How Castle Rock Unites the Stephen King Universe

Showrunner Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason explain how Hulu's Castle Rock connects different corners of the Stephen King universe.

It’s not often that we hear about a horror show as ambitious as Hulu’s Castle Rock, a series set in one of Stephen King’s most iconic fictional Maine towns. Castle Rock is the setting of four major King novels, not to mention quite a few short stories and novellas. And that’s not even counting the number of references to the town sprinkled throughout the rest of King’s work of over 50 novels and almost 200 short stories. 

You see, the King universe has always been a place of interconnections, whether it’s through recurring characters, monsters, themes, or the handful of small towns the writer has doomed for all of eternity with horrors unimaginable. Castle Rock is one of those haunted places and the centerpoint of Hulu’s new anthology series, which will tell a new story every season, all set in the infamous town.

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But the goal of the show isn’t just to tell an original story set in Castle Rock – a story which we know very little about besides the fact that it stars Andre Holland (Moonlight) as a lawyer named Henry Deaver and Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men) as a real estate agent in the most haunted town in America – but to connect all the different corners of the Stephen King universe, from Castle Rock and Derry, Maine to the Overlook Hotel in Sidewinder, Colorado. The show incorporates elements from many of King’s most famous stories while making allusions to others.

According to showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, whom I spoke to at New York Comic Con back in October, the point is to make Castle Rock feel like part of a living, breathing horror universe.

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“What we loved about Stephen King is that there are these surprising interconnections and easter eggs and setups and payoffs and crossover characters,” Shaw says. “We felt like it would be really exciting to set a show in [Castle Rock] and to use it as an opportunity to explore and interpret the Stephen King library for TV in a slightly different way. Which is to say, not take one book and retell The Shining for television, but to try to adapt Stephen King almost as a genre onto himself. He is so insanely prolific that you can do that. But also there are themes and ideas that sort of recur, you know? He’s a writer who really returns to the scene of the crimes.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3U7Z94NHgg

King has spent more than 40 years turning his home state of Maine into a terrifying no man’s land. Among his most famous fictional locations are Castle Rock, best known as the setting of Cujo and The Dark Half; Derry, where his epic tome of a horror novel It takes place; and Jerusalem’s Lot, which has been infested with bloodthirsty vampires since 1975. So why did the showrunners choose Castle Rock specifically? One reason might be that, while the stories set in Derry and Jerusalem’s Lot lean more heavily on the supernatural, those that take place in Castle Rock seem to focus more on the townspeople themselves.

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Cujo is about a mother trying to protect her son from a rabid dog, while The Dark Half is about a writer suffering from a horrific case of multiple personality disorder. Even slightly more supernatural yarns, such as Needful Things, have to do with the character’s desires as opposed to a creepy monster – although the Devil does make an appearance.

To Shaw, telling a story in Castle Rock, which he describes as “the worst luck town in the world,” seemed like the perfect way to dive deeper into the King canon.

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“I mean, it’s been visited by two serial killers, a homicidal rabid dog, a demonic truck, the devil hung out there for a while, and there are a handful of haunted houses,” Shaw explains. You start to think, ‘Who the fuck has stayed in this town? Why does the town still exist?’ And that was a really provocative question for us too, and it seemed interesting.”

The way that Shaw and Thomason describe Castle Rock, everything about the show, down to the way they present the story on the screen, should scream Stephen King. They hope that the show will even make nods at the great King adaptations that have come before.

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“[Castle Rock] sort of becomes an avenue to explore this town of horror and interpret the Stephen King aesthetic on TV in a way we hope harkens back to [Brian] De Palma and [David] Cronenberg and [Stanley] Kubrick and that heyday of great filmmakers doing psychological horror fare that’s based on King’s books.”

I asked Shaw and Thomason about the process of collecting all of the easter eggs and references for the show, and whether they had a story bible. They told me that it really just came down to the years they spent consuming novel after novel as fans, as well as doing “homework” by re-reading the books while developing the show.  

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“As fans and readers of it, we’ve been kind of mentally amassing it for quite a while,” Thomason says. “But we’ve actually looked at some amazing maps that literally detail every interconnection between the books.”

If you’ve never seen what these fan-made maps to the connections in the King universe look like, behold:

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As you can see, Shaw and Thomason had a lot to work with when crafting the first season, and have enough material to last them several years should the show prove to be a success. The showrunners promise Castle Rock is chock-full of these interconnections. 

The show even reintroduces a character from the books: Alan Pangborn, the town’s former sheriff who presided over the events of Needful Things and The Dark Half. Pangborn will be played by Scott Glenn (Daredevil). Shaw and Thomason decided to include Pangborn in their story in order to give the town a lived in quality and to connect the show directly to the books. Pangborn making an appearance on this show means that there’s history in this town, and Shaw and Thomason hint that there are other characters who are traumatized by all of the messed up things that have gone on in the town’s past.

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Pangborn isn’t the only way the showrunners are nodding at past King stories, though. Some of the cast members themselves serve as callbacks to previous King movies, such as Sissy Spacek, who played Carrie White all the back in the 1976 De Palma movie, and Bill Skarsgard, who terrified audiences earlier this year as Pennywise the Clown in It. Lynskey herself had a role in the TV miniseries Rose Red

The biggest and most direct callback to King’s work? Shawshank State Penitentiary. 

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“Shawshank Prison plays a huge, significant role in this first season, and that was a cool thing for us, too!” Shaw reveals. Skarsgard’s character, whose name hasn’t been unveiled yet, seems to be an inmate at the famous prison, although that’s not been confirmed, either.

Thomason shares that one of the most interesting aspects of developing the show was imagining what Shawshank would look like set in the modern day. 

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“The original conceit of the show was that we were going to set this first season in contemporary America so that we could really embrace this question of what is Castle Rock after all these horrors have been visited on it and what does a place like Shawshank look like in 2017?”

The prison first appeared in the King novella, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” which was adapted into the 1994 Academy Award-nominated film by director Frank Darabont. The Shawshank Redemption remains one of the greatest King adaptations of all time, second perhaps only to Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s safe to say that Shaw and Thomason have some pretty big shoes to fill with their modern version of the prison. 

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There’s no doubt that eagle-eyed Constant Readers (as hardcore King fans are often called) will be picking apart every little detail of the prison, making sure its consistent with the story they know and love. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that the show won’t be polarizing among the myriad of King fans around the world. As one of the most popular writers on the planet, King’s books are precious things – and not to be trifled with. Just look at the lashing The Dark Tower received from angry fans last August.

That said, Shaw and Thomason assure that Castle Rock isn’t only for the hardcore King fan, though. The showrunners hope that the story they’re telling will also bring in more casual fans who haven’t spent too much time in the King universe before. 

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“Part of the hope was to tell a story that is seeded with easter eggs and crossovers and surprises that I think will reward the most encyclopedic, PhD-level King super wonk,” Shaw says. “But also, there are some surprise guest appearances and turns in the storytelling that I think anybody who’s just seen a couple of the classic movies will also feel excited about, too.”

The showrunners were very tight-lipped about who those guests may be, but perhaps one of them could be King himself? After all, he has a knack for appearing in adaptations of his own work. If you’ve not seen King in George A. Romero’s Creepshow, I seriously suggest you stop what you’re doing and find “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill” ASAP. It would also make sense for King to appear in Castle Rock considering that he made himself a character in his own universe in The Dark Tower novels. There’s a metafictional aspect of the canon Shaw and Thomason might be interested in exploring down the line…

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Ultimately, it’s this kind of attention to detail and willingness to celebrate what’s come before that makes Castle Rock such an intriguing project. There has never been a King adaptation quite like this one, which is attempting to unite all of the different aspects that make the horror master’s work so great. Even The Dark Tower, a movie that actually connects all corners of the King universe under one tale, couldn’t quite succeed at being a fun experience on top of all the references and easter eggs. Perhaps Castle Rock can succeed where its predecessor failed. I just pray that this isn’t another one of Leland Gaunt’s tricks.

Castle Rock will arrive on Hulu in 2018.

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John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek US. Find more of his work on his website. Or just follow him on Twitter.