“I fear this place. I fear what’s to come.”
In 2018, Castle Rock, the town Stephen King introduced in The Dead Zone and returned to numerous times in subsequent works, isn’t on the map any more. A few years ago, the town voted to disincorporate itself. The historic downtown is mostly home to boarded-up businesses. Nan’s Luncheonette burned under mysterious circumstances a while back. The nearest Wal-Mart is some sixty miles distant. The town’s main employer is Shawshank Prison, twenty miles away. A considerable percentage of the people behind bars in that establishment are from Castle Rock.
This is the setting for Castle Rock, the anthology series that launches on Hulu on July 25, 2018, with three of its ten episodes debuting on that day. The term “anthology series” was confusing at first. Did it mean that each episode was more-or-less standalone? In other words, were we going to get ten discrete, unrelated stories about Stephen King’s most famous troubled town?
Castle Rock trailer
As it turns out, that’s not the case. Season 1 of Castle Rock tells one complete, original story, and subsequent seasons will tell different stories with new characters and perhaps even set in different times, akin to the approach Fargo takes. The fact that this is an original story removes one of the issues that people who adapt King often face: no one will be criticizing them for how much they’ve strayed from the source material.
This season, there are two possibly inter-linked mysteries. The first happened 27 years ago, a timespan that will be familiar to King readers. On a bitterly cold winter night, 11-year-old Henry Deaver and his father, the pastor at the Church of the Incarnation, went into the woods near Castle Lake. Why, nobody knows — or if they know, they aren’t saying. Pastor Deaver was later found at the bottom of the bluff near the lake, his back broken and suffering other grave injuries, but he survived…for a few days. As for Henry, he simply vanished. Search parties combed the area for days, without any luck. Eventually the search became a recovery mission. With temperatures near -40°, the chances of the boy surviving were nil.
One man continued to search long after everyone else gave up: Castle County Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), the man who faced down Leland Gaunt in Needful Things, taking over from Sheriff George Bannerman. One evening, eleven days after Henry disappeared, while Pangborn was poking at suspicious mounds in the snow looking for a body, he found Henry standing in the middle of the frozen lake. The boy was remarkably unharmed, suffering no signs of frostbite or exposure. He had no memory of where he’d been. Was he kidnapped and escaped? Or was he responsible for his adoptive father’s accident and tried to run away? What’s the significance of the figurine he had clutched in his hand? To this day, no one knows for sure.
The other mystery seems to have its origins in the same woods, although that has yet to be revealed. Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), who has been warden of Shawshank Prison since 1985, believes that the problems Castle Rock has experienced for as long as anyone can remember are due to more than just a run of bad luck. He thinks it’s the town itself, and the evil is someone’s plan — and not God’s. Lacy, who in 2018 has just been forced into retirement, was once a religious man who prayed to God to show him his purpose. And, one day, Lacy believes God answered him, told him where to find the evil entity, how to build his prison, and how to put an end to the town’s horrors.
Lacy heard God’s message and complied — in the Stephen King Universe, people who claim to hear the voice of God are notoriously unreliable, so who’s to say whether what he did was righteous or heinous. His enforced retirement threatens to expose his secret. For years, he has been keeping a boy/young man (Bill Skarsgård) in a metal cage at the bottom of an old water tank in a disused part of the prison, a wing where they stored burned corpses after the prison fire of ’87.
Once this off-the-books prisoner is discovered, some of the guards call him “the kid,” while others dub him Nicky, as in Nicolas Cage, because of where he was found. The kid will only eat bread, and rarely speaks. When he does, it’s usually to quote some of the more terrifying passages from Revelations — there was a Bible next to his cage and Lacy may have read select passages to him over the years.
When Daly realizes he’s won’t be able to tend to his prisoner any longer, he tells him to ask for Henry Deaver when he’s found. It appears that Lacy thinks Deaver will be Castle Rock’s defender, which might imply something nefarious about Deaver’s father.
No one else knew about “Nicky” — except, perhaps, retired Sheriff Pangborn, who pulled Lacy over one night long ago. The warden told him that he’d always thought the devil was just a metaphor, but now he knew better. There’s no record of Nicky anywhere, and his fingerprints fail to identify him. He refuses to reveal his name. For the new warden, he’s a problem — it will be a blot on the prison to reveal that the former warden kept an unauthorized prisoner, and her mandate is to increase revenue and not create headlines. She decides to keep him in the infirmary until she and her corporate flunky can figure out how to handle the situation. A scrupulous guard named Zalewski (Noel Fisher) decides to contact Henry Deaver.
Deaver (André Holland) is a lawyer who specializes in death row cases in Texas. The mystery man in Shawshank can’t be his client, he tells his anonymous caller, because all his clients are dead, including the most recent one, an elderly woman whose execution was botched. Still, it’s been a long time since he’s seen his mother (Sissy Spacek), so he decides to return to Castle Rock, even though the town blamed him for his father’s death. He’s stunned to discover how far the town has declined. Even the church had to sell off property to cover unwise investments, including the land under which his father used to be buried.
That’s the essential setup for the series — mysteries, some of which date back decades, and the people who keep secrets. After four episodes, I wouldn’t call the series outright horror — it has more of a Lost sensibility. Hey, Terry O’Quinn (Locke on that show) even has a hatch! There are a few jump scares, and some very creepy scenes, but so far things are under control. That’s not to say that once the resident evil rediscovers its power and glory things won’t go to hell in a heartbeat.
The show is deeply interested in its characters. Deaver’s adoptive mother, Ruth, is suffering from dementia, a condition that gets worse late in the day. She doesn’t recognize Henry when he first arrives, even though he spoke to her recently. Pangborn, now retired (“They’re naming a bridge after me. 150 tons of steel and concrete. Hallelujah”), is a “frequent flier” at Ruth’s house. They have found that they enjoy each other’s company and he is looking after her financial affairs, even though Henry is her conservator. Pangborn knows things, though, and he divulges a few of them to the man who was once the boy he “rescued.”
Another major player is Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), the world’s most optimistic real estate agent. She wants to encourage investors to revitalize the historic downtown — she’s gone so far as to build a model of how she envisions it, including a gazebo (“every revitalized downtown needs a gazebo…for peaceful contemplation,” she tells her friend Jackie Torrance). When she was a teenager, she had a stalker-y crush (not quite as bad as her character’s crush on Charlie on Two and a Half Men, but in the same ballpark) on Henry Deaver, who lived across the street.
A redeveloped downtown isn’t the only kind of vision Molly has. She is an empath (a good candidate to be a Breaker), and Henry is one of the people to whom she is most strongly connected. The onrush of voices she experiences is so severe that she takes half an oxy every day to settle them down, allowing her to function. Usually that works, but with Henry back in town, she is feeling overwhelmed. Given that she was so keenly attuned to him when they were children, it’s likely she knows far more about what happened when he went missing than Henry recalls. That hoodie she keeps and revisits in her basement for an egg-timer limited amount of time is a clue to something that only she knows about the night Rev Deaver succumbed to his injuries.
I’d call the show a supernatural suspense thriller based on what I’ve seen so far. There are definitely supernatural things at play: one character has a horrifying but convincing vision at the end of Episode 1, and there is no question that Molly has psychic abilities. What is Nicky’s true nature? Presumably that will be revealed in due course. Is there something weird about the woods around Castle Lake? Very likely. How will this story be resolved? We’ll have to wait and see. I think we’re in for a fun ride. The cast is excellent, the production values are top-notch, and the devotion to the King universe is obvious.
Direct connections to Stephen King’s works are few and far between. Other than Alan Pangborn, the only King character to appear in the first four episodes is Deputy Sheriff Norris Ridgewick, who replaced Pangborn as Castle County Sheriff. Nan’s Luncheonette may be gone (and the “true story” of its demise is pretty hilarious), but a lot of the action takes place in the Mellow Tiger, the only place to drink within 37 miles of Castle Rock, mentioned in numerous King novels.
There are, however, myriad nods to incidents from King’s Castle Rock and Maine stories. Shawshank Prison is the most obvious, but there are also passing references to the rabid Saint Bernard, the boy’s body found near the train tracks (as well as mention of a minor character from “The Body”), and a newspaper clipping about the “oddity store” that was destroyed and its missing owner. Realtor Molly Strand’s slogan is “Live like a King.” There’s a sly allusion to Mr. Jingles in the second episode, and another scene that recalls Pet Sematary. A Shawshank guard mentions that the prison has lost four wardens in office and claims there’s a bullet hole in the office from where Warden Norton killed himself. An inmate at Shawshank is reading The Lord of the Flies, in which there is a landmark called Castle Rock.
The opening credits, though, are a Stephen King fan’s dream, chock full of direct and subtle references. It took a long time and lots of rewinds to catch these, and I’m sure I missed a few, but in chronological order:
- Pages from Chapter 19 of ‘Salem’s Lot (that’s a two-fer!)
- Pages from It with street names circled
- Annotated table of contents from The Green Mile (“possible Of Mice and Men reference”)
- Dolores Claiborne title page
- Annotated map of Stephen King’s Maine from the front of Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game
- Castle Rock, population 1500
- Little Tall (Storm of the Century)
- Haven (“Crash site”)
- Derry (circled)
- Chester’s Mill (“11:44 a.m.”) – the time of the bump on the Richter Scale when the dome came down
- Bridgton (“Arrowhead”)
- Pages from The Shining (26. Dreamland)
- Misery’s Return (with the “n’ penciled in)
- Pages from It (3. Ben Hanscomb gets skinny)
- Castle Rock Community Library (“Neither noticed that Cujo’s head had come off his paws.”)
- Shawshank Prison blueprints
- “All Work and No Play”
- 217 -> 237
- We all float, Georgie
There is one other “connection” I feel I should mention. The Twilight Zone episode “The Howling Man,” based on a story by Charles Beaumont, is playing on the TV at Ruth Deaver’s house. This isn’t random. Check out the episode after you watch a few episodes of Castle Rock and you’ll see what I mean. “The inability to recognize the Devil has always been man’s greatest weakness.”
 In Bag of Bones, Castle Rock does have a Wal-Mart. According to “Premium Harmony” it’s near the high school. In the recent and forthcoming novellas Gwendy’s Button Box and Elevation, Castle Rock is a considerably more prosperous town than what’s depicted in this series.
 The Castle Rock gazebo was a crucial location in the film The Dead Zone, but there isn’t one in the book.
 Yes, Torrance. No relation.
 Molly grew up in a house where a serial strangler once lived. He isn’t named, but that would be Frank Dodd from The Dead Zone.
 In “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” Samuel Norton doesn’t kill himself, so maybe the guard got this detail wrong.