Castle Rock, Hulu's ambitious new series set in the world of Stephen King, debuts its first three episodes on July 25. It's a dense series, infused with King hallmarks: A small town with a dark core, characters with secretive layers, a menacing force that might be the key to all local evil, and labyrinthine storytelling that's building towards an absolution; or, at least, the deconstruction of an absolution.
But King novices need not fear. If you aren't familiar with the horror maestro's novels and short stories, Castle Rock is still accessible. In fact, it doesn't require any prerequisite knowledge at all, as it focuses on its own mystery, which is only tangentially tied to previous works.
The show centers on the small, fictional Maine town of Castle Rock, which shows up in several King books. In the series, a man (Bill Skarsgård) is found in the depths of an abandoned prison block; he's unidentifiable and shouldn't logically be there. His discovery shakes Castle Rock residents, creating shockwaves that unearth long-buried secrets, and calling back a man named Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), a native who fled the town long ago. Henry, now a lawyer, returns to his hometown to represent the incarcerated stranger and to determine who, exactly, locked him away -- and why.
Henry also reconnects with his dementia-ridden mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek); his precognitive childhood friend, Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey); and other colorful Castle Rock residents, who both fear and distrust him due to a mysterious event in his childhood that left his father dead. They blame Henry for what happened, an unfortunate byproduct of his circumstance, and of his race. Like all the best King works, Castle Rock is as much a social commentary as it is a horror story, with the real scares coming not from the supernatural, but from an inherently mortal ugliness.
So yes, Castle Rock is its own beast, telling its own story. But it also operates in the same world as King's works, many of which are set in Castle Rock, a town he created and continues to utilize. Because of that, the show is peppered with references, none of them essential to your understanding of the plot, but which lend the series an air of legitimacy. It's unclear what might become of these references; are they merely there to set the stage, or is there a meta-factor to consider? The opening credits hint at the latter, but for now, it's too early to tell.
For those curious how the show fits into King's universe, here's a rundown of the major works referenced in the premiere, and how they emphasize Castle Rock's long, dark history. Consider this supplemental information, not homework.