When I was a little boy, there was a monster on the loose in the community where I grew up. When I watch Castle Rock now, sometimes I think about him, and believe it or not, that's a compliment to the show.
My town's monster was named Kenneth Allen McDuff. He's famous in Texas both for the number of people he killed (at least nine, possibly 14 or more) and for the effect his 1989 release from prison after his first death sentence was commuted to life (a decision local authorities who knew him thought of as crazy at the time) had on parole laws. He terrorized a large portion of central Texas — including Rosebud, his hometown and mine — for nearly three years before he was arrested again in 1992. He was executed in 1998.
For those three years, Kenneth McDuff was a real-life Boogeyman in Rosebud and the surrounding areas. People there had grown up with him. They remembered his bullying and his brutality, and when he came back around doors were locked and locked again, guns were loaded, and people couldn't stop whispering about what he might do. I know at least one person who stared him down in the street when he came back around town after his parole, but most people steered clear.
When he became a wanted fugitive again, the whispers grew into shouts. Don't ride your bike too far from the house, the grown-ups told you. Don't talk to any strange men in cars. Kenneth McDuff might get you. In 1999, a book about McDuff titled Bad Boy from Rosebud was published, and the cover featured McDuff's infamous mugshot next to our gleaming little water tower. My father hated coming across it in bookstores.
This November, McDuff will have been dead 20 years, but as long as there are people in Rosebud who remember his name, he will hover over that town and others in central Texas like a malignant, if fading, cloud. It says a lot about Castle Rock's effectiveness as a small-town horror story that, when I watch it, I sometimes think about Kenneth McDuff.
The Stephen King-inspired series' most recent episode, "Past Perfect," is a particularly good example of this, because it brings various characters' obsessions with the dark past of the town to the fore in ways even previous episodes did not. A professor and his wife, who we met much earlier in the series, buy the former home of Warden Lacy (Terry O'Quinn) and opt to turn it not just into a bed and breakfast, but a historic home prized for its connection to various murders, complete with an axe-murdered mannequin in the front room and creepy paintings on the walls. Jackie Torrance (Jane Levy), the town's apparent lone murder expert (or "Murderino" as the fans of the My Favorite Murder podcast would say), is jealous of their arrival and financial freedom, telling them that she had the same idea five years earlier.
Other residents of Castle Rock aren't nearly as wild about the town's dark history, but they're forced to grapple with it anyway. Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey) — who lives in the former home of a serial killer who committed suicide within its walls — tells the couple who buys the Lacy house "There is a lot of history in this town, not all of it good," unaware that they consider it to be a feature, not a bug. Molly's own relationship to the horrors of her home is literalized in her supernatural psychic ability. Whether dulled by painkillers or not, she walks around every day hearing the town's pain, listening to an open wound. It's no accident that she considers it her mission in life to revitalize Castle Rock, to close that wound so that she might one day have a little peace.
Then there's Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), who though he may not have earned it has become Castle Rock's own version of the Boogeyman, or at least its most recent incarnation. Cornered by a sheriff's deputy who's investigating the accidental murder of Alan Pangborn, Henry's both reminded that kids used to call him "The Black Death" because he was linked to the death of his father, and dubbed a "lightning rod" because of all the horrifying things that have happened in the town and the surrounding areas since he's been back. Henry does, of course, have a connection to all of these things, even if they're not his fault, and in the course of that one conversation, the show paints a picture of a thousand whispering mouths who've decided to chain all of their pain to one man's re-emergence.
Then there are all the other reminders of Castle Rock's bloody history: The newspaper clippings Warden Lacy kept in his desk, Jackie's extended monologues about various murders, the burned-out husks of buildings still standing as monuments to past carnage, and the reminder in "Past Perfect" that we're watching a show about "the murder capital of 1991," which is both a reference to the year The Kid (Bill Skarsgard) apparently arrived and quite probably to the events of Needful Things, King's novel (published in '91) in which the town nearly implodes entirely.
All of this serves to engineer the reality of a small town stained with sins, horrors, and rumors that feel true because they never really go away. It's a common King theme, running through stories ranging from Needful Things to IT to Salem's Lot, and it's a common theme in horror fiction in general because it remains such a potent storytelling tool. All of these horrific things happen in big cities, yes, but many of them are things you can eventually shrug off if you live there, labeling them the consequence of cramming that many people in such a concentrated space. Of course there are bound to be bad apples, accidents, and perhaps even a higher incidence of pure evil.
In small towns these things are amplified. The stain seems darker, deeper, harder to scrub out or cover up with a fresh coat of paint or new upholstery. As in big cities, most of the time you do your best not to think about them, and they blend into the landscape, but then something jogs your memory. You read something in the paper or on Facebook. An old familiar face arrives in town. Your mother gets a phone call that's part of a chain of gossipy phone calls, and then that bad taste creeps up again. It's probably nothing, and it probably fades very quickly, but you always wonder if some new darkness is about to fall over your home, if only for a moment, and you wonder what it will leave in its wake.
That's a very particular, very real type of benign dread that only comes from life in a small town, from the feeling that knowing everybody around you sometimes also means you can see every evil whether you'd like to or not. Through its writing, its amazingly detailed production design, and its captivating performances, Castle Rock has recreated that dread week by week, and it's enormously effective.