Friday, November 16, 2018
Books

Review: Stephen King and son Owen create a terrifying world without women in 'Sleeping Beauties'

The evening after Hurricane Irma howled through town, I sat on my front porch in my deeply dark, eerily quiet neighborhood in St. Petersburg, reading by flashlight.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flutter. A tiny brown moth landed on the page I was reading, and another, until there were five.

For just a moment, despite the steamy Florida night, my blood froze.

If you want to know why, read Sleeping Beauties, the new collaboration between Stephen King and his son Owen King.

At 70, the elder King is the reigning heavyweight champion of horror fiction, with more than 50 bestselling novels, plus story collections and nonfiction, and more than 300 million copies of his books sold. (Not to mention scads of adaptations for screens small and large — just this August The Dark Tower, Mr. Mercedes and The Mist; this month It and Gerald's Game.)

Owen King, 40, is the youngest of his three children and the author of the story collection We're All in This Together, the graphic novel Intro to Alien Invasion and an engaging comic novel, Double Feature, about a young filmmaker struggling with his actor father's outsized reputation.

It seems King family members are practically required to be novelists — Stephen's wife, Tabitha King, has published nine novels, and their other son, who writes under the name Joe Hill, has four novels (most recently The Fireman) and several story collections. Owen's wife, Kelly Braffet, has written three novels, the latest Save Yourself. Only daughter Naomi King, who became a Unitarian Universalist minister, has yet to publish a book.

• • •

Sleeping Beauties is the first published collaboration between father and son. Whatever the co-writing process might have been, it produced a seamless, scary and satisfying story.

At the BookExpo America convention in New York in May, the Kings talked to a standing-room-only audience about writing Sleeping Beauties. Owen said he came up with the core idea: What would happen in a world where all the women fell into an unshakable slumber?

The novel opens with one very unusual woman. Evie, as she will call herself, sits under a huge, surrealistic tree and delights in the tiny brown moth that lands on her arm. Then a cloud of thousands of the insects emerges from the tree, and Evie follows them. "Webs spill from her footprints," the Kings write, "and sparkle in the morning light."

Evie is bound for the hardscrabble town of Dooling, W.Va., an Appalachian community whose main industry is the Dooling Correctional Facility for Women.

The prison is the workplace of Dr. Clinton Norcross, a psychiatrist who enjoys his job treating the inmates, even the meth heads and murderers. Clint had a rough start in life in a series of foster homes, but in middle age he's the loving father of a sweet-natured teenage son, Jared, and happily (or at least he thinks so) married to Lila Norcross, who is chief of the Dooling Police Department.

It's in that capacity that Lila meets Evie. Lila is speeding to answer a call about an extremely gruesome double murder when she almost runs into Evie, who is standing in the middle of the road wearing only a man's shirt and a lot of fresh blood.

Evie is arrested for the crimes, and she is not the usual suspect. She's stunningly beautiful, charming and seemingly carefree about her situation. She is also utterly enigmatic about what happened at the murder scene, why it happened or even who she really is.

But those murders become a footnote as unbelievable news takes over TV and the internet. Something is happening in Dooling, and all over the world: Women — and girls, and even female infants — who lie down to sleep are being covered in gauzy white webs that spin out of their own bodies and wrap them up, quickly and entirely, in cocoons.

They do not struggle, they do not wake. They continue to breathe, and they sleep peacefully. Often, around them, those tiny moths soar and dip.

When others — men and, at first, still-awake women — try desperately to release them by cutting or shredding the cocoons, the sleepers emerge enraged and preternaturally strong, often killing their would-be rescuers.

Take, for example, the police officer who tries to awaken a judge who falls asleep at the bench, as observed by a couple of drug dealers awaiting a hearing. "The judge, no more than five-one in heels, rose up righteous and smote the cop, say hallelujah, in the chest with a gold-tipped fountain pen. That put the bastard on the carpet and she pressed the advantage, scooping up her nearby gavel and beating his face in before he had a chance to fart sideways or holler Your Honor, I object. Then Judge Wainer tossed aside her gory gavel, sat down again, lowered her head back to her crossed arms, and resumed snoozing."

• • •

The inexplicable plague spreads around the globe in days, called by several names, "and then the Aurora Flu, named for the princess in the Walt Disney retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale." (That's just one of many of the novel's allusions to fairy tale and myth.)

Many women fight desperately to stay awake — Lila; the prison's warden, Janice Coates; Coates' TV newscaster daughter, Michaela Morgan (who wants to cover the story); and some of the prisoners. Some women, drugged and caffeinated into hallucinatory states, hang on for days on end, but must succumb.

Only one woman in the world, it seems, sleeps and wakes normally: Evie. Clint, who ends up in charge of the prison when Janice is cocooned, becomes convinced that Evie is the key to understanding the plague, and that he must protect her. That's because the all-male world outside the prison's walls is behaving very, very badly. One response to the cocooned women is something called Blowtorch Brigades.

On the outside trying to get into the prison is Frank Geary, Dooling's animal control officer. He has anger control issues, but he's an adoring father to his young daughter, Nana, now cocooned. Like Clint, he believes Evie may lead to a cure, and he's as desperate to get to her as the psychiatrist is to isolate her. Escalation is inevitable.

Feminism has been a theme in many, if not most, of Stephen King's books. Sexual harassment, rape, domestic abuse — those real-life horrors often interact with the supernatural horrors King creates. That concern was there from the start, in his first published novel, Carrie (1974), with its story of a brutally bullied high school girl whose blooming sexuality sets off a literal firestorm.

In Sleeping Beauties, the dynamics of male-female relationships are at the core of the disaster. What the men left behind must do is interpret what Aurora means. What caused the outbreak? What happens to the women while they sleep? Will they ever return? And what will happen if they do?

The key question for the male characters, and for the novel, is this: Just who, or what, is Evie? Is she the incarnation of Mother Nature, on her last nerve over mankind's assaults on her planetary body? Is she a manifestation of the goddess of the feminine, come to cleanse the Earth and start over in a woman's version of the Noah story? Is she a psychopath, is she a demon, is she a witch? And if it's the last, as Glinda asked in The Wizard of Oz, is she a good witch, or a bad witch?

As long as that question remains open, it's difficult for the reader of Sleeping Beauties to take sides. Is Clint the good guy for protecting Evie, or is he making a terrible mistake? And our perception of every other character's actions cascades from that gut-wrenching ambiguity. It's a masterful narrative choice by the Kings; in most horror novels we at least know who to root for and who the monster is, but here even that distinction is sand shifting under our feet, intensifying the tension.

• • •

Sleeping Beauties has myriad subplots, all reverberating with that theme of gender relationships, and a large cast — the character list at the beginning of the book is 3 ½ pages long. But the Kings keep all that machinery running fast and smooth, creating an all-too-credible picture of a world engulfed by a disaster for which absolutely no one is prepared.

Like many of Stephen King's novels, Sleeping Beauties has a cinematic structure, with mostly short scenes that cut among different characters and locations. That should come in handy. Production company Anonymous Content (True Detective, Mr. Robot) has already optioned the novel for a TV series.

I'd recommend reading it rather than waiting for that adaptation, though, to get the full effect of its intensity. Despite its 702 pages, I rushed through it headlong.

Next time you're looking for a way to distract yourself from a potentially apocalyptic hurricane, try a totally apocalyptic novel. It worked for me.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

   
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