Castle Rock may not be a direct adaptation of any particular Stephen King book, but its interweaving of stories like Cujo, Needful Things, The Dark Zone and more make it the quintessential creepy King story.
It’s filled with buried secrets, battered families, and the horror that lives in the mundane. It’s also, notably, something of a meta-commentary on King’s work, as if a fan were decoding his text and weaving a story from the clues. This is most evident with the opening credits, which feature pages from King’s stories with red-pen annotations made by some unknown figure. Is it a character in the series? Or is it us, the reader, laced into the story as if we’re the ones telling it?
Another fascinating way Castle Rock plays with expectations is with its cast. Andre Holland is excellent as Henry Deaver, a Castle Rock native with a questionable past who returns to the town when a new mystery lures him in. Holland is new to King’s oeuvre, but in his orbit are many faces familiar to King properties. The most notable is Sissy Spacek—Carrie White herself—who plays Henry’s adopted mother Ruth. Ruth couldn’t be further from Spacek’s famous blood-drenched King heroine; she’s a dementia-ridden, middle aged mother who speaks in riddles and dances in and out of lucidity. Does she know more than she’s letting on? And are her supposedly crazy talking points random, or more plot-essential than we yet realize? You can bet Castle Rock wants us to ask these questions, and is using Spacek’s legacy to prod us further
Of course, Spacek isn’t the only King veteran in the cast. There is also Bill Skarsgård, who plays “The Kid”—a mysterious resident of Shawshank Prison whose arrival summons Henry Deaver. Skarsgård also played Pennywise the Dancing Clown in last year’s horror blockbuster, It: Chapter One, based on King’s famous tome. As with Ruth Deaver and Carrie White, “The Kid” and Pennywise are miles apart. But it’s impossible to look at Skarsgård’s haunting eyes—the same eyes that turn back in their head as tension escalates—and not think, immediately, of Pennywise. And yet here he is, central to the plot of Castle Rock as he concurrently films It: Chapter Two. If Spacek is the Ghost of Stephen King Adaptation Past, Skarsgård is his Ghost of Stephen King Adaptation Future. He haunts the frame, and boggles our perceptions. As if Castle Rock wants to sneak in the back door while we work out why he’s here.
Other returning King veterans: Melanie Lynskey, who plays Molly Strand on Castle Rock, and who played Rachel Wheaton in the King miniseries Rose Red; Ann Cusack, who plays Shawshank’s new warden in Castle Rock and played Olivia Trelawney in Mr. Mercedes; and Chosen Jacobs, who hasn’t showed up in Castle Rock yet but appears in five episodes this season, and who played Mike Hanlon in It: Chapter One with Skarsgård.
Additionally, two main Castle Rock actors could be considered “King-adjacent” thanks to their work in the horror genre and in shows created by Damon Lindelof, a notable King fanatic who weaves his influences into his own work. Terry O’Quinn, famous for The Stepfather and Lost, plays a very Terry O’Quinn-type of character on Castle Rock—menacing, mysterious, mythical—and might very well be the key to unlocking Castle Rock‘s mysteries. But is it just a ruse, another play on our expectations? Likewise, Scott Glenn, know for The Silence of the Lambs and The Leftovers, plays retired cop Alan Pangborn—a character plucked directly from Stephen King novels—who feels familiar but unknown all at once. It’s hard to separate Glenn from his prophetic Leftoverscharacter, Kevin Garvey, Sr. (also a former cop) just like it’s impossible to see O’Quinn and not think of John Locke.
It seems like Castle Rock is welcoming these familiarities so that it can grind them into dust. The show is playing in a sandbox of intrigue, and goring sacred cows as it sees fit. That’s part of its fascinating rhythm; we think we know this story, but in truth, we have no idea.