Needful Things, written by Stephen King and published in 1991, was one of
King's most successful books to date. It sold 1.5 million copies in it's first printing and
ranks number 18 on a list of best-selling books written in the last 25 years. The book is
still in print and was even made into a motion picture.
When it comes to a Stephen King novel, popularity is very hard to determine.
Americans just seem to be in love with everything this man writes. "Stephen King is
somewhat of record holder also. He has had six books on the NEW YORK TIMES, USA
TODAY and PUBLISHER'S Weekly, as bestsellers. Now that is pretty good, but his
distinction is that all six books were listed all at the same time!"
(http://datalist.idsite.com/sking_table.html). With the exception of the years 1988 and
1993, he has had at least one, sometimes three books on the bestseller list each year
dating back to 1979. It is fair to say almost everything written by him, regardless of the
content, becomes a best seller based on name recognition alone. His sudden rise to
popularity is a strange occurrence. From almost out of nowhere, King emerged with a
variation on the horror genre that touched a nerve in the American public. "Stephen
King's popularity lies in his ability to reinterpret the standard Gothic tale in new and
exciting ways. Through his eyes, the conventional becomes unconventional and
wonderful in a way no other author has done. King thus creates his own Gothic world and
then interprets it for us."(www.bgsu.edu/colleges/library/press/pp0203.html). This
sudden rise to fame has baffled some and provoked others to analyze King's success.
Books such as The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscapes and Nightmares, edited
by Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Brown, have been written about King and his literary
success. An exerpt from a short essay by Lint Hatcher called The Strange Popularity of
Stephen King's Homespun Horror details King's meteoric rise to fame:
"In the fall of 1971, Stephen King was living with his wife, Tabitha, and their baby
daughter, Naomi, in a trailer set atop a snowy hillside in Hermon, Maine. King had
graduated from college with a degree in English and a teaching certificate. For quite a
while, he had searched unsuccessfully for a teaching position, trying to make ends
meet?and mostly failing?first by pumping gas at a filling station and then by pressing
sheets at an industrial laundry. The latter earned him $60 a week. Finally, that fall, he
was hired as a high school English instructor to the tune of $6,400 a year. He would still
spend summers at the laundry factory. In the meantime, King came home, gave his wife
a hug (she smelled of crullers from her job at the local Dunkin' Donuts), and placed an
Olivetti portable typewriter on a child's desk which he carefully balanced on his knees.
From this inauspicious starting point, he proceeded to write novels.
Around five of them. Which were all rejected.
Then one day Tabitha King reached into the trash can and pulled out the first few
discarded pages of a novel and handed them back to her husband. She thought he had
something there?more than he apparently realized.
The novel was Carrie. When Doubleday bought the hardcover rights for $2,500, there
was much rejoicing in the King family's fragile little home. When New American Library
later bought the paperback rights for $400,000, of which King would receive half, "our
lives changed so quickly that for more than a year afterward, we walked around with big,
sappy grins on our faces, hardly daring to believe we were out of that trap for good,"
King remembers. "At last I was free to quit teaching and fulfill what I believe is my only
function in life: to write books." To celebrate, King went out to find a present for Tabby.
Not exactly used to six-figure incomes, he brought back a hair dryer.
Like a character in one of his novels, King had no idea of the strange forces coalescing
One might say it was timing. After all, director Brian DePalma took Carrie and turned it
into a critically and commercially successful film?placing the name "Stephen King" in
the public eye?right there in the middle of a Seventies horror boom, right there in a
decade when grown-up, respectable men and women were standing in line to see whether
The Exorcist would make them throw up in the aisles, right there when high school kids
were debating breathlessly whether the book The Amityville Horror was a big hoax or a
real ghost story.
Carrie was followed by Salem's Lot, and then came The Shining. King's editor feared the
latter borrowed too much from the psychic going's on of Carrie and was perhaps too
similar to Robert Marasco's novel, Burnt Offerings. The Shining, however, was a great
success, actually inspiring a slew of copy-cat titles?The Piercing, The Burning, The
Nesting. Suddenly gerunds were scary. And then, as if to prove that King could not fail,
The Shining was followed by a successful short story collection, Night Shift, and by The
Stand, a more-massive-than-Michener, 823-page end of the world epic which, rather than
landing on bookstore shelves like a lead weight, actually became the favorite novel
among a growing horde of Stephen King enthusiasts.
And the momentum has continued?on through more tales of terror like The Dead Zone,
Needful Things and his recent Desperation, fantasy like The Eyes of the Dragon,
screenplays, comic books and several excursions into the "non-supernatural" such as his
novella The Body (which became the film Stand By Me). Although King himself would
confess there is an occasional boner in the lot, his career as a whole has involved a
degree of constant popular success?popular acceptance?undreamt of by his
predecessors in the field of horrific literature. Horror stories take the larger, scarier
questions of life and incarnate them, give them flesh, so we can see those mysteries
better, prepare for them a little better. The raw material of that incarnational process has
to belong to this world. That is, not only does the encroachment take place on our
familiar turf?the Something from the Outside also makes itself known, forms itself, if
you will, out of the familiar. In order for us to know it, it must draw upon things we
know. What we know, fellow traveller of the late twentieth century, is America. King's
success, then, lies not only in his profound ability to make his characters and their home
towns come to life. It also lies in his ability to incarnate the invading evil out of bits and
pieces of the familiar, a rag tag assortment of Americana that, looked at in King's
peculiar slant of light, becomes downright creepy. Granted, in King's work there is the
simple thrill of the good scare, the book you just can't put down. But there is something
deeper going on as well, something that inspires empathy, loyalty, as though he were an
old friend sitting on the back porch with us, starting his fourth beer, and philosophizing
by starlight. In his pop-cultural world of monsters and mayhem, King is getting at
something and we listen to him. As King himself puts it, ?I'm no one's National Book
Award or Pulitzer Prize winner, but I'm serious all right. If you don't believe anything
else, believe this: when I take you by your hand and begin to talk, my friend, I believe
every word I say.'" (http://www.gadfly.org/oct-97-feature.htm)
King's popularity seems to account for the inevitable success of his novels.
However, popularity aside, there are other factors which made Needful Things one of the
most successful STEPHEN KING novels written. One is the changing ways of the
book-selling industry detailed in an article from Publisher's Weekly July 1, 1997:
"By the time the '80s rolled around, a new word, ?megasellers,' was coined to
reflect the new breed of hardcover bestsellers, with seven-figure unit sales that only a few
decades earlier would have been regarded as mass market sales. In the 1980s, 13 fiction
titles had sales of more than a million copies during their first year of publication. So far
in the 1990s, that figure for fiction has swelled to 43. But the wealth here is not going to
a broad spectrum of writers; 30 of those 43 home runs are by John Grisham, Stephen
King, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel.
Of the best-selling books from the last 25 years, the majority of the titles with the
biggest totals have been published in the last 10 years; not surprising, since the expansion
of superstores and specialty discount retail outlets have impacted most favorably on
brand-name authors. And even if we doubled the list, it would quickly fill up with more
titles from these veteran best-selling novelists."
Another reason which accounts for the enormous success of Needful Things is the
book's sub-topic -- antiques. America's fascination with antiques and collectibles began
sometime in the late 80's and continues well into today. During the 80's and average of
30 books per year were published on the subject of collecting and selling antiques.
However, between the years of 1989 and 1991, that number skyrocketed to a number
totaling over three hundred books. The largest year being 1991 where the total reached
110 books for that year. Such books published were Kovel's Know Your Antiques by
Terry Kovel (1990) and There's a Fortune in Your Attic by Anthony Curtis (1991). Hype
over the antiquing business was bound to draw even more popularity to King's novel
which deals with a satanic old dealer who owns a collectable shop. Again, King has
succeeded in tapping into the public interest through his characters, a quality highly
praised by critics.
Slightly less important but still of note to the book's popularity is the setting.
Castle Rock is a town that has been used in many of King's novels before beginning in
1981 with Cujo. Many of the characters and places within this town have become
familiar to King readers. The events have almost become a mini soap opera. Needful
Things was billed as the Last Castle Rock Story. Many readers may have tuned in to see
what was going to become of their favorite little Maine town. While this can't account
for the book's huge popularity compared to other best sellers, it may add to the events
that made Needful Things on of the most successful Stephen King novels.
When all is said and done, it seems that anything King writes, regardless of who
the monster is or where the story takes place will be snatched up by the American reading
public. King has tapping into something in the American psyche that has resulted in a
gold mine. Varying the horror genre has kept him on top. Stephen King has been quoted
as saying, "I want to stay dangerous, and that means taking risks."