by Stephen King and Owen King
To start with, I love Stephen King. I always have. I’ve read pretty much every one of his books, most of them more than once; I’ve been reading his work faithfully since I was 13, and my friend loaned me a copy of It to take with me to summer camp. (The Summer of Blood-Soaked Nightmares, I called that one. Subtitle, We all float down here. Sub-sub-title, Don’t ever use the bathroom in the middle of the night when you’re reading It.) I am a great admirer of his remarkable ability to create characters, to build suspense, and to squeeze a thousand details, all of which are both real and also unexpected, into the framework of a story.
So going into this one, I was already going to like it: there have only been two or three Stephen King books I haven’t liked – mostly the ones that have actual aliens invading, The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher. Didn’t like Hearts in Atlantis, either, which was too bad because I love the low men and the can toi from Desperation and The Regulators. Anyway, since the man has written like 75 books, the chances were good for Sleeping Beauties: something like 25 to 1.
And I liked it.
It wasn’t my favorite Stephen King book. It might be easy to chalk that up to the influence of his co-author, his son, Owen King; but to be perfectly frank, I couldn’t even tell that this was a collaboration: it just read exactly like a Stephen King book. You’ve got a supernatural being appearing within the very first few pages, and immediately diving into a bloodbath of murder and mayhem, without even the slightest explanation as to who or what they are, or why they are ripping people’s limbs off. You’ve got a large cast of characters, most of them good but flawed people; you’ve got a male lead with a troubled love life; it’s set in a dinky little town half in the wilderness and with one spectacularly creepy location – in this case a women’s prison – that plays into the story in some prominent way. You’ve got a character or two who act as a combination demogogue and Wormtongue, whispering in the ears of the populace, playing on their fears and hatreds to bring out their absolute worst traits; you’ve got a supernatural phenomenon growing more and more powerful, and more and more apparent, though never quite becoming easily explainable; and you’ve got some enormous fight scene at the end, in which at least a good third of the characters die. This one has all of that.
That is not to say Stephen King’s work is monotonous, nor that this book is just like any others of his. Neither statement is true. It’s just that he does have tendencies and preferences, and certain themes that he keeps coming back to: like the mob. Not the mafia mob, but the driven-crazy-by-fear, pitchfork-and-torch-carrying mob. Mr. King knows that mob well, and he recognizes that there is no better reflection of the evils of the 20th century and beyond – unless it is the slick-talking small-town salesman-and-politician which shows up in many of King’s works as well; though not this one.
But there are some real distinctions, as well, in all of King’s books, and in this one. The lead character, for instance, is an interesting man that King has never done before: he is a prison psychologist, married to the town sheriff – another new element for this book, because I can’t remember another woman cop; usually his cops are the bad guys, which is true of several of the cops in this book, but not the sheriff. But her husband, the prison psychologist – Clint Norcross – was a former foster kid with old anger issues from his youth, which was exceptionally violent. He was not the madman that Jack Torrance was in The Shining, and not the epic hero Everyman that, say, Stuart Redman is in The Stand, or Stuttering Bill Denbrough in It. Clint doesn’t save the day. Clint is a mostly good guy who does mostly good things. That’s all.
The real story here is not the Stephen King setting or the tropes; it is the question of sex. Gender. Men and women. Because the concept of this book, the supernatural event that throws everything into chaos, is this: all of the women in the world fall asleep, and they don’t wake up. The supernatural being who comes in and starts removing limbs in a shower of blood is a woman, perhaps Eve or Lilith or Wonder Woman or Pandora or all of the above – certainly Helen of Troy – and she represents a greater power that has decided to give women a chance at a better world, a world where they don’t have to be beaten or raped or killed by men. So whenever a woman falls asleep, she spins a mystical cocoon; and she remains in the cocoon until further notice, while her soul goes – somewhere else.
And meanwhile, without women to abuse and destroy, the men turn on each other.
That’s the basic story, and parts of it were tough to read: the stories of women suffering at the hands of men, fictionalized but by no means exaggerated by King, were often heartbreaking and enraging. I got a little frustrated with Clint Norcross, who reads sort of like the hero, but isn’t really the hero simply because he’s a man; I did like the main villain, who leads the mob into the final fight, because he was sort of the other side of the coin from Clint, which was interesting. But I certainly didn’t like the son of a bitch. One interesting thing, though: King has said that the quickest way for an author to get an audience to dislike a character is to have the character hurt a dog. (A lesson King probably learned from Jack London). But the villain of this book? He is kind to dogs. Make of that what you will. In some ways, the hero is no specific person, and neither is the villain: the hero of this book is the better half of the human race. (Guess who the villain is.) And they’re not all perfect either, of course, because King doesn’t write perfect characters; but they’re a hell of a lot better than the men. It was a little tough reading 700 pages about why my gender sucks. But it certainly wasn’t news.
The suspense is great; the violence is savage and glorious, as always; the big fight at the end is wonderfully apocalyptic. I actually didn’t like the supernatural element as much, because I didn’t really like the resolution. Should have gone the other way. But I did like the fox. And the Tree.
This is a Stephen King book. It’s not for everybody, but if you like Stephen King, you’ll like this one. I did.