Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sweet to Hear

I finished Stephen King’s Needful Things. I’ll use as my starting point a passage on page 641: “Alan found himself remembering something else—-something his grandmother used to tell him when he was small: The devil’s voice is sweet to hear.”

That fits Leland Gaunt, the antagonist of the book. He comes across as a warm, urbane, compassionate man, at least when he’s not pushing people to pay up! Nettie ordinarily did not come out of her shell for people, but she really took to Leland Gaunt. And, at least on the surface, Gaunt appears to be doing some good for people. He sells Polly Chalmers an amulet that significantly lessens the pain of her arthritis. He sells Miss Ratcliffe a piece of Noah’s ark (or so it appears), which brings her inner peace and religious joy whenever she touches it.

In some cases, even the good that Gaunt does is tainted. Polly’s amulet makes her arthritic pain subside because it contains a spider that is feeding on her toxins and growing as a result. Miss Ratcliffe feels better whenever she touches the relic from Noah’s ark, but she does not want to share the relic with her boyfriend, whom she thinks is not spiritually mature enough to appreciate it. And so she’s both selfish and also spiritually snobbish.

What really makes Gaunt evil, however, is the deeds that he requires people to do to get their needful thing from his store. These deeds turn people in the community against each other. Often, Gaunt pretends to commiserate with people who have been hurt (usually, unknown to them, as a result to events that he himself set into motion), but this is only so he can encourage them to take revenge. He sells them special guns, or he encourages Danforth Keeton to get dynamite in order to blow up the town.

In many cases, people who have been hurt are so focused on their anger and getting revenge that they neglect other things. When Gaunt persuades Alan that Ace Merrill was the one who killed Alan’s wife and son, Alan (the sheriff) forgets that his town is in chaos, and he forgets the people whom he loves and who love him (such as Polly). He is wearing blinders, and his entire focus is on his anger. Sometimes, in cases such as this, there are voices that try to dissuade people from believing Gaunt’s lies, and they take the shape of people who have died. They may be from ghosts, or perhaps people are simply thinking thoughts while using the voices of certain dead folks. In Polly’s head is the voice of her late aunt, who was a source of practical wisdom to her, and this voice leads Polly to ask if the Alan she knows is really capable of doing what Gaunt has portrayed him as doing (namely, Gaunt manufactured a letter from a child welfare office saying that Alan was snooping around in Polly’s past). In Alan’s head is the voice of Brian, Gaunt’s first customer in Castle Rock who committed suicide in sorrow over the part he played in setting disastrous events into motion, at Gaunt’s instigation. The voice of Brian essentially tells Alan not to believe Gaunt’s lies.

Gaunt can be a fairly decent liar, but his lies are sometimes flawed. Lies in general are flawed because they’re untrue, but what I’m saying is this: A good liar can make a lie at least look real—-as something that has a degree of logic, inner consistency, and accordance with facts. Gaunt is able to manufacture things that, on the surface, look real. He’s able to manufacture a letter from a child welfare office saying that Alan is snooping around in Polly’s past. He can manufacture photographs—-as he does when he makes a fake photo of Miss Ratcliffe’s boyfriend, Lester, cheating on her in a bar. He can simulate events on a video, as when he shows Alan a video of Alan’s wife and son dying in a car accident due to Ace Merrill.

Gaunt has this talent, and he knows enough about people to realize what lies he can tell them that will really push their buttons. But there are indications that Gaunt doesn’t always think things through. For example, in the video that Alan saw, Alan’s wife is wearing her seatbelt, even though it was established after the accident that she was not wearing her seatbelt when the accident occurred. When Gaunt has Hugh Priest kill Nettie’s dog and leave a note making it look like Wilma did the dastardly deed, Gaunt apparently does not consider that the authorities will be able to compare the handwriting on the note with Wilma’s handwriting and see that they differ, or that they’ll notice that Hugh’s bloody fingerprints on Nettie’s door do not match Wilma’s, or that they’ll take into consideration the timing of events. Why didn’t Gaunt use his manufacturing talent in these cases? He could have produced notes in Wilma’s handwriting, for example! Gaunt either didn’t think things completely through, or certain things simply did not occur to him. (I initially thought that Gaunt may be playing games with Alan and the other authorities, as if Gaunt wants for Alan to figure out that Gaunt is behind the events; but I don’t think that’s true, for Gaunt just wants Alan to get off his case.)

To return to what Alan’s grandmother said about the devil’s voice being pleasing, I don’t think that this has to mean that every pleasing voice is from the devil. Some Christians seem to think that we should dismiss as Satanic any voice that differs from their depiction of God as an ogre, or that encourages us to feel good about ourselves. I disagree with that approach. But I think that it’s necessary to dismiss voices that encourage us to hate, or to seek revenge. And it’s good to hear another perspective from people—-to shed light on issues we may not have considered, to encourage us to see even those whom we hate as human beings, or to focus our attention away from our hate and onto our role in facilitating the general well-being of humanity.

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