By Peg Aloi
If Castle Rock is intended to be a commentary on Trump’s not-so-great America, well, what better genre than horror to spread the angst?
When I first started this television column, it was with a somewhat lighthearted notion that I’d be a bit of a dark-hearted fan girl at times; my first “boyfriend” was Charlie Manson! Indeed, my tastes tend toward the dark side of things, in television, in films, and in literature. I’ve been a fan of Stephen King for a very long time (the late 1970s! whew!). The first novel of his I read was his second, Salem’s Lot. It was a revelation: who knew a fiction could be like this? I was about 16 at the time, and hadn’t read much horror. But this narrative went beyond a scary story to me: it was a voyage of literary discovery.
There were epigraphs (epigraphs!) quoting from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Wallace Stevens’s inscrutable, evocative poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” There were loving homages to vampire lore along with utterly distinctive twists on the horror genre. And Salem’s Lot was also a fine contemporary thriller, damned atmospheric and scary. I immediately tracked down his first novel, Carrie, and then waited eagerly for everything new that came out, devouring them all: Danse Macabre, The Shining, The Stand, Night Shift, Different Seasons, etc. etc.
I admit to having slowed down in my consumption of King’s novels in recent years, and so viewing Castle Rock, the Hulu series helmed by J.J. Abrams and Stephen King as co-executive producers, was initially a bit daunting. Having seen my share of bad film adaptations of King stories (Hello, Lawnmower Man? Children of the Corn?), I was worried this series, based on characters and settings created by King, would be another disappointment. Thankfully, I was blown away by how good it is — and gratified by the fact that one need not be familiar with King’s literary canon to find Castle Rock entertaining.
Season 1 draws heavily from two texts: the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (later made into the film The Shawshank Redemption) and Needful Things, with smatterings of references to other novels, such as The Shining, Cujo, and Carrie. Indeed, Carrie is referenced with the casting of Sissy Spacek as a major character. The actress starred as the titular telekinetic teen in her debut film role; Brian de Palma’s direction of King’s first novel catapulted the performer to stardom and launched the novelist into the zeitgeist. In Castle Rock, she plays Ruth Deaver, a middle-aged widow who is beginning to experience early signs of dementia. (Spacek’s performance is powerful.) Her son Henry returns home to defend a prisoner at the local correctional facility. It turns out that Henry, played by Andre Holland, went missing in the woods as a child and was found by the local sheriff (Scott Glenn). Henry is struggling with demons from his past, and reunites with neighbor Molly (Melanie Lynskey), who has a strange ability to peer into other peoples’ thoughts.
Everyone’s a bit weird in Castle Rock. People attribute the strange goings on to the place, which seems unlike any other. Like the fictional town of ‘Salem’s Lot (which is nearby), King has crafted a back story for the town that goes back to the days of the earliest settlers. Predictably, centuries of horror lurk heavily in the town’s streets and houses. The weather is continually cold and dreary, people are generally not friendly, and the economy has seen much better days: if Castle Rock is intended to be a commentary on Trump’s not-so-great America, well, what better genre than horror to spread the angst? But I digress.
Season 1 of Castle Rock ended on a note that made it feel as if there were endless stories to be told about this strange town and the inhabitants we’d gotten to know. But Season 2 brings in a whole new roster of characters. Central is Annie Wilkes, a younger version of the main character in Misery, who discovers a novelist injured in an accident and brings him to her remote mountain home to convalesce. Annie, played by Kathy Bates in the film version (who won an Oscar for her performance, a tour de force in a film that only featured one other actor, James Caan), was terrifying. She was a socially awkward loner, but also violent and psychotic. She was also a lethal reader (what a great trope for King to explore); she becomes spectacularly angry at her imprisoned guest when she learns he is planning to kill off her favorite character from a series of romance novels.
Season 2 is a sort of prequel to Misery, with a younger Annie played by Lizzy Caplan (True Blood, Masters of Sex) arriving in Castle Rock with her teenage daughter Joy (Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher). They drive in with the two raucously singing “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon (its lyrics “New Jerusalem” a reference to nearby village ‘Salem’s Lot). Joy has become bored with travel (and that saccharine, peppy song). We quickly see that their domestic life is one of moving from place to place, always keeping under the radar. Annie works as an on-call nurse, which gives her easy access to the antipsychotic drugs she needs. Joy is bored with not being allowed to have a social life. They end up renting a cheap cabin on the outskirts of town. When Chance (Abby Corrigan) tempts Joy to come hang with her misfit friends, the teen finally understands she can have a life apart from her controlling, weird mother. Chance even shows up one day asking Joy to come on an adventure to “see a dead body.” Of course, we’re catapulted into Stand By Me territory, a coming-of-age film based on King’s own childhood, dramatized in the novella “The Body” in Different Seasons.
The pair’s landlord is “Ace” Merrill (Paul Sparks from House of Cards), a character also seen in Stand By Me. Ace was a bully then (played by Kiefer Sutherland). At this point he has become a racist, leering drunk. His father “Pop” (played by Tim Robbins, aka Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption) is a prominent businessman and military veteran who is helping local Somali refugees build a new cultural center. The project’s lead engineer is Pop’s adopted son Abdi (played by Captain Phillips’s Barkhad Abdi); his adopted daughter Nadia, Abdi’s sister, is a doctor at the local hospital where Annie works. Both sister and brother were refugees from Mogadishu, and there are rumblings of resentment from some white townsfolk residents towards the Somali community. We see a more diverse slate of characters this season, and the excellent casting of Season 1 is repeated here, with first rate performances all around.
Show creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have made Castle Rock a scary version of small town, anywhere, America. This is not some creepy Brigadoon. Because the series was shot on location at Orange, Massachusetts, there’s authenticity galore, thanks to the old mill buildings and craggy hills. And there’s history too, with occasional revelations from the past of Castle Rock and ‘Salem’s Lot. King’s belief — that evil resides in places long after evil acts have been committed — is alive and well.
And speaking of haunted places, there’s the old Marsten House, high on a hill in ‘Salem’s Lot: once grand, now decrepit, with a big red-and-white “X” sign plastered on it. The building is being renovated, cleared of the squatters and drug addicts who’ve been occupying it. The house loomed large in King’s vampire novel. It is too soon in Season 2 to tell (only five episodes in, which is all I was allowed to preview) where this part of the story is going, but chances are dead people are not going to stay dead in this crumbling mansion. There are other buried secrets aching to be unearthed, such as restless corpses, revelations of betrayal, murder, and perverse twists of fate. Castle Rock delivers the expected violence, suspense, and horror. But its most abundant strength is its faithful adherence to one of King’s primary tenets as an author: that there is nothing more frightening then the unpredictability of human nature.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.