Gerald's Gameis a brutal, exhausting read. With this 1992 novel Stephen King did the impossible: he wrote a harrowing, haunting novel about one woman trapped in a room . . . and he managed to make it so damn interesting! Not only that, I feel this is King's scariest work. That's subjective, of course, but it's the opinion of this humble reviewer.
Jessie and Gerald Burlingame have gone up to their summer cabin on Dark Score Lake in the middle of October for a weekend getaway. The community is almost empty — the summer people have long gone home — and the couple plan to spend a lot of time in bed. Gerald is a fan of bondage and Jessie is not. He forces her into handcuffs and she kicks him, her overweight, middle-aged husband, in the stomach and testicles. Hubby drops dead, and Jessie is alone, chained to the bed . . . with no means of escape. And that's chapter one!
This is the mother of character studies. Over 400 pages or so, by way of flashbacks and inner voices, King deeply explores Jessie's psyche and what it means to be a strong woman in this macho, male-oriented world. When I think of Gerald's Game, the word I immediately associate with it is 'brave'. Stephen King could have rested on his laurels: he had become known for creating small towns only to burn them down by novel's end; he was known for traditional horror tropes like ghosts and vampires and aliens. Don't get me wrong — in King's hands, all those things became new and invigorated once more, but this novel shows the horror master turning a corner in his writing. What would follow is a string of novels unafraid to poke and prod at highly sensitive, current social issues, all featuring some of the damn best character work of the man's career.
All that said, this novel is not without its faults. On the whole it is very good, but it is too wordy at times; repetitive, too. And the ending overstays its welcome, I fear. I feel the novel would have been stronger had it ended with Jessie in the Mercedes, and perhaps a brief epilogue added on a'la Pet Sematary. What the reader is instead given is sixty or seventy pages of largely unnecessary wrap-up.
This will never be top King, for me, but it's a fine novel all the same.
"“If anyone ever asks you what panic is, now you can tell them: an emotional blank spot that leaves you feeling as if you've been sucking on a mouthful of pennies."
The Burlingames' cabin is on Dark Score Lake, which would loom large over King's '90s output, especially Bag of Bones.
The towns of Chamberlain (Carrie) and Castle Rock (several short stories and novels) are mentioned in the novel's final chapters. Jessie muses on the fire that happened in Castle Rock "about a year ago," which is a direct reference to the events of Needful Things's climax.
This novel is, of course, the fraternal twin of Dolores Claiborne, but I will discuss that connection in depth when reviewing that novel.
Needful Things is my favorite Stephen King novel. Hell, it's probably my favorite novel, period. I felt that way going into this reread, and those feelings did not change upon reading it for the...fourth time, I think it is now. King nails everything here: exceptional character work, horror and comedy in equal measure, and one of his most memorable endings to date.
I know this novel has its detractors, and that's cool. Different strokes for different folks, brother. This novel is long (but not extraneous, he emphasized) and stars one of King's largest casts. I dig that, and some readers don't. Personally, I love every character here: Buster Keeton, Nettie Cobb, Hugh Priest, Willie Rose — that old Catholic-hating reverend. This novel is King at his most Dickensian: these small town people are folks all readers can relate to; the way these characters' lives intertwine with one another are an absolute joy to read about. And like the best of Dickens's work, this book is hilarious at times. I laugh until I cry every time I read Needful Things; typically I find King's humor to be a little hit or miss. In this 1991 satire, he hits the nail on the head every. single. time. I would wager SK had a ton of fun writing this novel because it's a blast to read. That's not to say this book is lighthearted or breezy; it's anything but. While it has it's hilarious moments, those are contrasted sharply with some of the darkest, most despairing scenes King has ever penned. Why is this book not mentioned in the same breath as Pet Sematary or Cujo when this author's bleakest works are discussed? Some of the text is almost too downtrodden to bare (I'm thinking, for instance, of Cora Rusk's distraction — her longing to go back to her Elvis fantasy — and inability to understand what has just happened to her son. No spoilers!)
As well, it is as relevant today as it was in 1991 — if not more so. For the last eighteen months or thereabouts, I have watched roughly 40% of my country's citizens fall victim to an aging con man, someone who preyed and still preys on the weak, scared, angry and greedy to win the presidential election and further his agenda (or sow chaos; whatever you want to call it). In a sense, this novel feels just as chilling and timely in the Trump era as 1984 or It Can't Happen Here.
Needless to say, this is King's masterwork — at least, for me it is. Some folks would say that title falls to the Dark Tower series or It or The Stand. That's fine. Literature is so damn subjective and every Constant Reader is different. But for me, Needful Things is the tome that shows the impossible heights King is capable of climbing to. He's come close since — and he had come close before this novel released — but this is in a class all its own. My highest recommendation, and then some.
"The goods which had so attracted the residents of Castle Rock — the black pearls, the holy relics, the carnival glass, the pipes, the old comic books, the baseball cards, the antique kaleidoscopes — were all gone. Mr. Gaunt had gotten down to his real business, and at the end of things, the business was always the same. The ultimate item had changed with the years, just like everything else, but such changes were surface things, frosting of different flavors on the same dark and bitter cake.
At the end, Mr. Gaunt always sold them weapons . . . and they always bought."
Confession: I did not take notes while reading this. I know, I know; bad Cody! I just wanted to enjoy the ride.
This is subtitled "The Last Castle Rock Story", so of course it's the punctuation mark on the Castle Rock saga. Connections big and small to The Dead Zone, The Body, Cujo, The Dark Half, and The Sun Dog pop up.
The book's epilogue is set in Junction City, Iowa, which was the setting for 1990's novella The Library Policeman.
The car Ace Merrill picks up for Mr. Gaunt is a Tucker Talisman — a type of car that does not exist, and I am almost tempted to say its name is a reference to The Talisman. As well, when Ace sits in the Talisman for the first time he thinks about how fine a new car smells. "Nothing smells better," he remarks, "except maybe pussy." This line is almost certainly a throwback to Christine, as that same thought is expressed by a character in that novel. Pretty cool.
I am sure there are many more connections to be found here (there are references to Derry and some scenes are set in Cumberland Hospital, which is close to Jerusalem's Lot), but I didn't feel like chasing them. Say sorry.
I began this reread of the Dark Tower series exactly two years ago. Before that, I had always sped through the series and finished feeling sad for not having taken my time. So, I did precisely that this go-around. I feel as though I actually took the journey to the Tower myself.
And now, the journey is over. Damn, it hurts.
It goes without saying that this novel deserves all the stars. It's the capstone to Stephen King's magnum opus: it wraps up one of the finest book series ever written, and it does the job splendidly. Yeah, it has issues (the meta stuff can be jarring as hell, but I love it anyway . . . and one word: Oy. Never forgiving you for that, Steve), but no work of fiction is objectively perfect. This book does what it's supposed to: it's the kiss-off for the ballsiest, most involving set of novels I've ever come across.
I feel at a loss for words, to be honest. I just finished this a few moments ago, and . . . well, this one always gets to me. That is especially true this time. I will miss the ka-tet, and I'm sure I will take this journey again in a year or two. There are always new things to discover and explore in King's Dark Tower universe.
This isn't the review this book deserves, but it will have to do. Say thankya, Sai King, for creating this series and characters (literally-- wink wink). I can't recommend the DT novels enough.
There is an old Family Guy cutaway which depicts Stephen King meeting with his publisher to pitch his next novel. Obviously desperate for an idea, King quickly looks around the office and grabs the publisher's desk lamp. "So this family gets attacked by . . . a lamp monster! Ooooh!" he waves his hands, trying to convey the scariness and shock of his laughably bad offering. Of course the skit is satirizing King's prolificacy. The publisher sighs, defeated, and asks when he can have the manuscript.
Four Past Midnight feels a little like that. None of these stories quite plummet to the lows of an evil, murderous lamp come to life . . . but this is not King on his A-game. These stories were written in the late '80s, when SK was getting off alcohol and drugs; that can have a huge impact on a person's life — especially a person who has to live up to the expectations of millions. King once said of this time period that everything he wrote "fell apart like wet tissue paper," and that self-consciousness and unease is very evident here. The writing is clunky and oft-uninspired; few of the characters come alive. The excellent characterization is why I pay the price of admission. Even if the story gets bloated and the ending disappoints, King's characters are typically reliable. Not so here.
In essence, it feels like King studied what worked best earlier in his career and incorporated those elements into the novellas, with diminished results. We have the small band of survivors fighting for life against an apocalyptic setting a'la The Stand and The Mist (The Langoliers), a psychic child (again, The Langoliers), the tortured writer (Secret Window, Secret Garden), repressed childhood memories/using the innocence of childhood to fight a shape-shifting monster (The Library Policeman) and a boring-as-shit Castle Rock tale about a murderous dog (The Sun Dog). All of these stories feel like they're stuck in tired, been-there-done-that territory; I almost never accuse King of repeating himself, but this collection is nothing but reheated leftovers of plot points from earlier, better novels and novellas.
My ratings for each story are as follows:
The Langoliers: 3
Secret Window, Secret Garden: 4
The Library Policeman: 3
The Sun Dog: 1
That puts the average at 2.75, which rounds up to 3. This is a totally average book. <i>Secret Window, Secret Garden</i> is easily the best of the lot; I don't care to ever reread the others.
The Langoliers features a shout-out to The Shop.
Secret Window, Secret Garden partially takes place in Derry; The Sun Dog takes place in Castle Rock. Both towns are, of course, very important to the King universe.
“'I'm not taking that,' Mort said, and part of him was marvelling at what a really accommodating beast a man was: when someone held something out to you, your first instinct was to take it. No matter if it was a check for a thousand dollars or a stick of dynamite with a lit and fizzing fuse, your first instinct was to take it.”