Every so often, I need to lose myself in a good story. The longer, the better. Movies are good, full series are even better, but nothing quite beats a huge brick of a novel.
So I was stoked as all get-out when I finally found a copy of Needful Things.
I’ve always heard people say that this was only so-so. I didn’t get that at all for the first seven hundred pages. (Seven hundred pages. Mmm.) I was completely into all the storylines, I was having fun exploring the characters, and loving how I was being dragged into Castle Rock.
In fact, up until the bit where the two religious groups started beating the crap out of each other, I was wondering how it was possible that so many people rate It over this. Surely this was much better entertainment, even if it wasn’t as emotionally involving?
Then I read the last thirty-odd pages, and I realised that I’d just seen one of the least satisfying endings I’ve yet encountered. I’m frequently disappointed by endings (I watched Anamorph last night, and an otherwise brilliant movie was tempered by the too-vague, too-open ending, with the non-character villain remaining a total non-character), but this one really irked me.
I was ready to put Needful Things up there as my favourite King novel. (I’m a King ho, so this is no easy feat.) But yeah, then the final thirty-odd pages happened, and I suddenly understood the ‘meh’ that I’ve encountered in other people.
I’ve been thinking about it, and I think these are the reasons that the ending fell flat for me:
First of all, the transition from build-up to actual finale was too gradual. I’m all for slow pacing and intricate detail (anyone who isn’t shouldn’t even be in the same building as Needful Things), but the malicious pranks just kept getting worse, and I didn’t even raise an eyebrow when people started shooting each other. Maybe I should have read the book in less sittings? I’m not sure. But I was surprised when I reached the whole ‘date of writing’ bit at the end. I was waiting for another forty pages.
Also, Leland Gaunt was a bit of a wet blanket when he turned into a monster. I know that a lot of people itch for the Big Reveal, but the power of Leland Gaunt was in what he symbolised for the reader. For me, he was a Lovecraftian thing that fed off of greed and avarice. He had no shape other than that which he chose to project onto the minds of his victims.
When he turned into a demon-thing, I was kinda bummed.
And then, last but not least, there was the way in which Alan beat Gaunt. Sure, the confrontation between the two of them had been set up right from the start, so I knew he was going to be the one who took him down. But I was expecting more. I was expecting anger and hatred and blood and guts and death and horror and lots of other things. What I got was a few pages of frustrating Dark Tower references and a frankly silly final exit that conjured up images of that one Kaiser Chiefs video.
Now, Dark Tower references aren’t a bad thing. In fact, I love Dark Tower references. I get all happy and warm and fuzzy whenever I spot one. But this just felt like a cop-out. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for a reader who didn’t get the reference–disappointing and confusing? Something like that.
It reminded me a lot of Insomnia. I loved that novel as well, right up to the end. Creepy monsters? Check. Well-realised protagonist? Check. Engrossing storyline? Check. Relatively empty ending due to Dark Tower connection? Very check.
And the end of Insomina even got retconned, to add insult to injury.
I still enjoyed the book, and I’m certain that I’ll return to it some other time when I feel the need to lose myself in a big story. It’s just a huge shame, as seven hundred pages of buildup really deserve a finale that is of appropriate length and mindblowingness.
Oh, and one more thing: We Just Don’t Know. It’s a recurring theme in King’s stuff (this, From A Buick 8, The Dark Tower, The Colorado Kid), and I actually really like it. I would have enjoyed the ending to this a lot more if I hadn’t seen Gaunt ride off into the night in a crazy flying waggon, or whatever it was, and hadn’t seen him set up shop in another town. Not finding out, when done properly (ahem, Anamorph), is satisfying. ‘And it started all over again and almost nothing changed’ isn’t. If there was a horn that had previously been lost, then I didn’t pick up on it on this read.
Yeah, definitely a book I’m going to have to go back to.