Every town has its secrets, but they’re never more terrifying than in the world of Stephen King.
It was around 8th grade when I realized the power of Stephen King’s world building. While I grew up on a steady diet of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps (even going so far as to appear in the Goosebumps Fan Club newsletter), the Great American Horror Author still eluded me.
That is until one Fall I bought Pet Sematary. Halfway through the three hundred plus pages of evil cats, Ramones references, and awkward sex scenes, a teacher stopped me.
“Oh shit.” I thought to myself as the football coach turned Texas History teacher stared my book down. After getting in hot water for bringing Fight Club to school, I steeled myself for an uphill battle.
“Oh man, that book is great. I’ve read everything by Stephen King!” the coach said with genuine excitement. I let out a sigh of relief. Maybe there is something to this Stephen King guy. An author who was able to bridge a gap between worlds for me, Stephen King reverberated across cultural divides.
What sets Kings work apart is how he puts his Constant Readers nose to nose with the alien-familiar. A town that reminds us of home, but with air too still, atmosphere too heavy. From Derry to Jerusalem’s Lot, King has created fictional locales that are as seminal as his monsters, but no location is more iconic than Castle Rock.
From the minds of David Cronenberg to George A. Romero, the history of The Rock has been captured on film for over thirty years. Be it murderous alter egos or small town stranglers, dim the lights and get comfy for the unnerving calm of Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
The Dead Zone (1983)
We gravitate towards King’s work because often it uncovers the hidden shadows of our reality. The dark recesses where only monsters lie so we can cope with the terrors of the world. And in 2018, no monster is more deadly than the political one.
With The Dead Zone, King taps into our global anxiety about nuclear warfare and political power corrupting absolutely through the story of Johnny Smith. Johnny is an average man until a traffic accident leaves him in a coma for five years. On waking he’s discovered his life has passed him by. His fiancee may have a new family, but he has awoken with a new skill: the ability to see into the lives of anyone he touches.
In his American debut, David Cronenberg shows just how skillful he is at balancing the typical with the atypical. As heightened as Johnny’s abilities are, they only have power because of Christopher Walken’s grounded performance. The charm of Greg Stillson is only chilling in how megalomaniacal Martin Sheen is allowed to go. It’s on this tightrope that King’s words work best, luring us in with small-town mysteries and leaving us gobsmacked with apocalyptic fear.
Further Castle Rock Connections: The Castle Rock Strangler, Frank Dodd, who Johnny helps catch in The Dead Zone would appear in Cujo as the specter that haunts Tad’s bedroom closet.
While The Dead Zone was the first Castle Rock novel, it wouldn’t be the first appearance of Castle Rock on film. That honor would go to Lewis Teague’s Cujo, released mere months before Cronenberg’s film.
Few names are more synonymous with fear than Cujo. Yet there’s a moment midway through Teague’s adaptation of the famous rabid-dog-gone-mad tale, where the camera pushes in on the titular St. Bernards’ eyes. Behind the matted fur, yellow mucus, and bloodstained maw were two watery windows into a heart filled with a yearning pain. Teague and cinematographer Jan de Bont were able to use the honest eyes of the dog actor to create earnest sympathy for our rabid villain. Cujo is terrifying, but Cujo the dog is also a victim of a cruel fate.
Teague’s film is a sweltering masterpiece in tension that is anchored by Dee Wallace’s fearless performance as Donna, who with her son become trapped in their car while Cujo stalks outside. While Dee Wallace was never given a chance to star in a bombastic action film, I feel the sum of the maternal parts she’s played throughout her career add up to a wholly different kind of action hero. With the same steely reserve that we recognize in characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, she took her matriarchal roles and injected them with similar ferocity and vigor. Wallace deserves more recognition for the unique badass action actor that she was.
Further Castle Rock Connections: Chopper, the junkyard protector and biter of balls in Stand By Me, is compared to Cujo in King’s novella ‘The Body’
Stand By Me (1983)
Adapted from a story in his collection Different Seasons, Stand By Me is an outlier in Kings greatest hits in that it isn’t a horror story. While the conceit remains within the macabre, a group of friends bands together to find the dead body of a boy and become local heroes, it’s rooted firmly in King’s own childhood in rural Maine, despite director Rob Reiner moving Castle Rock to Oregon for the film.
Stand By Me asks the question, what happens to masculine empathy when boys become men? The depth of the boys’ friendship is put in direct counterpoint to the older gang of greasers, led by Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland), who are defined solely by their aggression. The duality is also represented in Gordie’s (Wil Wheaton) father, who only cares about his elder brother Denny (John Cusack) who died. This dissatisfaction is paralleled in flashbacks by Denny’s emphatic empathy towards Gordie, steering a conversation with his father away from his perceived football career and towards Gordie’s budding authorship.
In a time of rapid progress with a vocal part of the country holding true to antiquated American ideals, Stand By Me is a cry in the night of the pain that social hierarchies place on children. While Gordie is our eyes, Chris (River Phoenix) is our heart battling against these societal pulls. “Why can’t things just stay the same? Why do they have to change when you grow up?” the boys bemoan.
Seeing Chris argue with Gordie about what will happen to their friendship, you want to scream that it will get better. While small-town identity will still favor the caste system of public schools, passed from generation to generation, the stereotypes have less of a hold than ever before. You can’t help but say to these familiar selves “We don’t have to change as much as you think.”
Further Castle Rock Connections: The character Ace Merrill, played by Kiefer Sutherland, would appear again in Needful Things, hired as Leland Gaunt’s assistant.
The Dark Half (1993)
Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is on the cusp of releasing his next novel when a conman (the delightfully scuzzy Robert Joy) discovers his secret: Beaumont’s really George Stark, a pen name for a series of violent crime novels. With no choice but to reveal himself, and bury Stark once and for all, his pseudonym takes on a life of its own and begins a rampage leaving all signs pointing to Beaumont as the culprit.
To piece together a narrative of all of the Castle Rock stories we need to focus on the moral compasses of the Rock: its law enforcement. And after Sheriff George Bannerman was last seen being mauled in Cujo, the most iconic sheriff of Kings disquiet ‘berg is Alan Pangborn. Michael Rooker imbues Pangborn with a quiet, salt of the earth integrity to upholding the law that feels almost archetypal in King’s hands. When faced with mounting evidence of Thad’s connection to Stark’s crimes, he still chooses empathy first, an earnest need to keep a man from becoming monster.
If Rooker’s Pangborn is the films control, then Hutton’s Beaumont is the explosive variable, putting in a deeply engaged performance shaking off his own resume of nice guys to relish in the duality of Beaumont/Stark. Being an analog for King and his own pseudonym Richard Bachman, Huttons Stark is a quintessential King nightmare with his gleeful greaser swagger and barbers blade.
Further Castle Rock Connections: Like Bachman’s books, The Dark Half is mean and the copious kills reflect that. But Beaumont’s story didn’t end there. In Needful Things, Pangborn speaks on how Beaumont used to call him drunkenly after his subsequent divorce. The final chapter comes in Bag Of Bones (developed into a mini-series by Mick Garris) as author Mike Noonan reveals that Beaumont had committed suicide. Sometimes King doesn’t let his characters pick up the pieces like he was able to do with his own public battles with addiction.
Needful Things (1993)
Needful Things feels like King at his most, as author Grady Hendrix would coin nearly 25 years later, “Paperbacks from Hell”. Moody and brooding, while also having streaks of cornball on the nose allusions to the devilish owner of the new shop in Castle Rock, they really just don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Max Von Sydow plays Leland Gaunt, the purveyor of Needful Things, an antique store that mysteriously appears in the quiet town of Castle Rock. Gaunt has an unnatural influence over the visitors to his shop, intertwining their lives, pitting them against each other in a dangerous game where, most likely, they lose their souls. The only thing standing in his way is Sheriff Alan Pangborn, played here by Ed Harris, who is trying to piece his own life back together after losing his wife and son in a car accident.
Again, like in The Dark Half, Pangborn is the town’s conscience. Rather than being a step behind the supernatural events though, he finds himself lost in the midst of them, attempting to rationalize the irrational. And that is the heart of King’s decades-long body of work, especially around his fictitious homesteads. How do we engage with that which is beyond reason, especially in our own homes? And how do we conquer evil, without becoming that which we are fighting against?
With the backdrop of a burning Castle Rock late in the film, as Sydow’s Gaunt goads Harris’ Pangborn to shoot a priest, the correlation to current events couldn’t be more evident. An outsider who comes in and feeds off repressed hate, making people indulge in microaggressions they may not have felt allowed to do before. But with a word from Gaunt they’re given a deadly permission. King once again feels prescient with his prose and now, unlike ever before, we should take heed.
Further Castle Rock Connections: Deputy Norris Ridgewick, who would become the third sheriff in Castle Rock after Alan Pangborn, would later arrest Raymond Joubert, “The Space Cowboy”, in Gerald’s Game.