Friday, December 28, 2012

Stephen King: Needful Things (1991)

"What the hell gets into people - some kind of poison?"

A new shop is opening on the town square in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. There are various antiques and oddities in the window, under a green canvas awning that reads: "Needful Things".

Its proprietor, Leland Gaunt, is a handsome middle-aged man from outside New England, with a natural affinity for quickly putting people at ease; he also has an uncanny ability of providing each townsperson with something they secretly covet. He sells the items at bargain prices, but also requests that each purchaser play a prank on someone else in town. The pranks - which range from muddying the sheets on someone's laundry line to slashing car tires to killing a dog - are designed to inflame various pre-existing grudges, petty feuds and disagreements.

Needful Things follows the classic theme of "a stranger comes to town". Gaunt (like Kurt Barlow in 'Salem's Lot) is an supernatural being, whose goal is sowing distrust, division, and paranoia in Castle Rock, and then harvesting the souls of the people who end up killed or dead by their own hand.

The novel is subtitled "The Last Castle Rock Story". King has decided to leave behind the fictional town he has used for several novels and shorter stories: The Dead Zone, Cujo, "The Body", The Dark Half, "The Sun Dog". Castle Rock Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who played a large role in The Dark Half, is the main protagonist in this novel, attempting to save his town from Gaunt's evil machinations. (Needful Things is also the first novel King completed since becoming drug-free.)


John Sears (Stephen King's Gothic) writes that Needful Things
offers King's most extended and forceful allegory of consumerism as the misdirection and corruption of desire. The novel is a kind of Faustian parable firmly locked in the extensive and detailed domestic realism familiar from novels like 'Salem's Lot. ... [Needful Things is] an overt analysis of desire in capitalism, its combination of deceptive satisfaction and unquestioned ideological faith.
Sharon A. Russell (Stephen King: A Critical Companion):
[King] is concerned that our quest for personal gratification can destroy society. King is interested in both individual actions and the organization of the community. ... King shows how these [societal] codes break down. We quickly believe the worst of each other and act rather than talk. ... Civilization is just a thin coating over our more violent impulses. ... When the social structures of Castle Rock begin to fall apart, King shows how ineffective the traditional supports of a community can be. All the organizations we trust to maintain society become involved in the destruction.
King's anti-consumerism message is present, but it's weakly presented. The same point is made with numerous townspeople; it gets repetitious and King's done it better in earlier books. This is well-travelled territory for King, with themes that resonate throughout his fiction: the darker pathologies of small town life, religious mania, addiction and obsession, class and gender inequality, domestic abuse. As Russell notes, the underpinnings of society offer no help during the crisis. Law enforcement, city government, and religious leaders are all as complicit as the individual citizens in the town's escalating hostility.

The writing of Needful Things rarely rises to the level of classic King. There are exceptions, however, where King really shines, e.g., when relating the backstories of Pangborn and Polly Chalmers. The novel's ending is especially unsatisfying because it is highly reminiscent of the revised ending of The Stand (which King re-worked around the same time). Randall Flagg's escape before The Stand's nuclear conflagration and his re-emerge elsewhere to once again plot destruction is identical to Gaunt's escape from The Rock in this novel. Needful Things ends as it began, with Gaunt opening a new store (Answered Prayers) in another American small town.

Like Flagg, Gaunt is shown to have had a long history:
He had begun business many years ago - as a wandering peddler on the blind face of a distant land, a peddler who carried his wares on his back, a peddler who usually came at the fall of darkness and was always gone the next morning, leaving bloodshed, horror, and unhappiness behind him. Years later, in Europe, as the Plague raged and the deadcarts rolled, he had gone from town to town and country to country in a wagon drawn by a slat-thin white horse with terrible burning eyes and a tongue as black as a killer's heart he had sold his wares from the back of the wagon ... and was gone before his customers, who paid with small, ragged coins or even in barter, could discovery what they had really bought.
Gaunt knows exactly what each person wants - and he can supply it. (In the end, we see that the items he has sold were little more than junk, but they had been idealized in the eyes of the buyer.) Gaunt is a consummate con-man, who splits off each person from the rest of the town - all of his deals are done one-on-one - and then makes his covert arrangements. He poisons everyone in town, sowing division and dissension, anger, and jealousy, ruining relationships and conducting the town's people through "dark and bitterly satisfying fantasies of revenge".

As in 'Salem's Lot, secrets abound: there are gambling addictions, alcoholism, incidents of domestic abuse. When she was young, a pregnant Polly Chalmers left Castle Rock; she returned without her child, but no one knows what happened. And while everyone knows that Sheriff Pangborn lost his wife and younger son in a car crash, he finds it impossible to speak to anyone about his grief. The townpeople cannot share their new purchases with anyone because they fear jealous thieves, or they are afraid of breaking the item if they use it. Many of them lock their items away, finding that "gloating in private provides its own particular pleasure".

Gaunt's statements - "Everything is for sale", "Free trade is what made this country great", "Selfish people are happy people" and encouraging feelings of "pride of possession" - reinforce the greed, materialism, and self-satisfaction of the 1980s, making the book a possible allegory of the Reagan/Bush administrations. (One character speaks disparagingly about the 1991 Iraq Invasion. This is almost certainly King talking. The sentiment seems out of place, since that brief slaughter was conducted to near-unanimous cheering in the US.)

King notes: "In America, you could have anything you wanted. Just as long as you could pay for it." Gaunt exploits people's greed and their willingness to pay what at first seems like a small price to fulfill their desires. While everyone acts out of free will, each small payment turns out to have large consequences.

Next: The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Stephen King: Four Past Midnight (1990)

Four Past Midnight is Stephen King's second collection of novellas, and it is a much weaker collection than the quartet of tales published in 1981's Different Seasons.

The stories in this volume are far less engaging. Only one of them really works as a novella; the other three might have been stronger as short stories.


King frames his introduction around a televised baseball game from late July 1989 between the Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox. Milwaukee's Robin Yount struck out against pitcher Roger Clemens in his first plate appearance, but then smacked a two-run double off Boston's left field wall his second time up. Yount made his debut in 1974, the same year King published his first novel, and King points out that despite their advancing ages - the announcers joke about how ancient Yount is (he was 33 at the time - both the player and writer still have what it takes.

The sentiment is nice, but the Clemens/Yount scenario never happened. Clemens pitched against the Brewers twice in 1989: June 27 in Milwaukee and September 30 in Boston. I looked at a game in late July 1988, and while Yount struck out against Clemens in his first at-bat, he ended the day 0-for-4. In fact, Yount drove in zero runs against Clemens in Boston in the four seasons from 1986-89.

The Langoliers

On a cross-country red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Boston, ten passengers wake up to find that everyone else on the once-crowded plane has disappeared (including the pilots and flight crew). One of the survivors is Brian Engle, a pilot for the airline, who was travelling to Boston for the funeral of his ex-wife. He lands the plane in Bangor, Maine, where the passengers try to make sense of the empty, dead-quiet surroundings. It turns out the plane travelled through a wrinkle in time and travelled back into the very recent past, where the empty world has been abandoned by the present. The passengers have to re-fuel the plane and retrace their flight pattern, going east to west, and hope to find that split in the space-time and return to the present day. The science fiction idea is not a bad one, and this tale feels a bit like a old Twilight Zone episode.

King is at his best, of course, when detailing the interactions between the passengers. This is another of King's novel(la)s in which he places a group of people in a confined space and sees how they interact (e.g., The Mist, Under The Dome).

Secret Window, Secret Garden

Continuing the theme of fiction's power of both Misery and The Dark Half, King asks: "What happens to the wide-eyed observer [i.e., a writer] when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly?"

One autumn day, Mort Rainey answers the door of his upstate New York cottage and is confronted by John Shooter, a writer from Mississippi who claims Mort has plagiarized his work. "You stole my story ... and something has to be done." Shooter's story is nearly identical to one of Mort's, but Mort believes he can prove that his story was published before Shooter says he wrote his. However, that proof turns out to be far more elusive than expected. Meanwhile, Shooter begins terrorizing Mort, killing his cat and then (quite possibly) burning down the house Mort shared with his wife, from whom he has recently divorced. Mort makes a number of small decisions that end up leaving him no choice but to deal with Shooter by himself, without the help of the police, and as Shooter's reign of terror continues, Mort finds himself possibly framed for murder - and questioning his own sanity. King expertly charts Mort's psychological disintegration, keeping the reader slightly off balance as well.

The Library Policeman

Sam Peebles borrows two books from the local library in preparation for a public speaking appearance. Librarian Ardelia Lortz reminds him to return the books on time or face the wrath of the Library Policeman. Of course, Sam misplaces the books! He also learns that Ardelia actually died many years ago. The evil being masquerading as Ardelia is a shape-shifting being that feeds on the fear of children, much like the creature in It. This novella is really about overcoming adolescent fears and becoming a complete and whole adult. Sam must confront the repressed memory of sexual abuse outside the library when he was a young boy. Sam's story was compelling, but the story's framework was a little too silly to work as horror.

The Sun Dog

Kevin Delevan receives a Polaroid Sun 660 camera for his 15th birthday. However, no matter what Kevin tries to take a picture of, the photo that comes out is of a mangy black dog in front of a white picket fence. With the help of Pop Merrill, the owner of the junk/antique Emporium Glamorum, Kevin realizes that in each successive picture, the dog is turning and advancing angrily towards the camera. Kevin wants to destroy the camera, but Pop hopes to sell it. The camera begins to exert control over Pop, forcing him to continue taking pictures and bring the snarling beast closer and closer to breaking through the two-dimensional world of the photos and into the real world. This story is far too long, with several digressions that have nothing to do with the main plot.

Next: Needful Things.

Happy Holidays From The National Rifle Association

Harper's Weekly Review:
At an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a man carrying three semiautomatic guns fatally shot six women and 20 first-graders. ...

The shooting was the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the sixteenth mass shooting in the United States this year, and the thirty-first school shooting since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. ...

The same week, police in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, arrested a high school student who was planning to kill his classmates with guns and explosives; police in Cedar Lake, Indiana, seized 47 guns from a man who had threatened to attack a nearby elementary school; police in Birmingham, Alabama, shot a gunman after he wounded three people at a hospital; a man in Portland, Oregon, shot and killed two people at a mall, then fatally shot himself; two police officers in Topeka, Kansas, were fatally shot outside a grocery store; and a federal appeals court struck down the country's only statewide concealed-weapons ban.

The National Rifle Association disabled its Facebook page, and 31 Republican senators with pro–gun rights voting records declined invitations to discuss gun control on Meet the Press.
Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker:
The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns — we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them — is more important than children's lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that's a moral choice, clearly made.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Greenwald: "Don't Cheer While Your Country Constantly Kills - And Then Expect To Be Liked"

Glenn Greenwald, on the outrage over Korean rapper Psy's lyrics:
Whatever else one wants to say, the US is a country that, for more than a decade, has loudly and continuously declared itself to be a "nation at war". It's not "at war" in any one county, but in many countries around the globe.

In the last four years alone, it has used drones to end people's lives in six predominantly Muslim country (probably more). Under its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, it has repeatedly wiped out entire families (including just this week), slaughtered dozens of children at a time, targeted and killed people rescuing and grieving its victims, and either deliberately or recklessly dropped bombs on teenagers (including its own citizens), then justified it with the most foul and morally deranged rationale.

It embraces and props up the world's most repressive tyrants. It isolates itself from the world and embraces blatant double standards in order to enable the worst behavior of its client states. It continues to maintain a global network of prisons where people are kept indefinitely in cages with no charges. It exempts itself and its leaders from the international institutions of justice while demanding that the leaders of other, less powerful states be punished there. And it is currently in the process of suffocating a nation of 75 million people with an increasingly sadistic sanctions regime, while proudly boasting about it and threatening more.

It spent years imprisoning even Muslim journalists with no charges. And then there's that little fact about how, less than a decade ago, it created a worldwide torture regime and then launched an aggressive war that destroyed a nation of 26 million people, one that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. ...

If you want your country to rule the world as an aggressive and militaristic empire, then accept the inevitable consequence of that: that there will be huge numbers of people in the world who resent and even hate your country for that behavior. Don't cheer while your country constantly kills, invades, occupies, and dominates the internal affairs of countless other nations - and then expect to be liked.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

"The New America" (It Looks A Lot Like The Old One)

Chris Hedges, Truthdig:
Hurricane Sandy, if you are poor, is the Katrina of the North. It has exposed the nation's fragile, dilapidated and shoddy infrastructure, one that crumbles under minimal stress. It has highlighted the inability of utility companies, as well as state and federal agencies, to cope with the looming environmental disasters that because of the climate crisis will soon come in wave after wave. But, most important, it illustrates the depraved mentality of an oligarchic and corporate elite that, as conditions worsen, retreats into self-contained gated communities, guts basic services and abandons the wider population. ...

This is the new America. It is an America where economic and environmental catastrophes converge to trigger systems breakdown and collapse. It is an America divided between corporate predators and their prey. It is an America that, as things unravel, increasingly sacrifices its own.
Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Today EFF posted several thousand pages of new drone license records and a new map that tracks the location of drone flights across the United States. ...

The records show that the Air Force has been testing out a bunch of different drone types, from the smaller, hand-launched Raven, Puma and Wasp drones designed by Aerovironment in Southern California, to the much larger Predator and Reaper drones responsible for civilian and foreign military deaths abroad. The Marine Corps is also testing drones, though it chose to redact so much of the text from its records that we still don't know much about its programs. ...
Left I, U.S.: "Don't emulate us, Syria!":
The U.S. government is now vociferously warning Syria not to use chemical weapons. The U.S. government! That would be the same country that firebombed 67 Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying 50-90% of each of the cities. Were they dropping matches from the air? No, they were dropping Napalm bombs, a chemical weapon.

That would also be the country that in addition to continuing to use Napalm in its war against the people of Vietnam, carpetbombed that country with Agent Orange, another chemical weapon that killed or maimed an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese and caused an estimated 500,000 birth defects.

That would also be the country that covered Iraq with depleted Uranium, still another chemical weapon that has caused huge numbers of cancers and birth defects in that country.

And finally, that country, the one who is warning Syria about the dire consequences of using chemical weapons (and claiming they are preparing to do so, while maintaining that their "evidence" cannot be revealed), is the same country that said and did nothing when its ally Israel used white phosphorous bombs against Gaza in 2009.
George Washington has posted: Update On Potential War Against Syria

John Pilger highlights some of the stories reported by Project Censored in its book Censored 2013: Dispatches from the Media Revolution:
The bombing of civilian targets in Libya in 2011 was often deliberate and included the main water supply facility that provided water to 70 per cent of the population. In Afghanistan, the murder of 16 unarmed civilians, including children, attributed to one rogue US soldier, was actually committed by "multiple" soldiers, and covered up. In Syria, the US, Britain and France are funding and arming the icon of terrorism, al-Qaida. In Latin America, one US bank has laundered $378bn. in drug money.
The US says children are legitimate targets in the never-ending war against Afghanistan. Army Lt. Col. Marion "Ced" Carrington, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment: "In addition to looking for military-age males, [we are] looking for children with potential hostile intent."

Chris Floyd, Empire Burlesque:
On [November 29], Bradley Manning, one of the foremost prisoners of conscience in the world today, testified in open court - the first time his voice has been heard since he was arrested, confined and subjected to psychological torture by the U.S. government.

An event of some newsworthiness, you might think. Manning has admitted leaking documents that detailed American war crimes in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He has been held incommunicado for more than 900 days by the Obama administration. Reports of his treatment at the hands of his captors have sparked outrage, protests and concern around the world. He was now going to speak openly in a pre-trial hearing on a motion to dismiss his case because of that treatment. Surely such a moment of high courtroom drama would draw heavy media coverage, if only for its sensationalistic aspects.

But if you relied on the nation's pre-eminent journal of news reportage, the New York Times, you could have easily missed notice of the event altogether, much less learned any details of what transpired in the courtroom. The Times sent no reporter to the hearing, but contented itself with a brief bit of wire copy from AP, tucked away on Page 3, to note the occasion. ...

For the actual details of Manning's hearing - which actually began a few days before his appearance - you have to turn to foreign papers, such as the Guardian, whose coverage of Manning's situation has been copious. The Guardian provided two long stories (here and here), totalling 68 paragraphs, on Manning's testimony, both written by one the paper's leading reporters, Ed Pilkington, who was actually present in the courtroom. This was preceded by three long stories (here, here and here), also by Pilkington reporting on the scene, about previous testimony in the hearing, from the brig's commander and from the Marine psychiatrist overseeing Manning's condition.
I'm sad to hear that Floyd is taking a break from blogging. His righteous anger will be missed.