The story is set in the small fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, where a new shop named "Needful Things" opens, to the curiosity of the townspeople. The story starts out in first person with the narrator greeting the reader and moves to third-person, introducing each of the book's diverse cast of characters and their complicated histories. Castle Rock's citizens then begin to come into Needful Things, each of them drawn by an item they want more than anything else.
They are all greeted by the seemingly kind old man claiming to be from Akron, Ohio (a possible reference to Acheron), Leland Gaunt, and they all ignore the sign hanging in his shop, "Caveat emptor" ("Let the buyer beware"). One person after another buys the treasures he has in stock, paying surprisingly low prices and performing small "favors" (pranks) at his request. The person doing a prank usually knows the target, but has no real quarrel or relationship with him/her. Little by little, the pranks worsen existing grudges between the townspeople until they start turning against each other or themselves, nearly bringing about the violent destruction of the entire town.
The first to enter the shop, Brian Rusk, buys a Sandy Koufax '56 TOPPS card for 85 cents and a prank to be played on Wilma Jerzyck, a bitter woman with a severe dislike of a woman named Nettie Cobb. Brian sneaks to Wilma's house while she is away and ruins her laundry sheets by flinging heaps of mud at them. At the scene, he leaves a note warning Wilma that it is her last warning. Wilma presumes the note to belong to Nettie Cobb due to their rivalry. Wilma warns Nettie over the phone that she will get revenge. Later, Brian is told that he must perform one more prank to finish paying for the card. He is sent to Wilma's house where he destroys her windows, TV, and microwave with large rocks. Meanwhile, the town drunk Hugh Priest buys a fox tail from Gaunt and pays for it by sneaking into Nettie's house and murdering her dog. Another note is left at this crime. The murder of her beloved dog leads Nettie to take a meat cleaver and head toward Wilma's house. At the same time, Wilma has seen the damage to her house and left with a large knife of her own. The two meet at a street corner and brutally murder each other. The gruesome scene is quickly discovered by police.
Ace Merrill (whose uncle "Pop" Merrill appears in the short story 'The Sun Dog' from Four Past Midnight) buys a treasure map from Gaunt, paying by becoming Gaunt's shop assistant. His first job is to bring a large shipment of guns to Needful Things. The guns, automatic pistols with poison-tipped bullets, are eventually sold to all of Gaunt's customers after his business brings various grudges to the boiling point.
Nettie Cobb, before her murder, buys a piece of carnival glass. Her payment comes in the form of wallpapering traffic violation warnings over every surface of Danforth Keeton's house while he's away. The violation slips are stamped with the name of town deputy Norris Ridgewick. Danforth "Buster" Keeton, gambling addict and Town Selectman, buys a game that allegedly predicts horse race winners. After seeing the violation slips papering his house, he confronts Ridgewick. Danforth, being a paranoid and mentally unstable man, begins to believe a shadowy cabal authority - "Them" - is persecuting him at every turn. He joins Ace Merrill as an assistant of Gaunt.
Polly Chalmers, lover of Sheriff Alan Pangborn, buys a "magic" charm from Needful Things in a desperate attempt to cure her severely painful arthritis. Her payment is to plant a letter at one of the X's on the map Ace Merill bought. Ace believes his dead uncle "Pop" buried his riches. Unknown to Polly, the letter is a forged writing supposedly by Pangborn, mocking Ace and telling him that Pangborn got the treasure first. Ace becomes furious and plans to murder Sheriff Pangborn.
Another to buy from Needful Things is Cora Rusk, Brian's obese mother. She purchases a pair of sunglasses said to have belonged to her celebrity crush Elvis Presley. Her friend Myra Evans, also a Presley fan, buys a photo of the man. When each holds their respective item, they enter an illusionary world in which they enjoy progressively kinkier sexual pleasures with "The King". Eventually, Cora discovers Myra in this "other world" and goes to her house to kill her. Myra, however, is prepared for her, and shoots her fatally.
Hugh Priest's car is later vandalized by another Needful Things buyer. A note is left framing Henry Beaufort, the owner of Castle Rock's only tavern. Hugh heads to the tavern - The Mellow Tiger - to murder Henry. At the same time, Henry finds his own car ruined and a note framing Hugh. When they meet at The Mellow Tiger, Hugh is killed instantly by a shotgun blast to the chest, while Henry has a lung punctured by an automatic pistol Hugh purchased from Gaunt and dies slowly. He is rescued later to die in the emergency room.
A man named Lester Pratt has his skull broken open when he attacks John LaPointe at the police station. A photo had earlier been planted in Pratt's car by the stuttering "Slopey" Dodd, leading Lester to think his girlfriend Sally Ratcliffe was having an affair with LaPointe. Before this, a letter and photos were planted to lead Sally to think Lester was cheating on her. She cuts off all contact with Lester without explanation and later hangs herself over the guilt of his death.
Frank Jewett, Brian's school principal, a cocaine addict, and a closet pedophile, finds pedophilia magazines strewn all over his office - Sally Ratcliffe's payment to Gaunt - with a note from his "friend" George Nelson, also a coke addict and pedophile. Frank breaks into George's house and kills his pet parakeet, destroys his various possessions and furniture, then defecates on a framed photo of George's mother. The two meet on the steps of the town hall and prepare to kill each other.
Danforth eventually murders his wife. Andy Clutterbuck's wife is murdered due to a case of mistaken identity. The Baptists and Catholics of the town - already in a religious rivalry - are turned against each other by "favors" performed for Gaunt and a massive, murderous battle breaks out in the middle of town. Finally, Gaunt begins to sell his poison-bullet automatic pistols (which will be used by Hugh, Cora, and Myra, among others). Ace Merrill and Danforth "Buster" Keeton begin, on Gaunt's orders, to plant dynamite around the town. They are caught by Norris Ridgewick who shoots Danforth - and is shot himself - and escapes. Ace, seeing Danforth suffering from the fatal gunshot, shoots him three times in the head as a mercy killing.
Meanwhile, Brian Rusk, tortured by his guilt in playing a role in Wilma and Nettie's murders and maddened by his obsession over the card Gaunt sold him, commits suicide via shotgun after making his younger brother Sean promise to never buy anything from Needful Things. Sean Rusk is taken, in a state of shock, to the hospital in another town. Alan Pangborn, head sheriff of town, has grown increasingly suspicious of the chaos in town and visits Sean in the hospital. After Sean tells him about his promise to Brian, Alan's suspicions about the source of the chaos prove true and he orders Gaunt arrested.
It is explained that Gaunt has, for centuries, been wandering through different countries and selling people useless junk. These objects appear to the buyer to be whatever they want most, and once acquired, have the power to strongly affect their moods. Buyers develop severe paranoia and anxiety if they are not physically holding the purchased items. By threatening to either take away the item, destroy it, or remove its power, Gaunt is able to blackmail, coerce, and intimidate his customers into doing whatever he wants. In the end "he always sells weapons", which everyone eagerly buys so they can defend their property.
Sheriff Pangborn immediately heads back to Castle Rock and enters Needful Things to find it empty, but he finds a videotape on the counter with a note from Gaunt telling him it will reveal how his wife and son died years earlier. The tape shows Ace Merrill running their car off the road into the tree that kills them. Alan leaves the shop to kill Ace Merill. Polly, who has realized her "favor" to Gaunt has set up Alan's murder, removes the charm she bought and kills the creature inside that was feeding on her arthritic pain before heading to Needful Things. She sees Alan and brings him to his senses only to be taken hostage by Ace Merrill, who threatens to kill her unless Alan gives him the treasure he stole.
Norris Ridgewick, who had been prepared to commit suicide before realizing he still had his duty as a police officer, arrives a distance away and prepares to shoot Ace, until he sees Polly blocking his shot. At this time, Gaunt is preparing to leave. Alan, ignoring Ace, quickly confronts him and steals his briefcase which, Alan correctly believes, contains the captured souls of everyone who bought from Needful Things, holding them under Gaunt's power. While Ace is distracted by the confrontation, Polly escapes his grasp. Norris, now having a clear shot, kills Ace with a bullet straight to the head. Gaunt becomes annoyed, agitated, then furious, and attacks Alan. Alan avoids the potentially fatal strike and produces a bouquet of paper flowers from a magician's trick he carries with him. The bouquet emits a blinding white light which appears to harm Gaunt, causing his human facade to melt away and reveal his true form as a slightly reptilian, dwarf-like humanoid. His car, parked nearby, transforms into a carriage pulled by a single deathly-white horse with glowing red eyes. The words on the side of the carriage read "Caveat Emptor" ("Buyer Beware"). Leland Gaunt leaves town in the carriage, which flies, and the town is destroyed by mass riots, murder, and numerous explosions of dynamite. Those who have survived the entire harrowing ordeal find themselves facing an uncertain future in what is left of Castle Rock.
The novel ends as it began, in the first-person welcome to the reader as a new person in town. The beginning and end of the book are almost word for word with the only real difference being the setting and the name of the store. In the beginning of the book, the reader was welcomed to Castle Rock, noting the new sign for Needful Things. In the end, the narrator welcomes the reader to Junction City, Iowa, noting the new sign for the store "Answered Prayers" - suggesting that Leland Gaunt has set up shop someplace else to begin his business cycle all over again.
Characters in the Book
- Leland Gaunt:* Presumably a demon in human form, who has spent centuries travelling about the world and tricking people into selling their souls to him, usually in exchange for useless objects disguised as the things they want most. Castle Rock is his latest target. Gaunt seems to know the town peoples' greatest secrets, and speaks of them in a way to sooth the customers of his shop. His eyes also change color, depending on who is looking at them, as a way to entice his customers
- Sheriff Alan Pangborn: the Sheriff of Castle Rock and the main protagonist. Gaunt was wary of Pangborn from the start, knowing he would not be nearly as easy to fool as the others and that Gaunt would need a lot of help before he would be able to face Pangborn head-on. Pangborn once had a wife and son, but they both died in a mysterious, unsolved car accident.
- Patricia Chalmers: known as the town's most eccentric woman, Patricia "Polly" Chalmers was originally a Castle Rock native who became an "out-of-towner" after living inSan Francisco for years before returning. She had left to escape the iron heel of her devout parents after getting pregnant, planning to give up the baby and start a new life in the city, but she kept the child out of love. When she returns to Castle Rock without him, gossip surrounds her but she refuses to explain herself and her life remains a mystery. She suffers from severe arthritis in her hands.
- Norris Ridgewick: one of the town's deputies and Sheriff Pangborn's closest ally. Norris was an avid fisherman who had learned the craft from his father, and had a strong liking for Bazun fishing rods. He bought one of these rods from Gaunt, thus entangling himself in the web of evil.
- Ace Merrill: the town's resident "bad boy". Ace was a notorious bully in high school but left the town, becoming a drug dealer, occasional cocaine user and gunrunner. After being tricked in one of his deals, Ace became heavily indebted to a pair of fellow dealers known as the Flying Corson Brothers, and only had a short time to pay them before being subjected to a horrific and painful death. In a bid of desperation, he returned to Castle Rock, finding Gaunt and swiftly becoming his faithful employee.
- Danforth "Buster" Keeton: Danforth was one of the town's selectmen and thus enjoyed a position of little authority. He was a large man with a brutal, fiery temper who constantly abused his wife, Myrtle. Unknown to just about everyone, he was actually deep in debt from his constant gambling at the horse tracks, which he paid for out of the town's funds. He was guilty of a long list of crimes, including theft, fraud, and embezzlement. Mentally unstable, he was paranoid and believed in "Them", the shadowy cabal of authority figures that he believed persecuted him at every turn and intended to drive him insane.
- Brian Rusk: an ordinary, happy boy, Brian is the first to visit Needful Things and the first to receive the object of his desire - a 1956, specially autographed (to Brian) Sandy Koufax baseball card.
- Nettie Cobb: one of many townspeople who was already somewhat unbalanced before Gaunt arrived, Cobb was formerly in a mental hospital for killing her abusive husband of many years in his sleep. She was only released and allowed to start over in Castle Rock because of the efforts of Patricia Chalmers, and as such she is grateful to her and serves as her housekeeper.
- Cora Rusk: Brian's mother, Cora had an unhealthy obsession with Elvis Presley, and as a result became remote and detached after buying a pair of aviator sunglasses that formerly belonged to "the King".
- Wilma Jerzyck: one of the rare characters who did not purchase an item from Gaunt, Wilma was a Polish woman with a fiery temper who had even cowed her husband, Peter Jerzyck, into a state of animal-like subservience. She was one of the most violent and aggressive of the townspeople, already having a long list of crimes under her name and a notorious reputation. After Wilma is killed, many people go to her funeral-not to grieve for her- but to console her husband, Pete Jerzyck.
- Myra Evans: an Elvis fan who had a minor rivalry with her friend Cora Rusk even before Gaunt came to town. After she buys her own bit of Elvis memorabilia, that rivalry turns ugly and the friendship is destroyed.
- Hugh Priest: a hard-drinking man employed by the town's public works, Priest bought a foxtail from Gaunt.
- Henry Beaufort: The owner and operator of Castle Rock's only bar; The Mellow Tiger. Another of the townspeople who had not purchased anything from Gaunt.
- Andy Clutterbuck, Sheila Brigham, and John LaPointe: three people who worked under Sheriff Pangborn at the local department. Clutterbuck, called Clut, and LaPointe were both deputies while Sheila was their secretary. The three had nothing to do with Gaunt and did not purchase anything from him, but were nonetheless caught in the chaos.
- Sonny Jackett: a well-known mechanic of Castle Rock. He had bought a box of double-measure adjustable socket wrenches.
- Eddie Warburton: a man who had a strong grudge against Sonny Jackett, believing him to have cheated him once when he fixed his car.
- Sally Ratcliffe: a young, devoutly Christian speech teacher. She was very attractive and was the talk of the town, as well as being the object of Brian Rusk's recurring sexual fantasies. She had a brief relationship with John LaPoint before becoming engaged to fellow teacher Lester Pratt.
- Lester Pratt: the school physical education teacher, a hulking athlete of a man who was both a devout Christian and a loyal boyfriend.
- Father Brigham: the leader of the local Catholic populace. Conflicts with Rev. Rose and the town's Baptists about a planned charity gambling event.
- Reverend William Rose: the leader of the local Baptist populace. Lost his father due to gambling, and therefore is strongly opposed to the Catholics' intention to hold a "Casino Nite" function at their church.
- Henry Payton: the leader of the State police, Payton was called in to Castle Rock with a whole regiment of State Troopers after first murders occur, but he and all of his men were not prepared for the demonic threat Gaunt represented.
- Myrtle Keeton: Danforth's meek and helpless wife, who had convinced herself that she deserved his constant verbal and physical abuse. After years of constant torment, she had been trained into a submissive state, always expecting his abuse. She had bought a doll from Gaunt to add to her collection, which she took refuge in whenever Danforth was particularly mad.
- Pete Jerzyck: Wilma Jerzyck's submissive husband. During the first years of his marriage to Wilma, Pete was a regular middle-aged husband, doing little housework and working extra time at work. However, after some years of living with her, Wilma trains him into a submissive state, where he does pretty much everything his wife says, without any type of objection. Despite his submissive and well-behaved ways, Pete drugs Wilma with Xanax pills when she really loses her temper.
- "Slopey" Dodd: another ordinary school student, Slopey had a bad stutter and as a result was ostracized and humiliated constantly by the other students. He had bought ateapot from Gaunt.
- Frank Jewett: the principal of the Castle Rock high school, Jewett was a closet pedophile, and had a secret, large collection of pornographic magazines featuring young boys. He had revealed this secret to only one person, his friend George T. Nelson, whom he had also shared his crack habit with.
- George T. Nelson: a cocaine addict and pedophile, Nelson was a friend and confidante to Frank Jewett.
The novel was adapted into a horror movie in 1993. The film was directed by Fraser C. Heston, son of Charlton Heston, and starred Ed Harris, Max von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia (Salem's Lot 1979) and J.T. Walsh.
The audiobook version of Needful Things is read by Stephen King.