leland Gaunt, and they all ignore the sign hanging in his shop, "Caveat emptor" ("Let the buyer beware"). One person after another buys the treasures he has in stock, paying surprisingly low prices and performing small "favors" (pranks) at his request. The person doing a prank usually knows the target, but has no real quarrel or relationship with him/her. Little by little, the pranks worsen existing grudges between the townspeople until they start turning against each other or themselves, nearly bringing about the violent destruction of the entire town.
The first to enter the shop, Brian Rusk, buys a Sandy Koufax '56 TOPPS card for eighty-five cents and a prank to be played on Wilma Jerzyck, a bitter woman with a severe dislike of a woman named Nettie Cobb. Brian sneaks to Wilma's house while she is away and ruins her laundry sheets by flinging heaps of mud at them. At the scene, he leaves a note warning Wilma that it is her last warning. Wilma presumes the note to belong to Nettie Cobb due to their rivalry. Wilma warns Nettie over the phone that she will get revenge. Later, Brian is told that he must perform one more prank to finish paying for the card. He is sent to Wilma's house where he destroys her windows, tv, and microwave with large rocks. Meanwhile, the town drunk Hugh Priest buys a fox tail from Gaunt and pays for it by sneaking into Nettie's house and murdering her dog. Another note is left at this crime. The murder of her beloved dog leads Nettie to take a meat cleaver and head toward Wilma's house. At the same time, Wilma has seen the damage to her house and left with a large knife of her own. The two meet at a street corner and brutally murder each other. The gruesome scene is quickly discovered by police.
Ace Merrill (whose uncle "Pop" Merrill appears in the short story 'The Sun Dog' from Four Past Midnight) buys a treasure map from Gaunt, paying by becoming Gaunt's shop assistant. His first job is to bring a large shipment of guns to Needful Things. The guns, automatic pistols with poison-tipped bullets, are eventually sold to all of Gaunt's customers after his business brings various grudges to the boiling point.
Nettie Cobb, before her murder, buys a piece of carnival glass. Her payment comes in the form of wallpapering traffic violation warnings over every surface of Danforth Keeton's house while he's away. The violation slips are stamped with the name of town deputy Norris Ridgewick. Danforth "Buster" Keeton, gambling addict and Town Selectman, buys a game that allegedly predicts horse race winners. After seeing the violation slips papering his house, he confronts Ridgewick. Danforth, being a paranoid and mentally unstable man, begins to believe a shadowy cabal authority - "Them" - is persecuting him at every turn. He joins Ace Merrill as an assistant of Gaunt.
Polly Chalmers, lover of Sheriff Alan Pangborn, buys a "magic" charm from Needful Things in a desperate attempt to cure her severely painful arthritis. Her payment is to plant a letter at one of the X's on the map Ace Merill bought. Ace believes his dead uncle "Pop" buried his riches. Unknown to Polly, the letter is a forged writing supposedly by Pangborn, mocking Ace and telling him that Pangborn got the treasure first. Ace becomes furious and plans to murder Sheriff Pangborn.
Another to buy from Needful Things is Cora Rusk, Brian's obese mother. She purchases a pair of sunglasses said to have belonged to her celebrity crush Elvis Presley. Her friend Myra Evans, also a Presley fan, buys a photo of the man. When each holds their respective item, they enter an illusionary world in which they enjoy progressively kinkier sexual pleasures with "The King". Eventually, Cora discovers Myra in this "other world" and goes to her house to kill her. Myra, however, is prepared for her, and shoots her fatally.
Hugh Priest's car is later vandalized by another Needful Things buyer. A note is left framing Henry Beaufort, the owner of Castle Rock's only tavern. Hugh heads to the tavern - The Mellow Tiger - to murder Henry. At the same time, Henry finds his own car ruined and a note framing Hugh. When they meet at The Mellow Tiger, Hugh is killed instantly by a shotgun blast to the chest, while Henry has a lung punctured by an automatic pistol Hugh purchased from Gaunt and dies slowly. He is rescued later to die in the emergency room.
A man named Lester Pratt has his skull broken open when he attacks John LaPointe at the police station. A photo had earlier been planted in Pratt's car by the stuttering "Slopey" Dodd, leading Lester to think his girlfriend Sally Ratcliffe was having an affair with LaPointe. Before this, a letter and photos were planted to lead Sally to think Lester was cheating on her. She cuts off all contact with Lester without explanation and later hangs herself over the guilt of his death.
Frank Jewett, Brian's school principal, a cocaine addict, and a closet pedophile, finds pedophilia magazines strewn all over his office - Sally Ratcliffe's payment to Gaunt - with a note from his "friend" George Nelson, also a coke addict and pedophile. Frank breaks into George's house and kills his pet parakeet, destroys his various possessions and furniture, then defecates on a framed photo of George's mother. The two meet on the steps of the town hall and prepare to kill each other.
Danforth eventually murders his wife. Andy Clutterbuck's wife is murdered due to a case of mistaken identity. The Baptists and Catholics of the town - already in a religious rivalry - are turned against each other by "favors" performed for Gaunt and a massive, murderous battle breaks out in the middle of town. Finally, Gaunt begins to sell his poison-bullet automatic pistols (which will be used by Hugh, Cora, and Myra, among others). Ace Merrill and Danforth "Buster" Keeton begin, on Gaunt's orders, to plant dynamite around the town. They are caught by Norris Ridgewick who shoots Danforth - and is shot himself - and escapes. Ace, seeing Danforth suffering from the fatal gunshot, shoots him three times in the head as a mercy killing.
Meanwhile, Brian Rusk, tortured by his guilt in playing a role in Wilma and Nettie's murders and maddened by his obsession over the card Gaunt sold him, commits suicide via shotgun after making his younger brother Sean promise to never buy anything from Needful Things. Sean Rusk is taken, in a state of shock, to the hospital in another town. Alan Pangborn, head sheriff of town, has grown increasingly suspicious of the chaos in town and visits Sean in the hospital. After Sean tells him about his promise to Brian, Alan's suspicions about the source of the chaos prove true and he orders Gaunt arrested.
It is explained that Gaunt has, for centuries, been wandering through different countries and selling people useless junk. These objects appear to the buyer to be whatever they want most, and once acquired, have the power to strongly affect their moods. Buyers develop severe paranoia and anxiety if they are not physically holding the purchased items. By threatening to either take away the item, destroy it, or remove its power, Gaunt is able to blackmail, coerce, and intimidate his customers into doing whatever he wants. In the end "he always sells weapons", which everyone eagerly buys so they can defend their property.
Sheriff Pangborn immediately heads back to Castle Rock and enters Needful Things to find it empty, but he finds a videotape on the counter with a note from Gaunt telling him it will reveal how his wife and son died years earlier. The tape shows Ace Merrill running their car off the road into the tree that kills them. Alan leaves the shop to kill Ace Merill. Polly, who has realized her "favor" to Gaunt has set up Alan's murder, removes the charm she bought and kills the creature inside that was feeding on her arthritic pain before heading to Needful Things. She sees Alan and brings him to his senses only to be taken hostage by Ace Merrill, who threatens to kill her unless Alan gives him the treasure he stole.
Norris Ridgewick, who had been prepared to commit suicide before realizing he still had his duty as a police officer, arrives a distance away and prepares to shoot Ace, until he sees Polly blocking his shot. At this time, Gaunt is preparing to leave. Alan, ignoring Ace, quickly confronts him and steals his briefcase which, Alan correctly believes, contains the captured souls of everyone who bought from Needful Things, holding them under Gaunt's power. While Ace is distracted by the confrontation, Polly escapes his grasp. Norris, now having a clear shot, kills Ace with a bullet straight to the head. Gaunt becomes annoyed, agitated, then furious, and attacks Alan. Alan avoids the potentially fatal strike and produces a bouquet of paper flowers from a magician's trick he carries with him. The bouquet emits a blinding white light which appears to harm Gaunt, causing his human facade to melt away and reveal his true form as a slightly reptilian, dwarf-like humanoid. His car, parked nearby, transforms into a carriage pulled by a single deathly-white horse with glowing red eyes. The words on the side of the carriage read "Caveat Emptor" ("Buyer Beware"). Leland Gaunt leaves town in the carriage, which flies, and the town is destroyed by mass riots, murder, and numerous explosions of dynamite. Those who have survived the entire harrowing ordeal find themselves facing an uncertain future in what is left of Castle Rock.
The novel ends as it began, in the first-person welcome to the reader as a new person in town. The beginning and end of the book are almost word for word with the only real difference being the setting and the name of the store. In the beginning of the book, the reader was welcomed to Castle Rock, noting the new sign for Needful Things. In the end, the narrator welcomes the reader to Junction City, Iowa, noting the new sign for the store "Answered Prayers" - suggesting that Leland Gaunt has set up shop someplace else to begin his business cycle all over again.
- Brian Rusk: An 11-year-old boy who becomes the first customer of Needful Things.
- Leland Gaunt: Presumably a demon (or Satan himself) in human form, who has spent centuries traveling about the world and tricking people into selling their souls to him, usually in exchange for useless objects disguised as the things they want most.
- Alan Pangborn: The Sheriff of Castle Rock and the main protagonist.
- Patricia "Polly" Chalmers: Known as the town's most eccentric woman, Polly was originally a Castle Rock native who became an "out-of-towner" after living in San Francisco for years before returning.
- Norris Ridgewick: One of the town's deputies and Sheriff Pangborn's closest ally.
- John "Ace" Merrill: The town's resident "bad boy" and petty criminal.
- Danforth "Buster" Keeton: The town's head selectman, who often uses the authority of his office to intimidate others. He is also a gambling addict.
- Wilma Jerzyck: Town bully and first victim of one of Mr. Gaunt's pranks, performed by Brian Rusk, which starts the cycle.
- Netitia "Nettie" Cobb: Polly's best friend and housekeeper, and enemy of Wilma Jerzyck.
- Myrtle Keeton: Lonely wife of Buster Keeton. Buys a porcelain doll from Mr. Gaunt.