I didn’t grow up with Stephen King. Apart from checking out the TV miniseries The Stand, and my mom once seeing him at a casino, King and his work haven’t been a part of my life. Having barely visited his stuff, I was curious whether Hulu’s Castle Rock—a series that dwells within King’s stories, intertwining his books, themes, and characters—stands on its own.
Right now, you might be asking why I didn’t watch or read King’s stuff growing up. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to. Religious reasons. Then as I got older, I developed a medical condition called vasovagal syncope, also known as the “common faint.” Extreme blood or violence causes me to pass out and sometimes have seizures—this even includes written descriptions on occasion. I’ve gotten pretty good at preventing it—hence how I’m able to watch anything from Westworld without dying, with one or two close calls (it’s not a flawless system)—but with all that said, you can imagine why I’ve found myself too nervous to watch or read King. There are parts of his oeuvre that are clearly safer but never stood out at me as something I’d like. I refuse to partake in The Langoliers or Maximum Overdrive, people. I have my standards.
Of course, that doesn’t explain everything, like why I haven’t seen The Shawshank Redemption, but let’s chalk those individual cases up to bad life decisions...some of which will be rectified. I’m already planning on giving the new It a try, inspired by writing this post actually. So yes, with one notable exception—oh wait, I did catch The Shining once, so two exceptions—I am a Stephen King virgin. Some of you might be too, no shame in that! In fact, that virginal status was my main drive in wanting to watch Castle Rock in the first place. How would I feel about a show whose diabolically rich source material wasn’t familiar to me? Can you enjoy Castle Rock without knowing the world it comes from?
Having seen the first few episodes, I’d argue the answer is tricky. On the surface, yes. You can enjoy the series without knowing King’s work because most of the specific references are Easter eggs that don’t affect the story (at least not in the four episodes I’ve previewed). But the deeper question is will you? And to that one, my answer is no.
For me personally, Castle Rock hasn’t quite connected. I’ve liked it just fine—but I feel like it’s, honestly, just another show. Nothing special. I’m not craving next week’s episode like I thought I would, or how some of my friends have. It feels like something my father-in-law would turn on, and if I was hanging out in their living room doing something else, maybe I’d stay and watch. That’s not because I was confused about the plot, or felt that there were pieces of the puzzle that were lost to me because I wasn’t a Stephen King fan. For all its misdirects and general feelings of unease, the story of Castle Rock is quite simple.
Castle Rock centers around a man named Henry Deaver (André Holland) who’s come back to his small town in Maine after suffering a mysterious tragedy when he was a kid. He’s there to help a creepy no-named man (Bill Skarsgård) who was trapped in a metal cage at Shawshank Prison for seemingly most of his life. There are plenty of other characters that play a part in this central saga, including Henry’s adoptive mother (Sissy Spacek), his psychically gifted childhood friend (Melanie Lynskey), and a truly awful warden (Ann Cusack) who manages the now-privatized Shawshank. It’s got lots of Easter eggs and nods to previous works—and, from what I’ve been told, a great deal of Kingesqueness.
There are a few general tropes about King’s work that I know from passing. His stories usually take place in New England, like a small town in Maine. There’s typically a weird psychic child. And you’ve always got the irredeemable villain who’s probably connected to industrialization somehow. Castle Rock has all of these, and more—which is why I chose not to try the famous Stephen King drinking game with it, as I like living.
However, there’s a difference between knowing of the tropes and knowing them, as a fan. If you’ve grown up with Stephen King’s work or fell in love with it later in life, those storytelling themes and tropes (that you like) might become something comfortable and familiar. We all have our favorite writers, artists, and creators; they may grow and shift over time, but parts of what they do will stay consistent. This is absolutely true with King, even after hundreds of books, short stories, movies, shows, and other works.
I didn’t grow up with King’s tropes, so they’re not familiar, and they don’t really resonate with me now. The corporate villain, as seen here with the private prison warden, is a stock character with no growth or development. The mysterious hell child-man with some doom-and-gloom Biblical prophecy substitutes actual character with wide creepy stares. And let’s not get started with the weird sexualization of underage characters, most famously seen in Stephen King’s novel It. *minor spoiler warning* In Castle Rock, for example, the younger Henry is told by his empath friend Molly that she’s psychically linked to him. How does she reveal this information? By telling him she feels him masturbate. What purpose this serves in the story is beyond me, but it did make me want to take a shower.
Even though I don’t really get it, I know a lot of others have been raving about the show. So, I found myself asking: Is it because of personal opinion, or is this because I didn’t understand the Stephen King Universe? Does the SKU (as I’m now calling it) make Castle Rock a more enriching experience? I chatted with my coworker Cheryl Eddy, a major King fan who’s really liked the series so far, about this. Does she feel the theme and tone of the series register differently with her because she’s a Stephen King fan? Here’s what she had to say:
Hard to say, but maybe? I’ve definitely seen a lot of adaptations of his books and stories, and the ones that are well-done do a good job bringing that kind of horror to the screen. I definitely don’t love all King adaptations. But I really like the idea that they’re not adapting a specific work here. Something different for once.
[King is] very good with creating distinctive characters, as well as monsters, and writing about things that look fine on the surface but are really just a cover for evil—like they take place in a twisted version of the real world that could actually be the real world.
I think my overall message here is, yes, Castle Rock can work without knowing the source material but perhaps not as enjoyable as it could be. You might miss out on the Easter eggs, or find yourself poring over footage to check if there’s something you should’ve seen but didn’t, but the story doesn’t require you to know King’s previous work. That said, if you’re not already comfortable or familiar with the themes and tropes King tends to fall back on, you may not enjoy what Castle Rock brings to the table. It honors what I’ve found to be the heart of King and his world. That’s great for fans, but a gamble for everybody else. Sadly, it’s a gamble I lost.