You Shouldn’t Always Get What You Want; cautionary tales of the 80s by Stephen King & Ramsey Campbell

The 1980s is a decade most often defined – at least in Western countries by some of its most visible features; greed and consumerism, accelerated capitalism, wealth-as-glamour, blockbuster entertainment (and not just in Hollywood; what could be more 80s than the novels of Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer?)  Even charity – one would think the polar opposite of everything the decade stood for – took on a big, glossy, stadium-filling character. One of the decade’s most beloved humanitarian events, Live Aid was for all its positive impact, complicated at best; essentially an advertisement for the very culture that created gross inequality which simultaneously attempted to right some of its wrongs. If the 70s had been ‘the me decade’ with its post-hippy focus on the discovery and nurturing of the inner self, the 80s turned that focus outwards; now you know who you are it’s time to get what you want – all well and good if you had the means to do it.

Given that context, it’s no surprise that during that decade, horror authors should have taken on the venerable theme of the Faustian pact; the true cost of getting what you want. The most extreme and morally complex version (that I’ve read) is probably Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (1986; filmed by its author as Hellraiser a few years later), but this article was inspired by a recent reading of two novels: Needful Things by Stephen King (published 1991, but written between 1988-91) and Ramsey Campbell’s Obsession (1985).

The stories are dissimilar but have a kind of 80s horror family likeness; both concern the effect of evil, perhaps supernatural forces in small, ‘sleepy’ communities (Stephen King’s Castle Rock and the seaside town of Seaward in East Anglia) and both depict the lives of their characters unravelling after they are granted their heart’s desire (or at least what they think their heart’s desire is) at a cost which is not apparent until afterwards.

Although more than twice the length of Obsession, Needful Things, in some ways the last of King’s big 80s blockbusters, is the simpler of the two stories. It concerns the arrival in Castle Rock of the sinister Luciferian salesman Leland Gaunt and his shop Needful Things, wherein the town’s residents find objects with apparently great personal value (a signed baseball card, Elvis memorabilia, a fishing rod) at surprisingly affordable prices; but in addition to the cash price, Gaunt also requires his customers to perform duties for him, in the guise of ‘pranks’ which range from the innocuous to the seriously criminal.  At the heart of the book are the opposed forces of darkness – Gaunt himself but also the various underlying rivalries and tensions within Castle Rock which he brings to the surface – and if not light, then at least law and order, in the stolid shape of Sheriff Alan Pangborn.  Needful Things is a very self-referential novel; King takes for granted that readers will recognise allusions to other ‘Castle Rock’ stories; most obviously The Dark Half (1989) which introduced Pangborn, but also Cujo (1981) and The Body (1982, filmed as Stand By Me), which introduced Leland Gaunt’s petty criminal henchman “Ace” Merrill as a juvenile delinquent teenager. It’s also typical of King’s long (790 pages) novels of the 80s in that it weaves together various plot strands and characters, bringing the story to a dramatic (in fact almost apocalyptic) climax reminiscent of the final, blood-drenched act of the typical 80s horror movie (though the movies themselves were arguably orchestrated in that way because of the influence of King’s earlier works like Carrie (1974).

Sometimes this structure works better than others. For me, it’s at its best in It (1986) where the final catastrophe has an inbuilt logic and even inevitability. The entity terrorising Derry (best known as Pennywise; and really, people think clowns are cool nowadays?? Surely even more lame than finding them scary) pre-dates the city itself and shaped its sinister history. So the destruction of the creature naturally entails the destruction of Derry. It works less well (again, just for me) in Apt Pupil (1982) where the genuinely disturbing opening (one of King’s best) and rising tension is undermined by the ludicrously spiralling body count and in Pet Sematary (1983) where the very human bleakness and nihilism at the novel’s heart is weakened by the over-the-top supernatural carnage of the closing chapters.

Needful Things falls somewhere in the middle; the town being literally blown up at the novel’s climax never feels as necessary or as cathartic as the destruction of Derry in It, but on the other hand, it’s a fitting end to a novel whose main villain is larger-than-life, theatrical and slightly campy and whose hero has a sideline as an amateur magician. If there’s a moral to Needful Things, it’s not only the proverbial ‘be careful what you wish for’ but also a very 80s one; if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Obsession (Campbell’s preferred and superior title was For The Rest of Their Lives) is less of an extroverted, cinematic rollercoaster ride than Needful Things, but ironically has the blood of a bona fide slick 80s blockbuster – and not a particularly inventive one – running in its veins. The novel’s genesis came when the author was sent to review Rocky III (1982) and became intrigued by the scene in which Apollo Creed agrees to train Rocky with one condition; with the caveat that he won’t find out what that condition is until the training is complete. In Campbell’s story, a troubled teenager in the 1950s receives an anonymous letter offering aid (WHATEVER YOU MOST NEED I DO) with the somewhat vague price of something you do not value and which you may regain. He and four friends take up the offer, with the short term effect that their wishes come true. A quarter century later, the friends are still in Seaward, living outwardly successful lives which proceed to horrifically fall apart.

Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell’s writing styles make for an interesting contrast; as a teenager I found Campbell’s books a little slow and understated for my taste, but in fact one of the most noticeable things about Obsession (which I just read for the first time) is that it feels a little rushed, unfolding over 280 pages where it could comfortably have been twice as long and half as fast-moving. Positively, this brevity makes the story fly by, but it also feels a little disjointed and illogical at times, especially in the final climactic chapters. Where King’s writing is largely conversational in tone (chapter one of Needful Things begins, In a small town, the opening of a new store is big news.* Campbell’s is very carefully-worded and precisely descriptive, although ironically this precision sometimes works against the effect, producing oddly un-illuminating pictures of the people and places involved. In contrast to Needful Things‘s almost cornily old-fashioned opening, Obsession begins Twenty-five years later, when Peter realized at last what they had signed away, he had still not forgotten that afternoon: still remembered the waves flocking down from the horizon to sweep up the fishing boats, the glass of the classroom windows shivering with the wind, chalk dust drowsing in the September sunlight, his throat going dry as he realized everyone was looking at him.** It’s typical of the ambiguous tone of Obsession that after reading what is quite a long descriptive paragraph the reader doesn’t really have a firm idea of the kind of day it was – sunny and windy presumably, but could equally be mellow and warm (chalk dust drowsing) or stormy and cold (waves flocking, windows shivering).

* Needful Things, 1991, New English Library, p.13

** Obsession, 1985, Futura Publications, p.9

Stephen King’s cast of characters is vividly and firmly drawn, a familiar mix of wholesome youngsters gone bad, feuding neighbours, eccentric old timers etc, whereas Campbell’s – at least the four main protagonists – are a little indistinct and interchangeable, not helped by their (entirely plausible but bland) names: Peter Priest, Robin Laurel, Steve Innes and Jimmy Waters. As adults, all four of them lead successful but somewhat tortured existences (Peter is a social worker, Steve an estate agent, Jimmy a police officer and Robin a doctor), all make strange, inconsistent and illogical decisions and can be a little irritating. Where Campbell really excels though is in the antagonists; not larger-than-life supernatural forces of evil like Leland Gaunt, but believable, intensely annoying and depressing people like Robin’s unbearable senile mother and the sinister but ultimately just petty and small-minded brother of one of Peter’s clients.

In keeping with its broad, movie-like feel, Needful Things gives us (relatively) clear dividing lines between good and evil, and shows us the tainting of one by the other, personal gain taking precedence over empathy, but Obsession has no real sense of good and evil at all. None of the main protagonists initially acts out of purely selfish motives, and few of the horrors that happen do so because anybody really means any serious harm. The main characters never seem to fully grasp the bigger picture of what is happening to them or why, and neither, in the end, does the reader. In Needful Things, implausible things happen and the reader, immersed in the story, makes the required suspension of disbelief. In Obsession, whether intended or not, the everyday action – small town dramas involving rival estate agents(!), romantic relationships, sci-fi conventions and drug smuggling – feels as peculiar and implausible as any of the perhaps-supernatural occurrences.

And yet, Obsession is the opposite of unreadable; the dowdy seaside town ambience is irresistible, the almost tangible feeling that the characters are trapped within their own lives, whatever the outcome of the actual plot, makes it both immersive and oddly depressing for an 80s horror novel. Stephen King builds slowly to a frenzied, bloody and cathartic finale where those who commit acts of evil are punished and/or expelled and good, however temporarily, prevails. Ramsey Campbell shows us a world where good and bad are punished equally, peoples’ lives are destroyed, a town is perhaps haunted, but essentially not much of substance ever changes; Stephen King gives us another (efficient and gripping) Hollywood blockbuster, Ramsey Campbell gives us Friday the 13th Part 7 directed by Ken Loach.

What the books share is that they are variations on that cautionary, Faustian tale. The small town settings and down-at-heel characters mean that they aren’t really commentaries on 80s consumerism in the manner of the more imaginative end of horror cinema like David Cronenberg’s surreal Videodrome (1983) and John Carpenter’s satirical They Live (1988). Instead, and appropriately for the Faustian theme, they are concerned with human nature, and as such both books fit into the generally conservative nature of 80s horror (punish the transgressors, restore the status quo!); and although Campbell’s novel is less black and white than King’s, its very ambivalence strengthens that core message; be very careful what you wish for. You can’t always get what you want – and probably, you shouldn’t.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; notes on the margins of everywhere

This piece of writing was originally supposed to be posted in September, then at Halloween, but now that it’s finally finished maybe November is the right time after all. It’s about those nameless places that are nowhere, or even the ‘middle of nowhere’, and maybe places feel most like nowhere – or, nowhere feels most itself – in November, when as Ted Hughes wrote:

“… After long rain the land
Was sodden as the bed of an ancient lake,
Treed with iron and birdless”
Ted Hughes, ‘November’ from Lupercal (1960) Faber & Faber, p.49 (my copy is from 1985)

This was, pompously, to be a ‘photo essay’, but the photos are – necessarily I think and not unintentionally – a bit drab and nothingy, so I wrote this too. Firstly, I should explain what I mean by ‘nowhere’ and concede straightaway that by now there probably isn’t a place in the world truly deserving that non-name, let alone in a land mass as small and populated as Britain, where if nothing else, the places I have photographed could be described as being a part of Fife, a part of Scotland, etc, etc. But still; these are places that have no name that I know of (not the same as having no name I realise), that are no longer maintained or used for anything (by human beings at least) and that don’t have any special landmarks or signs to say what they are, were, or who if anyone owns them.

the gate to nowhere

So, for instance; this is nowhere, there’s not much to see. This particular nowhere has clearly not always existed; it’s the evidence of people having once been here that makes it feel like nowhere, an abandoned place, a place that perhaps used to be somewhere, but isn’t anymore; absence rather than simple emptiness. Unique in its details and at the same time interchangeable with other nowheres, like the nowheres of your childhood; places that writers (especially horror writers) call ‘vacant lots’ or ‘disused yards’, although if you’re there to see them they can’t be all that vacant and if kids play there they aren’t actually disused, so much as re-used.

What was this place? It would probably be relatively easy to find out, but finding out would make it somewhere, even if the name that denoted the place was a dead, ghost name. I remember playing in ‘the factory’ as a child, but ‘the factory’ was just cracked concrete floors and crumbled remains of walls; which means that it wasn’t a factory. Pedantic, yes (always), but while the names of places like the factory are often just words: ‘gates’ or ‘ports’ that once existed or nominally ‘new’ places that are very actually very old (“The New Forest”), there are other names we use for places that are in themselves an admission that we don’t know what they are, or were.

the crumbling pavements of nowhere

Maps mark places of significance with both of these kinds of words; the ones that mean they are somewhere we know something about (tumulus, castle, church) but also the ones that fill gaps in communal memory with blunt, easy to understand descriptions designed to keep ‘nowhere’ at bay like ruin or better yet, standing stone.
These substitute names can themselves become names through the lack of anything better; like Stonehenge, a name that literally means something like ‘stone prehistoric structure’ but, more broadly means ‘this place was important to people once’.

The fragment of path leading nowhere (see picture) doesn’t have a lot in common with Stonehenge, except that human beings made it, presumably used it, and then abandoned it*. Usually, I don’t have much time for Keats’s “negative capability”, whatever way you describe it (he famously wrote “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason“) because it amounts at times to ‘ignorance is bliss’ and personally, I find the poetry of the rainbow in no way reduced by knowledge of how it ‘works’ (quite the opposite, when you consider that human beings apparently see brighter, more colourful rainbows than other creatures. Just the idea that reality is that subjective, that the number of actual colours depends on who is seeing them, feels like a metaphor waiting to happen, as well as raising the logical idea of other ‘prime colours’ that are beyond the human eye’s ability to see. I remember as a child trying to picture another colour as unrelated to blue, red and yellow as they are to each other, but mainly ‘seeing’ purple or brown; another metaphor-in-waiting maybe.

* or, more poetically, Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon/burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.

plants that no-one would plant, growing in a place where no-one would plant them

The appeal of nowhere, when it is noticed enough to have an appeal, can be the determination to see the beauty in ordinary things, like Edward Thomas’s beautifully understated/drab Tall Nettles:

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm-butt tops the nettles now.

Edward Thomas, ‘Tall Nettles’ (c.1916), Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, Faber & Faber, 1964 p.35

Nowhere also has the appeal of escape, not just the escape from familiar surroundings into somewhere unknown, but maybe the actual evasion of people and consequences, as in Tom Waits’s songs about hair-raising characters dwelling on the margins of society, of which the classic example may be ’16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six’ from Swordfishtrombones (1983):

Plugged sixteen shells from a thirty-ought six
And a black crow snuck through a hole in the sky
And I spent all my buttons on an old pack mule
And I made me a ladder from a pawn shop marimba
I leaned it all up against a dandelion tree…

…Now I slept in the holler of a dry creek bed
And I tore out the buckets from a red corvette

this used to be somewhere

A more gothic, elaborate version of this kind of nowhere appears in Nick Cave’s early work with The Birthday Party, and is taken to a poetic extreme in his first novel And The Ass Saw The Angel (1989) set in a fantasy version of America’s Deep South.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Thomas Hardy’s projection of how he hoped to be remembered in anthology favourite Afterwards with its accumulation of beautifully-observed everyday minutiae (“when, like an eyelid’s
soundless blink/The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn”) and its near-refrain “He was a man who used to notice such things.”

Although indebted to the poetry-is-everywhere writing of Thomas Hardy and far removed from the dramatic, lawless nowheres of Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Philip Larkin takes ‘nowhere as escape’ to its logical conclusion in poems like ‘High Windows’ (1967) with its ambivalently yearning ending:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Philip Larkin, ‘High Windows’ Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1988, p.165

stairway to nowhere

Even on a far less drastic level than Larkin’s biophobia,  
‘not knowing’ is a key part of the enjoyment of being in the middle of nowhere.  I write ‘not knowing’ rather than ‘mystery’, because mystery suggests a sense of excitement entirely alien to Edward Thomas’s nameless place of nettles, or this blocked off stairway (left). The pleasure of not knowing (and not wanting to know) needn’t be exciting enough to warrant being called a mystery. There’s an odd building in the local area, on a path that connects a small town with a nearby village, a couple of miles of muddy track over a hill, through woodlands and alongside some fields. The building is one room, the size of a small shed, the side walls close enough to touch with (my) outstretched hands when standing inside. It has a mangled, rusted metal door in the front; so far, so twentieth century. It’s made of (I think) concrete but, crucially, it’s shaped like a pointed arch; that seems odd. What is it? Why is it where it is, on a hill, in some woods, outside a market town? It doesn’t seem like a useful situation for anything or, anyway, a useful building beyond the sense that any shed is useful. It doesn’t seem to be connected with the farmland that surrounds it, though it could be part of an estate that no longer exists. It’s not eerie exactly (concrete, no windows; it feels more like a portaloo than a cell). But still, that odd, ecclesiastical shape. It was new once, and used for something. But now it’s in the middle of nowhere and its abandonment creates an odd pang of feeling for people and things long since lost to time; a feeling all the stronger for not being known. So in this case maybe mystery after all.

the middle of nowhere?

I don’t feel like that (not so much anyway) about just any building with a ‘to let’ sign on it, so why should it be easier to feel some kind of human kinship with the unknown builders of unused paths or the erectors of giant stones whose meaning is lost? Well firstly and obviously because those humans are absent and therefore not annoying; ‘human beings’ yes, but not ones with agendas, attitudes or personalities that we can know about.

And also perhaps because they aren’t around to tell us about their buildings and constructions and more importantly, to mind us looking at them.

the boundary of nowhere?

Because the ridiculous fact remains that while this place (right) is nowhere, it probably isn’t nobody’s – but ownership of places is a strange and slippery thing. When King Lear finds himself on the heath, a place between places; not a palace, not a hovel, not even a grave, which is at least something:

Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies… Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art”

William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, Scene IV, Penguin Books, 1972, p.125

he is reduced (I think the right word for what Shakespeare does, though not a concept one necessarily agrees with) to the condition of an animal, albeit a more anguished one than, say, a rabbit seems to be. But crucially, up until the earlier events of the play, the King, presumably, owned this same bleak and inhospitable heath: whatever that ownership means. If a person can own a place (and clearly they can) what they can’t own, is what Shakespeare describes; someone’s experience of a place. The piece of land owned by this developer or that corporation isn’t *the same* as this piece of land with its enigmatic fragments of structures and their allusive, suggestive qualities.

Self-aggrandising perhaps, but if your life is an adventure, or at least a sequence of events in which (as Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson would have it) YOU are the hero, then the fact remains that, whether you have deep roots in an area and a family tree stretching back to the dark ages, or you don’t even know who your own parents are, the experience of standing here, in the middle of nowhere, perceiving things with your senses and processing them with your brain, is something no-one else has ever done, and no-one else will ever do, even if everybody knows this is nowhere.

the sun shining on nowhere
peering through the bars at nowhere
the earth reclaiming somewhere to make it nowhere again