It’s a running gag that Stephen King may let his sons, both established writers in their own right, ‘chip in’ now and then to help dear old dad keep up his legendary publishing pace. It’s probably not true (but fun to imagine). Unlike brother Joe Hill, Owen prefers to use his given name, which is great for marquee marketing as father and son collaborate in Sleeping Beauties, a dark fantasy that imagines a world in which humanity loses half its gender under diabolical circumstances.
In short, prime territory for the elder King, and a no-brainer for an easy father-son team up that’s sure to get plenty of attention. When you come from the world’s most famous writing family, the pressure must be something fierce.
Our first clue that Sleeping Beauties is playing the long game are the pages and pages of character dossiers, a signal to pay attention. There are dozens listed, with “a common fox” among them. Don’t laugh too soon – the book is one of those very Kingsian epics where even nature gets in on the action as events zig-zag between multiple character viewpoints and scenarios that tie everything – and everyone – together in a literal twisted web of sticky unpleasantness.
Our story takes place in Dooling, West Virginia, the heart of the Appalachia. Naturally, our first intro to its citizens comes via a lament between inmates at the Dooling Correctional Center for Women, a place housing poor souls that’s more Shawshank than Orange in the New Black. We’re quickly introduced to Dr. Clint Norcross, the prison’s lead psychiatric officer and husband to Sheriff Lila Norcross, the town’s first female such elected law enforcement official. Middle Aged and feeling every bit of it, Clint embodies the constant struggle for middle-class normality, making him the perfect everyman for a world that will soon only include
Events heat up quick as we switch over to a lovely group of tricked-out meth cooks and stoners, some not long for the world. A knock on their methlab trailer door from a mysterious “Avon Lady” leads to some extremely bloody ‘interactions’, and also introduces us to Evie Black, the strikingly beautiful lady whose actions and ramblings soon turn disturbingly prescient.
After dispatching the methheads, Evie is taken into custody by Sheriff Norcross, who quickly realizes there’s more to this mysterious beauty than just a pretty face; especially how she knows things she couldn’t possibly know, and how she seems endowed with supernatural powers that give her a way with particular vermin. She also seems to be the only remaining female capable of waking up from what’s being called the Aurora Flu, a sleeping sickness named after Disney’s Sleeping Beauty heroine (shades of Captain Trips), which appears to only affect those with XX chromosomes.
Only this isn’t a fairy tale; symptoms start immediately after falling asleep, with long, wispy strands of a mucous-like webbing sprouting from ears, nose, and mouths, forming a chrysalis-like membrane around the victim’s face. Even more bizarre, women seem perfectly healthy underneath, asleep and dreaming. What’s worse, however, is that any attempt to remove the webbing causes the victims to “awake” in a rage, endowed with unnatural strength and bloodlust to kill, before settling back into their hibernation.
Panic sets in quick as women across the globe in a frenzied fight against nature, forcing themselves to stay awake by any means necessary. When energy drinks and gallons of coffee aren’t enough, those women still awake turn to harder stuff as cocaine, speed, meth, and any chemically stimulating substance become more precious than gold. All the while, Evie Black remains at the mysterious center; her immunity to the Aurora epidemic hasn’t gone unnoticed, and it’s not long before schemes are hatched for furious men to force their way inside the prison in hopes of finding a cure – by any means necessary.
The book’s most intriguing insinuation is also its most subversive: what would a world look like without the fairer sex? How might such a horrifying scenario leave those males keen to revive their beloved mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters? That women don’t only provide the necessary genetics to populate humanity, but act as a type of ‘coolant’ for masculinity itself, the relieve man’s pressure valve before it blows its stack. Ultimately, there’s no escaping humanity’s fate when one-half of its population becomes inactive: slow-burning extinction.
Coming in well over 700 pages, nearing The Stand territory, the story nearly buckles under the strain of its own unrealized ambition. Here is a story that has 1.) all the trademarks of your standard King thriller and 2.) every intention of delivering a topical message about gender politics, albeit one delivered soaked in bloody goodness. We also have diversions into parallel dimensions and allusions to the politics of sex, both discriminatory and stereotypical depictions of toxic masculinity. We’ve got the expected winks and nods against the Trump administration (and GOP, including an out-of-context quote from Senate leader Mitch McConnell) that practically guarantees stellar reviews in all the ‘right’ places; if one wanted to hear King’s pokes against the government they need only read his Twitter feed. It’d be cheaper.
As with Under the Dome, King attempts to turn a supernaturally horrifying scenario into a localized epic, with nearly all the action contained in the small town of Dooling. Unfortunately, Sleeping Beauties never quite delivers on its premise of a biological apocalypse, at least not one that’s psychologically satisfying. Given its length, it might have been interesting had the two Kings explored the effects of a female-free world on a more global scale, as Max Brooks did (with zombies) in World War Z (the book, not turgid film). We get hints and snippets of these possibilities, but nothing more substantive than the odd quip, usually from inebriated drunkards.
It’s almost as if the Kings saw all the attention Margaret Atwood’s revived The Handmaiden’s Tale was getting and thought, “Hey, let’s do that!” Only with possessed rats and high-level gore for fans expecting a little splatter with their supernatural misogyny.
And there’s no getting around the fact Sleeping Beauties is very much the product of two distinct writing styles, which often clash in delivery. King, the patriarch, is one of the best collaborators in the business; hell, he’s even collaborated with himself back in the days when his alter-ego Richard Bachman was still active. To be honest, I’ve yet to read Owen’s work (but plan to), so it’s difficult to pick out those moments when dad hands the reigns to his son. It’s almost impossible to miss the elder King’s distinctive and confidently unique voice whenever it does emerge, usually in blitzkriegs of dialogue or stream-of-consciousness. I’d offer a few examples, but even these are sprinkled in lightly throughout, like a veteran chef supervising his protégée. You’ll know when you read them.
Sleeping Beauties isn’t top-shelf Stephen King, and I sincerely hope it’s not top-shelf Owen King, either. It does, however, deliver that distinctly old-school flavor of King (Stephen) that should appeal to those who prefer their meditations on their dynamics of sexual aggression more frightening than contemplative. At worst, it’s a meandering trod through familiar territory we’ve seen before, and better, from at least one of its family members. No matter, as word has it that a television version is already incoming. Given how good recent King adaptations like IT, Mr. Mercedes, and Gerald’s Game have been, perhaps its tonal inconsistencies can be ironed out in cinematic form. The Golden Age of Television has suited Stephen King quite well; the year of King – or Kings – continues.