Everything You Need to Know About 'Castle Rock' to Get Through the Premiere

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André Holland as Henry Denver | Patrick Harbron/Hulu
André Holland as Henry Denver | Patrick Harbron/Hulu

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.

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Patrick Harbron/Hulu

The Shawshank Redemption

The most noteworthy King callout in Castle Rock is Shawshank Prison, the main setting of his short story "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," and the 1994 movie adaptation. A large portion of Castle Rock takes place inside the prison, and introduces two new characters to its lore: Warden Dale Lacy (Terry O'Quinn) and "The Kid" (Skarsgård), a frail, feral man found in the bowels of Shawshank after Lacy's suicide. (O'Quinn sticks around as a main character thanks to flashbacks.)

There are plenty of fun, small Shawshank Redemption references in the pilot. For instance, when Warden Lacy's replacement, played by Ann Cusack, is given a tour of her new office, a guard informs her Shawshank has lost "four wardens in office" and starts to say "you can still see the bullet hole where Warden Norton…" before he's cut off. Warden Norton is a character from Redemption who fatally shoots himself to avoid arrest near the story's close.

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Bill Skarsgård as "The Kid" | Patrick Harbron/Hulu


IT is another Maine-set King novel, although it doesn't take place in Castle Rock, but in the fictional town of Derry. And yet, there are a few nods to It sprinkled in Castle Rock, the most obvious being Bill Skarsgård. The Swedish actor plays "The Kid" in the series, but recently portrayed Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the big-screen adaptation of IT: Chapter One. Is it a coincidence that he shows up here as a brand new King-verse character, or is it a larger part of the show's aforementioned meta commentary? It certainly doesn't feel like a coincidence.

IT also factors into the show's opening credits, which show a page from the novel and also a map of Maine, with Derry's location in relation to Castle Rock. Curiously, in later episodes, the characters mention a restaurant called Nan's Luncheonette, which is located in Derry in IT, but is also mentioned in King's short story "The Sun Dog" and the novel Needful Things -- which both take place in Castle Rock. Are the two towns connected somehow? Will characters from IT make their way east, and join the show's chorus? Time will tell.  

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Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn | Claire Folger/Hulu

Needful Things

Speaking of Needful Things, references to that book are plentiful in Castle Rock. Residents spend time at The Mellow Tiger, a local bar that is also a setting in the novel. In one scene, as Henry Deaver investigates Warden Lacy's home, he finds a file of news clippings, one with a headline that reads, "Shopkeeper missing after oddity store fire." Needful Things is about an oddity store owner who lives in Castle Rock.

The biggest nod to Needful Things, and one of the biggest tie-ins to all of King's work in Castle Rock, is the character Alan Pangborn, played by Scott Glenn. Pangborn is the sheriff in the novels Needful Things and The Dark Half, the short story "The Sun Dog," and is mentioned in Bag of Bones and Gerald's Game. In the show, he's now retired from sheriff duties, and is dating Henry's mother. He's also connected to Henry's past, having come into his life during the events of his father's death. Because he's tied so directly to King's mythology, he's the likeliest source of future tie-in storylines, so it's best to keep your eyes peeled for what he does next.

Stand By Me

King's short story "The Body," which was turned into the 1986 movie Stand By Me, is set in Castle Rock, Maine (though the movie was moved to Oregon), and its events are referred to several times in the show. Lacy's clippings also show a headline that reads, "Anonymous tip leads to boy's body," which is a direct tie to the story, about a group of young boys who go searching for a dead body. (The clippings also have a headline about a "rabid dog," which is a Cujo reference.) A man named Richard Chambers is also referenced in the premiere -- he's the murdered husband of Henry's client -- which might be a reference to one of the antagonists in Stand By Me, who has the same name.

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Jane Levy as Jackie Torrance | Seacia Pavao/Hulu

The Shining

Castle Rock's connection to The Shining is one of its more curious aspects. The novel, as well as Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film of the same name, take place in Colorado, with flashbacks set in Vermont -- not Maine. Why, then, are there so many allusions to The Shining in the show? The opening credits center largely on the story of Jack Torrance and the Overlook Hotel; as the pages of text unfold, we see references to, "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" -- the phrase Jack types over and over while engulfed in madness  -- and Room 217, the most haunted room in the hotel. Curiously, however, those references come from different sources. The "all work and no play" phrase is from Kubrick's film and doesn't appear in the book, but Room 217 is from the book and was changed to Room 237 for the film. (Although in one quick shot we see both numbers written in the margins.)

Those are just the credits, but there are references in the show, too. The biggest one being Jane Levy's character, who's named Jackie Torrance, an obvious play on Jack Torrance. What could this possibly mean? In The Shining's sequel, Doctor Sleep -- which is set in New England and mentions the town of Castle Rock in passing -- we learn that Jack had a secret love child. Is Jackie some new version of that kid? Whoever she is, she's one of the most fascinating characters in the show, who seems attuned to a different frequency than the rest of the characters.

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Melanie Lynskey as Molly Strand | Seacia Pavao/Hulu

The Lord of the Flies

Gotcha! This isn't a Stephen King reference, but William Golding's 1954 novel is important to Castle Rock for a different reason. King took the name of his fictional Maine town from Golding's book; it's the name of the mountain where "the beast" of the story is feared to live. In episode two, "Habeas Corpus," the inmate Skarsgård rooms with is seen reading The Lord of the Flies in bed. It's a subtle nod, but perhaps we'll see more of Golding's themes -- the capacity of humans to act inhuman, for example -- sneak their way into Castle Rock.

These are just some of the more surface-level references we spotted in the premiere to give you context in the King-verse. I also caught deep-cut nods to novels like Cujo, The Dead Zone, and The Dark Half, and the short stories "The Langoliers" and "The Sun Dog." There are sure to be even more references lurking in the margins of Castle Rock, waiting to reveal themselves. All in good time.

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Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.