Castle Rock just arrived on Hulu, and has the cajones to be an original tale of suspense which exists in the same universe as Cujo, The Dead Zone, Salem’s Lot, and the rest of Stephen King’s vast literary universe, though this new story does not actually come from King. To call this a tall order is to undersell the long shadow Mr. King’s work casts over the world of popular fiction. I mean, can you imagine a novelist in 1850 telling an editor, “I’ve got it! How about a series of penny dreadfuls, telling a single, overarching tale of horror, which takes place in the same world as The Tell-tale Heart, The Raven and the rest of Mr. Poe’s works?” Scandalous!
Gladly, show creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have concocted something that is suitably creepy in its own right, and it does viewers the favor of not shoehorning in awkward, obvious references to King’s established works; the Overlook Hotel, Derry, and the Pet Sematary are all out there, but the Easter eggs we do find, come about organically, rather than obtrusively. In that sense, this series is the anti-Gotham. Shaw and Thomason did their homework, and meticulously crafted a town – indeed, a world – that could have come from no other inspiration. If you’re a fan of King’s work, the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, which has been the setting for, or at least been referenced in, many of his stories, will look very much as you may have imagined it. Which is to say, drab, creaky, quiet, and hostile to hopes or dreams.
Castle Rock is, first and foremost, a mystery, the kind whose secrets, we suspect, might be best kept hidden. The plot begins at Shawshank Penitentiary, decades after Andy Dufresne’s famous disappearing act. The guards and new warden make an unsettling discovery: a young, gaunt and nearly mute inmate (Bill Skarsgård), one whom no one has ever laid eyes on before, is found in a custom-made cage, deep down in the bowels of the prison’s cellars. An anonymous phone call about the mystery prisoner brings Texas attorney Henry Deavers (Andre Howard) back to his home town of Castle Rock. Henry’s specialty is prisoners’ rights and death-row appeals, so his interest is certainly piqued. However, his homecoming is complicated by the fact that he is something of a local folk tale; a bizarre and tragic event from his childhood has earned him some notoriety, the kind fueled by gossip that gets passed down through generations and grows more outlandish with the passage of time. And as Henry presses on with this new case, we are made aware that something much bigger has been set in motion, and that maybe he should catch the next bus out of town, like, yesterday.
The cast uniformly sells the despair that permeates every crevice of this town. Actors don’t get much more solid than Andre Howard, who really grounds the story as the haunted, reluctant hero; he really doesn’t want to be back here, but he cannot ignore the call to help his fellow man. He makes Henry relatable and likable, and by the end of the third episode I began to feel genuine concern for this character’s welfare. Others in the cast are extremely well-cast, in roles that play to their respective dramatic strengths: Melanie Lynskey brings her sweet but off-kilter, twitchy energy to a troubled realtor with . . . let’s call it a condition; Scott Glenn, as a former sheriff who knows something strange is brewing, imbues the ex-lawman with his patented, proven style – namely, wise, grizzled, sarcastic and sinewy; and Terry O’Quinn – best remembered as John Locke from Lost and, for my money, one of the best-sounding voices in Hollywood – portrays a doomed prison official, once again playing an apparently reassuring, avuncular presence who gets ambushed by the darkness, whether from without or within. Lastly, I tip my hat to the clever inclusion of a couple of, shall we say, Stephen King repertory players. Skarsgård, ominous and creepy as the enigmatic inmate, terrorized kids and audiences last year as Pennywise in It. And Carrie White herself, Sissy Spacek, is on hand as Henry’s distracted, absent-minded mother who seems far more distressed than glad to see her son back in town.
And can we talk about Castle Rock itself? This town isn’t dying, it’s quietly rotting. Not so much in the physical, dilapidated sense of the word (though some of the architecture has seen better days), but more in the way all its denizens appear to have been spiritually broken, one way or another; the place is an atmospheric cancer. One gets the impression that every last adult (and more than a few kids) is sitting on a deeply traumatic memory, a horrible secret, or the guilt of a ghastly deed they committed (or maybe all three in one). The cinematography keeps this aesthetic firmly rooted in overcast exteriors and depressingly lit interiors. Even the sunlit scenes appear drab and hazy, as though an eldrich edict had been declared long ago forbidding Castle Rock from enjoying so much as one bright sunny day. And yet the atmosphere does not come across as heightened or amplified, as a lot of horror productions tend to do. Castle Rock feels very authentic and very familiar, and that familiarity makes the story that much more unsettling. Uncle Stevie (as King sometimes calls himself) must be proud.