“Who the Hell Stays in a Town Like This?”

Castle Rock
Illustration by Jakob Hinrichs
Castle Rock
Illustration by Jakob Hinrichs

One of the co-creators of Hulu’s new Castle Rock on yet another Maine mill town that’s down and out. Waaaay out.

By Brian Kevin
[dropcap letter=”I”]t’s hard times in Castle Rock. The closure of the mills hit the town where it hurt, and the recent vote to unincorporate drained what little morale was left. A looming buyout of the local prison threatens the few remaining steady jobs at a time when, frankly, a lot of folks are still reeling from all the serial killers. There’s not a block in town without a house that’s either boarded up or desperately haunted, and ever since the curio shop was revealed to have been run by a demon, the shabby old Mellow Tiger tavern is the only downtown business with its lights still on.

Castle Rock, you won’t be surprised to learn, is the invention of Stephen King. Since 1979, the author has set more than a dozen of his novels and stories there and referenced it in dozens more. Now, he’s an executive producer of an eponymous high-concept drama set in the much-tormented town, the first few episodes of which begin streaming on Hulu on July 25. The genius behind Castle Rock’s premise: a fusion of atmospheric, supernatural horror and the sort of everyday post-industrial malaise that’s all too common in 21st-century small-town New England.

“Often, when Stephen King gets adapted, there’s this impulse to imagine a white-picket, Norman Rockwell backdrop for some new nightmare,” series co-creator Sam Shaw explains. “But the town that King invented actually has a lot more in common with the contemporary American small-town experience, particularly in a state like Maine that’s hugely polarized economically, where you have these little towns that have had their own, much more workaday nightmares and disasters visited on them.”

Courtesy of Hulu

Castle Rock, Shaw says, is “probably not terribly far from Rumford,” but really, it’s at the intersection of uncanny tension and late-capitalist rural angst. The town’s only real estate agent, played by Melanie Lynskey, is in the unenviable position of having to entice new businesses to a community with both an aging workforce and a history of homicidal dogs, vehicles, and humans. The warden of nearby Shawshank State Penitentiary, played by Terry O’Quinn, wonders if the milltown earned God’s wrath by exploiting natural resources during its economic heyday. (Fans of ABC’s Lost will recognize both O’Quinn and the arcane influence of part-time Mainer J.J. Abrams, who produced both series.)

“It’s fascinating to think of one town that’s been on the wrong end of this centuries-long biblical onslaught of nightmares and disasters — I mean, who the hell stays in a town like this?” says Shaw. “And economic hardships, the flight of industry, the towns where the death rate outstrips the birth rate — that’s its own kind of ghost story. So it seemed apropos and interesting to tell a contemporary Stephen King story against the backdrop of a small-town experience that feels of the moment and more deeply lived in.”

Shaw’s fascination with Maine predates even his Stephen King fandom. Like his writing partner and series co-creator Dustin Thomason, he read King’s paperbacks by flashlight “at maybe too young and tender an age,” many of them under the bedsheets at Nobleboro’s Camp Kieve, where the Brooklyn native spent summers that seemed, in their own way, supernatural.

“The Maine of my childhood felt almost like an altered state or a dreamland,” he remembers. “Part of the pleasure of writing this show is both being able to write a credible small town in Maine and also trying to tap into that feeling I had as a kid, that Maine is another world, on the other side of the wardrobe.”

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