Crossing the Stream: Part 63 - "Castle Rock" Sn 1

Welp, this certainly has been a set of seven days. I come to you, dear reader, a broken man. Almost. I'm here, but maaaaaaaan.

So, I've gained back a few pounds, right back to the place where I was plateaued most of the summer. This particular ten pounds will go down as the ten pounds that would not leave. I've been fighting with this ten pounds for so long, it has come and gone twice now. I think, if I possess the fortitude, I'm thinking about fasting part of next week just to give my system a shock. Tell my physiology to get off its (considerably sized) ass and start eating all the stored food I still have for it. That and, maybe if I get really draconian with myself and offer up a carrot at the end of the stick in the form of a nice meal, maybe I'll get more serious about staying away from work-related treats that steadily keep arriving. Cakes, pies, candies, and Chick-fil-A have invaded Suite S of my building. They're at the door...they're coming in!

Anyway, I've gained back some weight and gone backwards, which sucks. Also, my car has some fresh gigantic scratches across one of the doors now, that's cool. Maybe I'll just start telling everyone it's a new racing stripe. I seriously wonder if that car will make it the three more years it will take to pay it off. How sad. I'm not going to get into the details of what happened, but I wasn't present for this one, which makes the sting of it last a little longer. Actually, as I type this right now, I haven't actually seen the damage in person. Only pictures texted to me. So, that will be fun later tonight. I just picture Sinbad in the kid movie Good Burger, after a gigantic burger signage topples over and lands on his beautiful, freshly repaired sports car. Sinbad, my patronus for today, looks up and just sobs "WHY?! What have I done...?" Only the colossal burger landed on my thighs and I was the one who pushed it down my throat. But my car is still all jacked up.

This is turning into a bitch sesh, and I'm sorry about that.

Oh, so exercise! In an effort to shed these persistent pounds, I've been trying new machines, as I said last week. Now EVERYTHING hurts. My back, my legs, my arms, my chest. It all has that ache of a long day of manual labor, and I only did it for a half hour each day. I'm falling asleep really early each night, one of those real couch coma situations. That used to happen back when I worked manual labor jobs, but hasn't happened since starting Crossing the Stream back in March. I wonder if it has anything to do with the switch-up on the weight lifting. At any rate, some amateur tips on exercising in October: spooky shows and movies really don't help your pacing. Those wonderful moments in a horror film where we quietly track in on a door just before the monster explodes through it, or the quiet urgency of someone hiding under a bed, only to be found immediately by the boogeyman...those moments kill your target goals. They slow you down, weigh on you. Make you breathe harder. Don't watch good horror while exercising.

Having said that, guess what I watched while exercising?

"Castle Rock," Season 1, Episodes 1-10

Buckle up, because there's a lot to say about Hulu's best reason to keep your subscription.

When I had first heard about "Castle Rock," I heard erroneously that it was an anthology series, each episode featuring a different King short story or a King-adjacent plot. That sounded like a much smarter move than an ongoing mystery story set in the fictional Maine that the novelist has painstakingly brought to life over a handful of decades. Now that I've actually seen it, though, I'm so glad this show wasn't an anthology. King is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the short story format for me; he just knows how to set forth with character development, pacing, and plot and come to a natural conclusion within 10,000 words. So, while the anthology series is a damn good idea for an adaptation of the man's work, "Castle Rock" should not be mistaken for an adaptation. It's an original series, set inside King's supernatural Maine multiverse. It's a constantly growing tree of Stephen King lore, centered on previously unseen characters but fitting into the canon, paying reverence to the epic world-building and intimate character study that marks all the best King material.

The approach required extreme fidelity from the writing staff of the show, in terms of not just the easter eggs littered throughout, but the tone of the show. King has this ability to submerge a reader neck-deep into blood-curdling horror, but people come back to his books for decades because of his writer's voice. His characters are smart, sardonic, funny. Sometimes funny in a cynical or bitter way, but still. His voice has realism, it has truth and mileage. "Castle Rock" was not a feat of devising scary shit, but more a feat of capturing that voice in eight new original characters and capturing their lives by using the tried and true King methods: blending past traumas and regrets into present-day threats and situations, connecting the universal experience of childhood memory with supernatural abilities and entities that go bump in the night, a heaping dose of correlation between religion and monstrous behavior, a meditation on the prison system and casual American poverty, an exploration of the otherworldly unease brought about by dementia and other eldercare issues, and above all else King's chief method of combining his funny, bemused writing voice with the dark Lovecraftian imagery of his horror inventions with the warping of nostalgia. One could argue the writers of "Castle Rock" have taken the very nostalgia viewers have for King's work and use it to throw us off-balance, the same way King succeeded in painting such a lovely picture of Baby Boomer childhood nostalgia in order to confront his readers with the slimy underbelly beneath the surface of their idyllic memories.

That's not to say the cavalcade of King easter eggs isn't also impressive. Half the fun of the show for an avid King reader is elbowing your fellow viewer and saying, "That's from Pet Sematary, yo!" The references range from the incredibly obvious bit of dialogue ("Remember that dog? The strangler? The fall after they found that boy's body on the train tracks?") to more subtle, environmental things (the bar from Needful Things being Henry's meeting place with Dennis, the area's largely French-surnamed population with a lot of familial connections to King characters). Sometimes it does get a little laborious, such as Molly's offhand reveal that her childhood home is formerly the house where Frank Dodd died in The Dead Zone. Sometimes it's really cute, such as the portrait of actor Bob Gunton (as Warden Norton) hanging on a wall in Shawshank Prison. Sometimes it feels kind of hacky, such as Jackie Torrance's ham-fisted explanation of her name. At times, it almost feels like this geek-out stuff was the real impetus for the show's creation, rather than a new story in this familiar territory needing to be told.

Even if that were the case, however, the geeky show does give a group of tremendous actors room to shine; I firmly believe this show would be a rousing success even without the embarrassment of riches in performances. Powerful veteran actors (some of whom are storied Kingverse alumni) like Sissy Spacek and Scott Glenn lend a legitimacy and weariness to the proceedings even before powerhouse scenes like Spacek's  showcase in Episode 7, "The Queen." Noel Fisher and Melanie Lynskey channel new spins on King character variations seen before but never performed with such self-awareness and tragic pathos. Bill Skarsgård, meanwhile, wipes off the Pennywise makeup from the recent adaptation of It and proves his sheer acting range as the Kid, transitioning between saucer-eyed innocent lamb and spacey bloodlusting enigma without so much as a micro-expression crossing his gaunt face. He is poised for super-stardom, this young fellow. If I could buy stock in Bill Skarsgård this year, I'd consider my children's college fund completely secure. But André Holland will never get the credit he deserves for anchoring the show as Henry Deaver. Holland has to play audience surrogate for a lot of the show's run time, but at the same time remain at an arm's length because of his character's mysterious incident as a boy. He's the only member of the cast tasked with reacting to the unbelievable and the terrifying with something like outrage, not the requisite Castle Rock veneer of "ayup, this town is weird like that." As successor to Rob Lowe, Tom Hanks, Thomas Jane, and Gary Sinise among others, Holland succeeds as the likable, reasonable, insightful regular person whose heroism is unlocked by his pronounced empathy and pain. It's a really hard type of character to play without blending into the background, especially when surrounded by much bigger performances, and Holland manages to stand out and be very engaging and expressive.

The story itself, much as a classic King book, is an epic story of good versus evil happening within Castle Rock, without anyone actually seeing it. Or seeing It, either. Conveniently, the 1991 disappearance of young Henry Deaver serves up an engaging mystery that proves to be the least bizarre plot element once events start circling the mysterious unknown Kid found in a cage in a sealed off wing of the prison. Henry is a prototypical King protagonist, with a childhood trauma that defines him and an outsider's perspective on the odd fatalism and malevolent undercurrent of the little town. And naturally, once the literal monsters, demons, and unstoppable forces of slithering dark magic start to take center stage, the story becomes less about how our intrepid heroes defeat evil so much as it becomes a personal story about inner demons, the unstoppable forces of sense memory, and the dark magic of how our adult lives are shaped by the things that haunt us from early years.

Another intoxicating element of the plot, which also nods toward the themes of warped nostalgia discussed earlier, is that this story takes place firmly in 2018, and King's previous stories in Castle Rock all have already been blown away into the realm of local legend. Alan Pangborn, previously an everyman protagonist of several of those stories, is a haggard old man tarnished with a terrible purpose. The same actress who once inspired shock and awe as young Carrie White is now inspiring a different kind of shock and awe as a senile grandmother. The days of Moon Pies and Chuck Taylors are over, and this is a story about the next generation of Kingverse characters, who much like us in the audience grew up only knowing the horrors of small-town Maine through what they read. How fitting that such a theme permeates the plot of "Castle Rock," which itself is a story about generational transfer of burdens, and the cyclical nature of community. In Castle Rock, there will always be unexplained phenomena, there will always be dark secrets, and there will always be someone there to confront the monsters, both internal and external. I don't want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say if you are a fan of any Stephen King story from about 1980-2000, you'll find the structure and flourished delivery of "Castle Rock" very familiar, and very welcome.

Notes & Quotes:

-"24 Hours From Tulsa" is the song that follows Alan Pangborn and Henry Deaver through their twisted odyssey. It's a great old-timey song, lending to the lived-in feeling of Castle Rock and Alan himself. But it's also vaguely sinister when you realize the lyrics detail a man being so close to home and salvation before tossing it all away. The song ends with the line "I can never, never, never go home again." Huh.

-"You think I'd be working at a prison if there was a fucking Wal-Mart within sixty miles of here?"

-"It's a gazebo. Every revitalized downtown needs a gazebo."
"What's it for?"
"I don't know. Peaceful contemplation?" Nope. Not in Castle Rock.

-"Clap Hands" by Tom Waits is suitably menacing and pairs nicely with The Kid's intimidating quote of Revelations 19:13 to the corporate prison stooge.

-"I'm just out here trying to keep this fuckin' fence from fallin' down." What an apt description Alan Pangborn has for his own self-image.

Rating: A
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