Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie in 1974. That story’s paperback version would go on to sell over a million copies a year later, followed by Brian De Palma‘s two-time Oscar-nominated feature adaptation a year later. Not a bad start for the oft-described “King of Horror”, especially when considering that his written works have enjoyed over 100 adaptations for the big and small screens, and counting. Despite the hits and misses, and the highs and lows of these adaptations over the last four decades or so, all of them were one-shot, standalone titles. There were no original series or stories set within the wider, connected world of King’s imagination … until Hulu’s Castle Rock.
Now I know what you may be thinking, that we’ve been burned before with the promise of King’s connected story universes or grand adaptations of his sweeping, epic mythologies. (See The Dark Tower.) But here’s where Castle Rock succeeds exceedingly well: Its focus is narrow, choosing to follow a relatively few members of the title town’s community; it’s not overly concerned with jamming in King references but rather letting them arise where they may as part of the organic storytelling process; and it’s an original story, well-told, and satisfyingly spooky. Castle Rock is a solid and engrossing horror series that should please hardcore King fans just as much as fans of Stranger Things, Channel Zero, and, to a lesser extent since it lacks the glam factor, American Horror Story.
Castle Rock pays homage to the master by telling stories within his created world, populated by his famous sometimes infamous characters, locations, and supernatural forces. This is not a simple wink-and-nudge kind of homage but rather an original tale that feels like it came from the pages of a King story itself. Longtime fans of King’s work will find themselves pulling double duty by trying to keep track of all the story and character references while also keeping up with the fantastic mystery at the core of Castle Rock. More casual fans might just discover that they really like all the little nods and references, ultimately deciding they’d like to dig into King’s collected works a bit more. That’s a win-win. And showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason sure know how to craft a King-ly story, and J.J. Abrams is no slouch when it comes to unpacking the mystery box.
Castle Rock follows a core cast of characters. There’s Terry O’Quinn‘s conflicted and mysterious Dale Lacy, alongside his wife, played by the fantastic Frances Conroy. There’s Melanie Lynskey‘s Molly Strand, the gifted/cursed real estate developer with a substance addiction, alongside her in-your-face employee Jackie (Jane Levy), whose dark humor comes from her lack of social awareness. And then there’s the main character, André Holland‘s Henry Deaver, a man who grew up in Castle Rock and now finds himself drawn back to the town at the request of a curious, unnamed inmate (Bill Skarsgard) who’s temporarily incarcerated at Shawshank penitentiary. Stellar supporting stars include Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn, Ann Cusack and Noel Fisher, with appearances by Allison Tolman, Caleel Harris, and Frank Ridley, all of whom make fantastic contributions to the series thanks to strong writing and performances. Those themes and names (of both the characters and some of the actors themselves) should be quite familiar to King fans, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Like many of King’s tales, Castle Rock has a dark mystery, and a darker evil, at the center of a small town. The main crux of the mystery story in this first season centers on the disappearance of young Henry Deaver back in 1991 and the current appearance of Skarsgard’s The Kid in 2018. It’s that simple. But like any King story, the real meaning is found not just in the mystery but in how the people involved in it react to events, how they treat each other, and ultimately how they’re judged for their actions.
Shaw, Thomason, Abrams & Co. really nail the core concepts of King’s storytelling here. Each character gets a good amount of screen time to focus on introspection, a device that’s better displayed in a TV series than on the written page since the visual medium allows viewers to witness past events or current hallucinations along with he character in question. Religious dogma is present here, as is all the baggage that comes with it. You’ve got creepy kids, questionable behavior by adults, vaguely described mystical powers and abilities, and a lurking evil that’s festering under the town but has yet to come out into the open. It’s vintage King.
And then there are the more universal themes that also appear in King’s works but are hardly unique to him, themes of racism, classism, the struggle against an overwhelming authority, man’s inhumanity towards man, and gross abuses of power on all fronts. One place that Castle Rock makes a curious and contemporary stand is in the debate over for-profit prisons and how that affects the judicial system in our modern world. That’s definitely an interesting talking point, and the commentary comes about naturally as the story progresses, but it’s the one aspect of Castle Rock that feels rooted in the current era, rather than the rest of the story’s timeless feel.
The experience of reading one of King’s tales, whether it’s a 1,000-page tome or one of his brisk short stories, is incredibly unique for each person as your imagination will either crank up the horror or try to convince you that everything is fine, that this story is just fiction. Castle Rock, however, doesn’t let you retreat into the real world when you’re feeling skittish; its compelling story, fantastic score (complete with tracks like Gene Pitney‘s “24 Hours from Tulsa” and Tom Waits‘ “Clap Hands”), and superb editing that will have you jumping through the ceiling at unexpected moments. I’ve got some 30+ years of jump-scare experience and Castle Rock still caught me off-guard, so prepare yourselves. And this is all in just the first four episodes!
Castle Rock is a can’t-miss series for Stephen King fans and a must-watch horror show for fans of dark, thrilling, character-focused mysteries.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Castle Rock premieres on Hulu Wednesday, July 25th.