Castle Rock could be any small, slightly rundown Maine locale. That is, until the intimidating towers and brick walls of Shawshank State Penitentiary emerge from a morning fog. The situation then becomes readily apparent: You’re in Stephen King country now, and the setting for Hulu’s new horror series, which begins streaming Wednesday.
Long before intertwining superhero tales became a thing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the foundation for a multiverse of terror featuring arcane connections and crossover personalities was laid in King’s novels and stories over the course of 40 years, in and around a rather unholy New England triptych: Jerusalem’s Lot, Derry and Castle Rock.
Castle Rock, especially, has been a haven for really bad stuff, and the central hub for the freaky mysteries and deep character drama of the series of the same name, the latest collaboration between King and executive producer J.J. Abrams.
“When you see the little connections, it’s interesting and fascinating. But when you think about the geography, about what it’s like to be from Castle Rock or Derry, you start to feel like he’s created this incredible tapestry,” Abrams says. “The idea that we could then explore not just some of the characters that we know, but also the characters that would be sitting there waiting to be discovered, it just got me bonkers excited.”
Derry has the problem of an evil clown feeding on children every 27 years (see: “It”) but Castle Rock’s got so many unfortunate incidents that many townsfolk think the place is just straight-up cursed. As a kid, Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) was at the center of one such infamous episode, which led to the death of his adoptive father and Henry’s own ostracism in the town.
Now a death-row attorney, he returns home looking to reconnect with his mother (Sissy Spacek) and finds his legal know-how in demand when a mysterious young man, known as “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgard), is found in a cage in a dank, dark, long-unused section of Shawshank.
Centering the show on Henry seemed apropos, as a son of Castle Rock coming back to his complicated childhood home “felt like the most Kingian of themes,” says executive producer Dusty Thomason, who created the show with Sam Shaw. King’s fans will recognize recurring tropes from his writing along with Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), the sheriff who appeared in the novels “The Dark Half” and “Needful Things.”
To expand the existing mythology, new characters were created who “feel like they are songs in the key of Stephen King,” says Thomason. Down-on-her-luck real estate agent Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey) has a strong (maybe even psychic) connection with Henry, her childhood neighbor. Her associate Jackie (Jane Levy) is Castle Rock’s unofficial historian. And the Shawshank Kid is the show’s haunting, possibly otherworldly figure whose own narrative unravels over the series’ 10-episode first season.
“It’s just fun playing these rare, strange, weird and dark characters. You don’t get more strange, weird and dark than Stephen King,” says Skarsgard, who also starred as the malevolent Pennywise in last year’s “It” and reprises the role in next year’s sequel. “Part of the allure is trying to figure out who this kid is: Is he nefarious, is he manipulative, what is going to happen? All of those things are for the audience to try to figure out.”
Then again, why anybody is still living in Castle Rock, given the decades of disasters and nightmares, is a riddle. What’s even more impressive is Molly’s one-woman mission to make Castle Rock great again.
“I was kind of like, ‘Why don’t you just move? Wouldn’t your life be easier if you just started over?’ ” Lynskey says, laughing. “There’s a lot of things that have happened there, creating a bit of a negative atmosphere. But she feels a responsibility to make things better, like she owes it to the community to do something good.”
As the show progresses, Abrams says viewers will learn why Castle Rock residents are coming, going or staying. “It’s very easy for someone on the outside to say about a horrifying and terrifying and abusive relationship, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ Picking up and leaving is a lot easier to say than to do.”
Castle Rock is the legendary home for scary stuff, much of it referenced in the new series. Henry looks at a newspaper clipping with the headline “Rabid dog tears through town” – a nod to the killer canine of “Cujo.” Spacek, the star of “Carrie,” is a King Easter egg on her own.
In blending fresh characters and stories with the hallmarks and DNA of the author’s works, Shaw says, “the hope was to build a show that would really reward the eagle-eyed, Ph.D-level Stephen King completist superfan and also somebody coming to the material with fresh eyes.”