By W. Perry Hall/Contributing Writer
Stephen King, who recently turned 70, has written a phenomenal fifty plus bestsellers. Regrettably, “Sleeping Beauties,” a writing collaboration with his younger son Owen that may seem touching in the paternal sense, fails to plunge the reader into the type of heart-thumping chills and page-flipping thrills that casual King fans crave. Rather, the novel proves itself a tiresome, often grandiose, fantasy-soapbox that is sure to please only the most hardcore Stephen King fans.
The novel opens in the small Appalachian town of Dooling, West Virginia, when a nubile nude woman, with green pubic hair and moths fluttering from her mouth, strolls out from behind a mammoth tree in a large clearing to bludgeon a local meth dealer who abuses his girlfriend. She then patiently awaits arrest.
This supernatural goddess named Eve or Evie Black–we soon see–mocks all men, reads minds, controls a pack of prison rats and commands an army of moths. Sheriff Lila Norcross transports her to the women’s prison outside of town where Dr. Clint Norcross, the Sheriff’s husband, is the prison psychiatrist.
The same day, a worldwide plague known as the “Aurora flu” strikes every woman who enters a state of sleep, after which tendrils grow from her body and form a cocoon from which she does not awake. If anyone–even a family member–tries to break open the cocoon and wake the woman, she is transformed into a crazed, bloodthirsty killer. One yokel yucks that the plague is “the ultimate PMS.” This of course leads to a dramatic increase in the sale of Red Bull, coffee and cocaine as women frantically try to stay awake.
We get sound bites of end times from around the globe: riots in D.C., vigilante brigades gathering to torch the cocoons, a jet going down, and “hard right conservatives on talk radio … proclaiming the Aurora virus as proof that God was angry with feminism.” The focus though is on the small hillbilly town.
Nearly half the book is consumed by a tedious introduction to seventy characters, including half of Dooling and most of the female prisoners. If you can keep up, you may still get frustrated by the lengthy and frequent slow-motion diversions into the connubial blemishes of Lila and Clint Norcross, which seem feeble when considering that humankind stands on the brink of extinction.
Dooling’s female correctional facility is ground zero for the Aurora flu, housing the sole female immune from the plague, Evie Black. The question at the novel’s center is how the men of this small Appalachian town will react to the plague. Will they act out backwards male stereotypes, form rabid packs and go after Evie?
As Evie explains to Dr. Norcross, she will not defend herself and only if she survives a number of days will the women be set free; if not, all women will perish. Thus begins the battle of men for the existence of our species: the men–almost entirely of cardboard stock–who want to kill Evie Black versus the men who want to protect her, the latter led by Dr. Norcross, who the Kings inform us is “the one who stands for all mankind.”
Meanwhile, the spirits of the cocooned women gather in a parallel world of peace called simply Our Place. Our Place is just past the clearing from which Evie arrived and the “Mother Tree,” the Kings’ version of the tree of knowledge and the portal to Evie’s Eden-like garden populated by a fox and a tiger that talk, a peacock, and a giant snake that slithers up and down the tree.
The Kings endeavor to shroud Eve in mystery via nonsensical queries: “Had Evie come from the Tree? Or had the Tree come from Evie?” It is nonetheless obvious that she is the biblical Eve: “Evie doesn’t trust the snake…. She’s had trouble with him before.”
With the exception of maybe five characters, the characters merely play out gender stereotypes–often clownish–with most women (even the imprisoned murderers) caring and nurturing pacifists, and the men–with the exception of Dr. Norcross and a few prison guards–generally drinking, righteous, gun-toting, savage pigs.
The absence of the reader’s investment in a legion of caricatures represents a fundamental flaw in building a shred of suspense. That is to say, by the time the battle for Eve ensues–think, “Lord of the Flies” at a women’s prison–it is nearly impossible to know who does what, when, to whom, who was killed and who survived, and miraculous if one even cares.
Lovers of the Stephen King brand of graphic gore may find parts to relish, such as how “shreds of skin flapped like streamers” from a bulldozer that had just flattened a man, or how a man’s jaw being cleaved open by a woman sounded like “a drumstick being torn off a Thanksgiving turkey.” Yet, this is not the trademark King supernatural novel full of fright, intensity and surprises.
Instead, this doorstopper of a novel stands primarily as a political soapbox the Kings thrust upon readers via “original sin” Eve, brought back by some secret force that detests men. Whether or not a reader is in sync with some of the Kings’ political persuasions is beside the point. Most readers, it seems, probably do not care to read a novel billed as a blockbuster supernatural thriller that can be more fittingly described as an environmentalist, gun-controlling, feminist, Trump-loathing fantasy with a take on everything from gender politics to racial violence, and that hits heavily on a range of social dilemmas such as suicide, marital infidelity, teen sex, alcoholism, drug addiction in impoverished areas, domestic violence and mental illnesses.
Perhaps it’s best to let “Sleeping Beauties” lie.
Stephen King and Owen King
Published September 26, 2017 by Scribner