Long before Marvel Studios popularized the idea of a fictional “universe,” Stephen King sat at his typewriter in Maine, building his own world, book by best-selling book.
In King’s universe, the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, is the epicenter from which shock waves of macabre weirdness radiate: coma-induced clairvoyance (The Dead Zone), a murderous St. Bernard (Cujo), a devilish shopkeeper with a sadistic streak (Needful Things). And that’s just in Castle Rock proper — you only have to drive across the state to Derry to find a killer clown lurking in the sewer.
Looming over it all is a foreboding pile of rock called Shawshank Prison. The decrepit and corrupt penitentiary is at the center of Castle Rock, Hulu’s creepy and captivating horror series set in the “Stephen King multiverse.” (Two former EW employees, Scott Brown and Marc Bernardin, are writers on Castle Rock.)
We meet the warden of this prison, Dale Lacy (Lost’s Terry O’Quinn), on his last day before retirement. On his way out (in more ways than one) he leaves behind a horrific secret: a man, locked in a cage hidden deep in Shawshank’s bowels.
The discovery of the unnamed prisoner (It’s Bill Skarsgård, putting his Resting Creep Face to excellent use) brings defense attorney Henry Deaver (André Holland) back to his hometown of Castle Rock.
Henry doesn’t visit much, as the whole town thinks he murdered his father. One night back in 1991, they both trekked into the frigid Maine woods, and his dad wound up shattered at the bottom of a cliff, while Henry disappeared. He returned 11 days later, mysteriously unharmed and with no memory of the events.
From there, Castle Rock’s narrative tendrils slither toward each other: Who is the man Lacy kept in a cage? Why were the prisoner’s first words “Henry Deaver”? And what does Henry’s childhood neighbor Molly (Melanie Lynskey) know about his father’s death?
Answers are parceled out at a slow but satisfying pace, as the series explores themes common in King’s work: Shawshank guard Zalewski (Noel Fisher) is a working-class guy doing his best to survive in dehumanizing circumstances; Henry’s mom, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), is losing herself, bit by bit, to the mundane terror of dementia; while Lacy and Henry’s father, Matthew (Adam Rothenberg), exemplify the sometimes dangerous power of the Christian faith.
Castle Rock (launching July 25 on Hulu) requires and rewards close attention, serving up Kingsian Easter eggs (e.g., a newspaper clipping with the headline “Rabid Dog Tears Through Town”) and a mood of disquiet that settles in like New England fog.
Holland is excellent as Henry, a weary outcast who wears his skepticism like a shield, and Lynskey brings a keen mix of sadness and repressed panic to Molly, a woman whose life is continually derailed by an “undiagnosed psychic affliction.” Though most characters are new (Scott Glenn’s Alan Pangborn, a sheriff who appeared in Needful Things and The Dark Half, is one exception), for King fans the world of Castle Rock will be inescapably familiar. Spending time here feels, in many ways, like coming home — with all the excitement and dread such a visit entails. Grade: A-