Stephen King's Nightmare Town Castle Rock a Distillery of Horrors

Don't even stop for gas in this fictional Maine community.


'Castle Rock'
'Castle Rock,' Hulu

Castle Rock. Available July 25 from Hulu.

They say you can't go home again. If you were from Castle Rock, why would you want to?

For about four decades now, Stephen King has been peopling this (fictional) little Maine town with vengeful witches, homicidally rabid dogs, political assassins, Satanic shopkeepers, telepathic ghost magnets, Polaroid portals to hellish alternative universes, and mutant rats the size of cows. It's not quite the most accursed of the western Maine hamlets where King sets his works—that would surely be 'Salem's Lot, so thoroughly overrun by vampires that the handful of survivors burned it to the ground in the mid-1970s—but with 30 or so appearances in his novels and short stories, Castle Rock is clearly the most persistently malevolent locale in Kinglandia.

Hulu's new series Castle Rock is clearly an attempt to answer a question that has occurred to nearly every King reader multiple times over the years: Do the folks in this town ever notice the unholy frequency with which their neighbors fall into quicksand pits, get ravaged by their house pets, or are driven insane by mundane household items purchased at pawn shops?

Oh, yes they do, and you'll have a creepy good time as Castle Rock follows their efforts to figure out why their town is such a demonic piece of crap. One of the lead investigators is even a Realtor, who I imagine faces some serious professional challenges in a town like this. ("It's very cute little Cape Cod at an owner-was-murdered-by-a-jealous-neighbor-for-having-sex-with-the-ghost-of-Elvis price!")

More important, though, is Dale Lacy, the warden of Castle Rock's privately-administered Shawshank prison (yes, that Shawshank), who (spoiler alert, and while we're at it, upchuck alert) commits grisly suicide in the show's opening moments.

His successor wonders why Lacy kept an entire cell block closed when the inmates in the rest of the prison are confined two to a tiny cell. After a bit of exploration, the answer is painfully apparent and probably explains the warden's surprising suicide: He kept a young man, half-naked, locked in a cage in the cell block basement.

Though the prison tries to keep the discovery secret—bad for the stockholders, you know—word leaks out and brings defense attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland, The Knick) back to town.

Though Deaver grew up in Castle Rock, he's the ultimate outsider: The adopted black son of white parents, he exiled himself as an adult because nearly everybody in town believes that, as a child, he murdered his own father during a winter hike in the woods. The dad's pulverized body was found at the foot of a cliff, while Henry wandered back 11 days later, mysteriously undamaged by 11 days outside in sub-zero weather—except for a convenient memory blackout.

King is credited as an executive producer on Castle Rock, though he apparently didn't do any of the actual writing. (The screenplays are credited to Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, who worked together on Manhattan, an intriguing and underwatched WGN America series about life on the dusty New Mexico base where the atomic bomb was being developed.) But his style is stamped everywhere on the show: the deceptive nature of evil (Is the young man caged under the prison really a victim? Is Deaver really a bad-seed patricide?); the Our Town-style story-telling, in which white picket fences conceal—and sometimes confine—moral decay and predation inside; the seductive web of subplots that might converge and might simply die out the way little dramas in real life often do.

Castle Rock, especially in the early going, unfurls its tentacles slowly, but their grip is eerily strong; over the three episodes I watched, I was never tempted to look away.

You don't need to know a damn thing about King or his work to enjoy the macabre machinations of Castle Rock. But if you do, watching is like a bunnyfest in July, with Easter eggs scattered everywhere as characters from and allusions to his novels, short stories, and adaptations pop up in nearly every scene. If an old newspaper clipping falls out of a file folder, you know it will be a story about a family chewed upon by a pet dog or a kid hit by a train.

The biggest Easter eggs of all are stashed in Castle Rock's uniformly excellent cast. The enigmatic Warden Lacy is played by Lost's Terry O'Quinn, who also portrayed a cop destined to become Purina Werewolf Chow in Silver Bullet. Sissy Spacek (Deaver's adoptive mother, whose dementia-ravaged memory may hold a clue to what happened to him) first got onto our radar as the bullied and vengeful Carrie. The nameless prisoner is played by Bill Skarsgard, who radiated evil right through his clown makeup in It.

And though Scott Glenn has never appeared in a King adaption, his character Alan Pangborn—the sheriff who rescued the young Dearborn from his frozen sojourn in the wilderness—is playing a character who more than any other symbolizes the toll that the town takes on its citizen-hostages.

Readers of King novels have watched Pangborn stand by helplessly as his family members and lovers succumb. In Castle Rock, he's an old, punched-out man with little to say except one final piece of advice: "Don't let that fuckin' kid out." His eyes are faded; his words, maybe not.