In the opening scene of Hulu’s horror series Castle Rock, the retiring warden of Shawshank Correctional Facility (Terry O’Quinn) heads to his last day on the job after 30 years. As Warden Lacy drives through Castle Rock, Maine, he surveys the town and sees all as it should be. The railroad-crossing signal dings optimistically (even if no train ever seems to come), helmet-wearing kids do lazy-8’s on their dirt bikes, and a wholesome breeze rushes through the healthy trees. Never mind that Lacy is on his way to “guillotine himself with a Lincoln” or that, within days, a young man (the devil himself?) will be found locked in a metal vault within an abandoned cellblock of his prison; for this one moment, the warden’s last, we’ll see Castle Rock as it once was. Or could’ve been?
Castle Rock, like much of our politics and many of our entertainments these days, draws its power from the dark-energy grid of American nostalgia. Written and created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, with whom J.J. Abrams serve as executive-producers, the show pulls from Stephen King’s 60-novel-plus oeuvre, dropping characters into a newly porous King-dom, where their narratives can intersect in fresh ways, both creepy and endearing. What many of these characters already share is their hometown; Castle Rock is the setting for Cujo, Dead Zone, and Needful Things, a place where the only employer is the local prison and the only thriving industries seem to be corrections, narcotics, and ecclesiastical dread.
Enter death-row attorney Henry Deaver (André Holland), our stalwart guide through this cedar-shingled hell-scape. He’s living in Texas—perhaps to get as far away as possible from his hometown of Castle Rock—when he receives an anonymous phone call from Shawshank: The secret prisoner (Bill Skarsgard) has no name, no file, and no fingerprints, and he will say only two words: “Henry Deaver.”
The name of King’s blood-soaked setting has its origins in William Golding’s 1954 dystopian novel Lord of the Flies, in which castaway English schoolboys turn on each other, destroying their island paradise as they try to hunt down an imagined “Beast.” “Castle Rock” is the name the boys give a mass of precarious pink stone connected to the island by a narrow bridge, where the hunters build a fort. This is a place where all the civilizing potential of fairness, democracy, and science goes to die. King, who read the novel when he was a twelve-year-old living in small-town Maine, has called it the thing “that unlocked the rest of my life.”
The prison in Castle Rock, now run by a subsidiary of a private defense contractor, is an extension of Golding’s savage rock pile. It’s as if the clock has been allowed to run on the whole operation, the massive pink stones re-stacked neatly into the walls of a penitentiary. We see flashbacks of Warden Lacy chain-smoking and assembling a cage deep within the prison, where he plans to trap the evil he believes is at the root of Castle Rock’s violence and misery. Every house in town, he tells us in a from-beyond-the-grave voiceover, is soaked in sin, as the camera drifts slowly through the homes of Castle Rock, each one a murder scene. The warden’s voice assures us that when people do terrible things here, they say, “It wasn’t me… It was this place. And the things is, they’re right.”
One feature of this aggregated Stephen King cosmos is that we share something of a history with the characters. When they mention off-handedly trouble with the serial strangler or the rabid dog that terrorized town years ago, we can fill in some of the awful details and even feel a strange fondness for them. Nostalgic entertainment comforts us, gently surprises us with the sudden longing for Huffy bikes and Zips, and has at its core the satisfaction of a childhood wish: The beast, whatever it is, has been hunted and killed by good people before, and it can be hunted and killed again. That seems to be what Warden Lacy (and the dead reverend and the local sheriff) thinks he’s doing anyway. “He’d always thought the devil was just a metaphor,” recalls Sheriff Pangborn of Warden Lacy’s decision to build the cage, “and now he knew: The devil was a boy.”
The only character who is immune to this “rosy” view of the past is Deaver, the only African American resident and seemingly still the only person of color for miles around. When he returns to Castle Rock, he is determined to see justice done. Unlike Lacy, who insists on seeing things how they were meant to be, Deaver sees them as they are: Castle Rock is a dying, one-bar, mostly boarded-up, opioid-afflicted town with an improbably high murder rate. Deaver’s only remaining connection to the place is his mother (Sissy Spacek), who now suffers from dementia (she fails to recognize Henry at first, assuring him “I’m not like the others, I adopted a black son”).
While his mother is ever more marooned in the past, Deaver is trapped on the outside of it. As a child, he went missing one night in the dead of winter, only to be rescued in the woods eleven days later unable to remember a thing about his disappearance or his past. Prevented from knowing or telling his own story, Deaver has been cast by his neighbors as the villain of a local legend, which has it that he ran away from home in order to kill his white adoptive father, the beloved Reverend Deaver, by shoving him off the bluff at Castle Lake. Even though there is no evidence to suggest he’s a killer, in a community riddled with bizarre crimes, it’s Henry that the kids of Castle Rock dress up as for Halloween, black face and all. For him, there were no good old days in this place.
Through Henry, Castle Rock offers more than nostalgic horror; it shows the horrific nature of nostalgia. For the townspeople still trapped there, Castle Rock, Maine, feels as isolating as an island in the Pacific. There isn’t an easy way out of the trap the town leaders have set—everything good that could’ve been is locked in a past that never was, marooning its residents in a nowhere time, in which nostalgia is so strong that it seems very possible even the dead won’t stay dead.