Monday, August 12, 2019

Castle Rock as a Buddhist Hell Realm: Needful Things by Stephen King

My delightfully tattered used copy of Needful Things.
(Think of this next time you see the opening credits of Stranger Things!)

Needful Things (1991) is not my favorite Stephen King novel, but it's... engrossing and fun and well, Stephen King.  There are obvious Christian overtones about making deals with the devil, not to mention some sort of critique of greed and capitalism or maybe even contemporary resonances about Russian interference in US elections by pitting Americans against each other or how having a lot of guns around makes all of this more deadly.  These are all interesting lenses through which one might look at the novel (feel free to steal any of them if you want to develop them... I won't even charge anything or expect any nefarious favors in return).  But as I read it I started working on another angle.  What if we understand the novel as depicting a kind of Buddhist hell realm where desire, delusion, and suffering roll on in a seemingly infinite feedback loop?

The novel is set in the fictional small town of Castle Rock, Maine, also the setting for other Stephen King novels like The Dead Zone, Cujo, and The Dark Half.  My old early 90's paperback edition claims that Needful Things is "the last Castle Rock story," but it didn't turn out that way (see, for example, Hulu's Castle Rock series and King's 2018 novella Elevation).

Enter into this sleepy town that has evil lurking below the surface (... this is Stephen King, of course), a new store called Needful Things with a mysterious proprietor Leland Gaunt.  In a town this small any new store becomes a focus of attention.  Soon the townspeople are visiting Mr. Gaunt's store and coming away with objects that just so happen to satisfy their deepest desires: valuable baseball cards, nostalgia-inducing fishing poles, glasses that allow an Elvis fan to interact with the King, a toy that aids a gambler, and other curiosities.  And all good old Mr. Gaunt wants in return is maybe a few dollars and one or two minor errands that he refers to as "pranks" on other townspeople.

But of course (of course!) things are not as they seem.  The prices are in fact quite a bit steeper than anyone suspects.  Soon townspeople are attacking each other as a result of Mr. Gaunt's little "pranks" and, well, let's just say things are not looking good for the people of Castle Rock.  Into the mix we meet some really great characters (some of whom might even show up in the recent Castle Rock TV show).  My favorites are probably Polly, Sherriff Alan Pangborn, and Ace.  It's fun to see how it all fits together, like watching a dozen trains slowly move toward collision.

I said this is not my favorite, so maybe I owe some criticisms.  Like a lot of King's door-stopping novels, this one can feel a bit long at times.  I honestly could have done with maybe three or four fewer storylines.  It was all too much to keep track of, and some storylines just slowed down the momentum of the main story too much.  But I didn't hate any of them and I didn't really mind that much, because even less interesting Stephen King characters are still more interesting than most other authors' characters.

Wait, what about the Buddhist hell realms!  Tell us about those!  Okay, okay.

One of my favorite texts of Buddhist philosophy, Vasubandhu's Twenty Verses, describes a hell realm where one might be born due to one's karmic ripening (to put it in rough, Westernized terms: a place you go to for a lifetime when you have too much bad karma).  In this hell realm, denizens are tortured by hell guardians and there are rivers of pus and blood...  it's fantastic stuff if you're into that kind of thing (and you're reading a review of a Stephen King novel, so I assume you are).

But the catch, Vasubandhu argues, is that this can't really be how it is.  For one thing, how can those hell guardians be real? What kind of karmic situation are they in?  How can they do their nasty business if their feet are melting on the burning banks of the pus rivers?  Rather, these hell realms must be how things appear to certain individuals due to their karmic ripening (in Indian Buddhism, karma is usually conceptualized via metaphors of seeds and fruits).  There's a lot of great philosophy in that relatively short text.  Definitely check it out if you're not familiar with it.

Back to Needful Things.  One thing about the novel is that Leland Gaunt isn't really causing the townspeople to suffer.  Like a hell guardian, he's just helping them along.  Their own desires are doing the real work.  Case in point: one of the major conflicts is between Baptists and Catholics in town, and that started long before Leland Gaunt showed up.

It's this desire that makes characters in the novel believe in things that might not really be there or jump to conclusions.  As in Buddhist hell realms, the link between desire and delusion is tight. The more the characters want their desires to be fulfilled, the more likely they are to believe in what Mr. Gaunt is selling.

Of course, Gaunt is definitely a malevolent force (and what is he?  Well...).  But again, he's not doing anything more than stirring the pot or giving people a little nudge.  He's using a time-honored tactic of encouraging people to turn on each other for his own benefit (a technique that has been used, for instance, in India by the British, in Latin America by the US, and in the US by Russians).  So the real horror of Needful Things (and of Buddhist hell realms) isn't some creepy shop owner (although he is plenty creepy).  The real horror is coming to terms with our own desires and what we are willing to do to fulfill them.

Is there any hope?  Buddhism has the Eightfold Path.  Needful Things has Polly's inner drama and Alan's detective work.  In all of these cases, a big part of it comes in seeing that the way you thought things were may not be the case.  The feedback loop of desire and delusion claims to bring happiness, but it in fact only brings suffering. Here those of us who live in economic systems fueled by desire and delusion might gently reinsert that economic critique I mentioned earlier.  Questions of human freedom are also lurking: Can one simply decide to stop doing the things that lead to suffering?  Can you, in old school Dungeons & Dragons parlance, just disbelieve the illusion through force of will?

Of course, it's not that simple in Buddhist hell realms, in Castle Rock, or here in our universe. Neither Stephen King nor Buddhists like Vasubandhu are going to sugar coat the human condition for us.  Life is filled with suffering.  You don't always pay a fair price.  You don't always get what you're owed.  But sometimes, maybe through luck or hard work or some of both, a few of us can unravel the feedback loop of desire, deconstruct the wheel of suffering, and glimpse a different realm.

See my Goodreads review!

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