Between his 1974 debut Carrie and this year's The Outsider, Stephen King has published more than 50 novels, as well as something like 200 short stories. Even if you've never read a word of any of them, you've almost definitely seen one of the many movies they've inspired.
With Castle Rock, a new arrival to Lightbox this week, pretty much that whole vast King bibliography has been thrown back in the pot to create an original story densely packed with references and allusions to his previous characters and settings.
For the devout Stephen King fan, this obviously makes for an absolute trainspotterish delight. But creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have taken care to ensure the throwbacks are always a bonus, never a prerequisite to enjoying the series. So, even if you never realised it was King who wrote the short story on which The Shawshank Redemption was based, for example, this is still a rewarding watch.
The first episode wastes little time in stacking up a series of mysteries for us to start unravelling. A flashback to 1991 shows a missing boy found, standing eerily the middle of a frozen-over lake, by a local cop; in the present day, the local prison warden commits a particularly gruesome form of suicide at the same spot. Straight away, it's like this is being written by the world's most advanced Stephen King algorithm.
Shawshank State Penitentiary provides the setting for much of the episode, as well as its most solid link back to the Stephen King Universe. The arrival of the new warden, Theresa Porter (Ann Cusack), leads to the discovery of a whole prison wing that has been abandoned for years, and underneath it an extremely creepy basement housing a mysterious unidentified prisoner (Bill Skarsgard – aka the killer clown from last year's movie adaptation of IT).
What does it all mean? The return to Castle Rock of death-row lawyer Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) – the boy on the lake in the flashback to 1991 – provides more questions than answers. Mainly, what happened back in 1991 to make the whole town think he was responsible for his father's death? But also, why did the demonic-looking guy in the prison basement ask for him by name? And what is Melanie Lynskey up to with her long, haunted stare at Deaver as he gets off the bus?
Lynskey's character, a psychic real estate agent (yes!) called Molly Strand, gets more play in the second episode as the whole thing slowly but purposefully gains momentum. Like all the best Stephen King stories it's consistently spooky, but the proper scares – and there are a few – are measured out sparingly. Of course, that's what makes them all the more effective.
Do yourself a favour and watch Castle Rock the way these things have always been meant to be watched: with the lights off, in total pants-crapping darkness.
• Castle Rock is streaming now on Lightbox.