For years, the name Castle Rock was synonymous with Stephen King. With J.J. Abrams’ recent announcement, it looks like it will be again.
Horror fans already remember Castle Rock as the author’s most famous fictional town. King made his first visit to the town around 1972, in a short story called “It Grows on You.” He returned a year later in the novella “The Body,” one of his most autobiographical works and the basis for the 1986 film STAND BY ME. “The Body” was written just after King completed his novel ‘SALEM’S LOT, and it counterbalances that novel’s dark vision of small-town Maine with a lighter tone. ‘SALEM’S LOT echoes some of King’s most terrifying childhood memories, including a dream of finding a dead body hanging in a nearby haunted house. “The Body” tells the story of four friends on an odyssey to see an actual dead body—that of a young boy named Ray Brower, who was hit and killed by a train.
Over the years, King has repeatedly fielded questions about whether or not the events in “The Body” are true. The author has answered the question as honestly as he can: They are and they aren’t. The characters, he says, are based on real people—but they are composites of the traits and behaviors of those real people. King and his childhood best friend really did go to see a dead body—but they didn’t have to go far: a man killed in a “boating accident” was fished out of Runaround Pond, less than a mile from King’s home in Durham. As for Ray Brower… well, even the author seems uncertain about how “real” that part of the story is. In several interviews, King says that his mother told him that he may have actually witnessed a young boy getting hit and killed by a train. If so, it happened when he was too young (about four years old) to form a conscious memory of it.
In the same way that King mixed fact and fiction in the plot of “The Body,” so he created the setting as a composite of memory and imagination. The town of Castle Rock is probably named for both a real place (Castle Rock Lake in Wisconsin, where the King family lived briefly when he was a boy) and a fictional place (the landscape feature in William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, one of King’s favorite novels). “The Body” situates the town in the author’s alternate-universe version of Maine: just south of the city of Lewiston, adjacent to the much smaller towns of Durham and Pownal, and forty miles west of the fictional town of Chamberlain (where CARRIE takes place). But don’t bother to go looking for it there…. because this town doesn’t stay in one place.
King returned to Castle Rock in the late 70s, using it as the main setting for his novels THE DEAD ZONE and CUJO. These stories built up the mythology of the place by introducing major characters like Sheriff George Bannerman (Johnny Smith’s friend in THE DEAD ZONE, later one of Cujo’s meals) and Frank Dodd (the notorious Castle Rock Stranger in THE DEAD ZONE, and the “outside evil” that possesses Cujo). The characters and events in these novels were so significant that they eventually found their way into King’s subsequent work as rumors and references—suggesting that all of King’s stories take place in a single parallel universe.
And as I said, that parallel universe is subject to change over time. In THE DEAD ZONE, Castle Rock is situated “considerably west” of Pownal, about thirty miles from Norway and twenty miles from Bridgton. In CUJO, King specifies that the town is 22 miles from South Paris. If you’re not following all this on a map, what it means is that Castle Rock had started migrating northwest into the lakes region of Maine.
Around 1983, King wrote a short story hinting at the fluid nature of his alternate Maine. “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” revolves around a kindly old lady who is simply “mad” for shortcuts. She’s constantly exploring new routes from Bangor to Castle Rock, shaving a few miles at a time off of her jaunt. One day a friend goes with her, and realizes that Mrs. Todd is driving on back roads that aren’t on any known maps. Mrs. Todd explains her secret route by telling him to “fold the map.” The implication is that she’s not finding new roads at all; she’s finding wormholes in time—driving through some kind of parallel dimension (or dimensions) on the way to Castle Rock. One day, while exploring a new route, Mrs. Todd mysteriously disappears from the known world.
The town of Castle Rock has done the same thing, gradually receding deeper and deeper into the wilderness of King’s imagination. “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” gives the location of the town as northwest of Mechanic Falls. Another short story called “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” written around the same time, locates the town adjacent to Waterford. A few years later, the NEEDFUL THINGS novel puts it eighteen miles northeast of South Paris, presumably near Woodstock and Milton. That’s where the town resided when King decided to permanently wipe it off the map.
After heavily featuring Castle Rock in THE DARK HALF novel and “The Sun Dog” novella, the author decided that it had become a creative liability for him. He explained, “It got to the point where I could draw maps of the place. On the one hand, it was a welcoming place to write about. But there is a downside to that. You become complacent; you begin to accept boundaries; the familiarity of the place discourages risks.” So he brought in the devil to destroy Castle Rock—just as he had destroyed the towns of Chamberlain in Carrie, and Derry in IT.
But unlike those other towns, Castle Rock has refused to stay dead. The 1992 novels DOLORES CLAIBORNE and GERALD’S GAME featured a map of Maine giving the approximate location of Castle Rock: just south of Mexico and Rumford. The 1998 novel BAG OF BONES made frequent reference to Castle Rock, and even mentioned a “weighty tome” entitled A History of Castle County and Castle Rock, written by one Marie Hingerman. (Wouldn’t you like to get your hands on a copy of that, Constant Readers?) In the 2009 novel UNDER THE DOME, the U.S. military set up a temporary base in Castle Rock, to keep an eye on the nearby town of Chester’s Mill. The town appeared again in the 2014 novel Revival, and just last week author Richard Chizmar announced on Facebook that he has co-written a “new Castle Rock story” with Stephen King.
Although the town still seems to be alive and well, outsiders wandering into the wilds of western Maine aren’t likely to stumble upon any hints of Castle Rock. Believe me, I’ve tried. The one-stop towns north of Norway and Paris were indistinguishable to me as an outsider. All I saw was trees and logging trucks and a long, lonely road leading north to Rangeley. I saw no hints of King’s Castle County (no Castle View, Castle Lake, Castle Hill, Castle Ridge); no towns named Gates Falls, or Harlow, or Shiloh, or Motton; no Route 97 northwest out of Mechanic Falls and no Black Henry Road through the wilderness. Mainers surely know the lay of this land, but those of us “from away” might as well be in Mrs. Todd’s parallel universe, where a person quickly becomes overwhelmed by the oppressive sense of solitude and timelessness.
Taking the road to Stephen King’s Castle Rock is a jaunt into the great unknown. Here’s to hoping that J.J. Abrams’ new series will carry us faithfully into that same uncanny region.