From afar, Castle Rock, Maine doesn’t much stand out from other quiet Northeastern US towns. Spooky, stately old homes line its wooded streets. Its downtown area, like that of many American city centers, is being revitalized to drive up sinking real estate values. The one bar in town, the “Mellow Tiger,” probably makes a very mediocre Old Fashioned.
But maybe you’ve heard of Castle Rock’s prison: Shawshank State Penitentiary, of the famous 1982 novella by Stephen King and an even more famous film based on King’s story, The Shawshank Redemption. It’s what’s underneath Shawshank that makes this sleepy New England town special—a long-buried history of evil.
In Castle Rock—Hulu’s new psychological thriller series based on the universe of King’s writings—a young man nicknamed “The Kid” (a downright creepy Bill Skarsgård, in his second appearance as a King character after starring as the clown in last year’s It) is found imprisoned in a makeshift cage under a long-abandoned cell block in Shawshank. He says nothing, save for one name: “Henry Deaver.”
Into town comes Henry Deaver (The Knick‘s André Holland), a death row defense lawyer who grew up in Castle Rock but left as a child shortly after a mysterious accident that left his father dead. The subsequent social isolation drove him out of town, and perhaps into a career defending the accused from unjust or inhumane punishment. In the “Kid,” a mostly mute, sinister-looking, boyish enigma, Henry discovers a kindred outcast—and a potential client.
Sissy Spacek, Melanie Lynskey, Terry O’Quinn, Scott Glenn, and others round out an impossibly talented ensemble cast. Spacek (also a King veteran as the star of Carrie) plays Ruth Deaver, Henry’s adoptive mother, who has dementia. Lynskey is Molly Strand, a real estate agent with a bizarre medical condition and a connection to Henry from childhood. O’Quinn is the warden of Shawshank, who…well, let’s not give it away. And Glenn plays Alan Pangborn (a name King aficionados will recognize from other novels), the retired town sheriff who takes care of Ruth.
Henry’s strange incident as a child isn’t the only unfortunate thing to happen in Castle Rock. In fact, the town’s history is steeped in unfortunate things: murders, suicides, murder-suicides, and everything in between. Some residents have become numb to it. Others have gone nuts. But mostly, Castle Rockians have gone about their lives, pretending the evil that grips the town’s heart doesn’t exist.
This summer already has one compelling small-town mystery on TV with HBO’s Sharp Objects, which debuted earlier this month. In Castle Rock, we get a very different approach. As a supernatural thriller anchored by an ensemble cast, it’s closer in tone and scope to Netflix’s Stranger Things, the unexpected breakout hit of the summer of 2016. But in many ways, Castle Rock is more promising: Its sense of place is far stronger than that of the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in which Stranger Things takes place.
And despite being obviously indebted to King’s stunningly vast oeuvre, Castle Rock exists wholly on its own terms. It’s loaded with fun references for King fans to pick up on, but it’s not hampered by nostalgia. Castle Rock, the town, may have been conceived by King, but Castle Rock, the TV series, is a new story. It happens to be a pretty good one.
Many of King’s novels explore the inherent darkness in men’s souls, and Castle Rock is no different. Darkness, here, is a disease. It can literally be contagious when witnessed, condoned. When allowed to fester, it can consume families, towns, whole institutions. Castle Rock uses the supernatural to meditate on the uncaring ineptitude that haunts the US justice system, the casual menace that lets abuse take hold. The Kid’s story may touch upon the supernatural, but his experience at Shawshank, and Henry’s hapless attempts to get to the bottom of it, are sadly all too human.
Castle Rock premieres July 25 on Hulu.