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Sleeping Beuaties by Stephen & Owen King3 stars
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So it turns out that Stephen King writing in collaboration with his son Owen King reads pretty much exactly like Stephen King not writing in collaboration with his son. But it’s good to see America’s lion of literary horror is still tall in the saddle at 70. Sleeping Beauties is a book that can be fairly said to feature pretty much all of King’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller, but if son Owen is the guy who helped infuse the whole affair with a shot of energy that some of his dad’s more recent work has lacked, then I’m happy to have him along.

By now this kind of SK formula should be as familiar as a cozy old blanket. First, an apocalyptic event occurs — maybe it’s a massive plague, or maybe your whole town is encased beneath an invisible dome, or your cell phone emits a brain scrambling signal that turns you into a raging murder zombie.

In Sleeping Beauties, we have a bizarre paranormal event (which many people mistake for a virus) called Aurora, a sleeping sickness affecting only women, who end up comatose in a cocoon extruded from their own bodies. Don’t try to tear the cocoon off and wake them up, or they’ll rip you to pieces before drifting off again, which is frankly a reaction to being woken up that I don’t find all that unreasonable. But this is a problem. Every woman on Earth, snug in her cocoon, with no way anyone can know if they’ll ever wake up naturally.

The next part of the formula involves introducing a small, insular American town and viewing the entire event from their perspective. This is vintage King. If anyone has ever been a quintessentially American writer, it’s this guy. Many other bestselling writers are happy to throw the net wide and set their stories all over the globe, but King sticks to his backyard, and small town America, with all of the associations it has for his readers, has always served as his microcosm of society at large. Even in books like The Stand or Cell, where big cities play a role, eventually characters will drift out of the urban centers to outlying, rural townships for the final confrontations.

Dooling, West Virginia, is the town the Kings have created here, moving away from Maine and New England down to the heart of Appalachian coal mining country, and it’s an interesting choice. Because this is the part of the country where the so-called American Dream has just never taken root for anyone. It’s an area of seething tensions and economic resentment, where drugs and crime offer an illusory way out.

This fictional town is home to a women’s correctional facility. It’s interesting to see the level of care King and Son take in creating a sense of balance in their characters’ circumstances. Because it would be ridiculously easy, not to mention lazy, to populate a book as steeped in sexual politics as this one with one-dimensional stereotypes of violent scumbag men and shrinking violet women, Sleeping Beauties gives us regular folks, men and women, some good, some bad, most a mixture of both, doing what they can to get by from day to day.

Aurora arrives, at the same time a mysterious woman — or should I say, otherworldly individual who appears to be a human female but who the hell really knows — calling herself Evie wanders into town from parts unknown, promptly murders a couple of meth cookers with her bare hands, and gets herself detained in the prison, precisely where she wanted to be. From here the drama plays out.

The town’s women gradually succumb to Aurora, despite heroic attempts by many of them to delay sleep for as long as possible. Once rumors leak out about a strange woman at the prison who can sleep and wake up normally, the men divide into two camps. Inside the prison, Dr. Clinton Northcross, the prison psychiatrist and husband of the town’s sheriff, Lila, finds himself in charge, determined to keep Evie safe from the other camp, an armed posse of men from town led by Frank Geary, an animal control officer who has essentially made himself acting sheriff and is convinced that if Evie caused Aurora, she can put a stop to out, and had damn well better. A siege of the prison is in the offing.

At 700 pages in hardcover, Sleeping Beauties is well overlong, like a lot of King’s work. But the pacing only flags at times in the second half, when we get a glimpse of where all the world’s cocooned women have gone — yes, they’ve gone somewhere, and while it’s interesting conceptually, these scenes end up being surprisingly flat dramatically. You might also expect the book to have, you know, things to say about concepts like inequality and gender-based power imbalances. It’s just dumb luck, of course, that the book’s release coincides with the Harvey Weinstein earthquake, but still, given how unapologetically political Stephen King is willing to be on his Twitter feed, you might understandably wish he’d thrown some harder punches in this book at, say, entrenched systems that allow the Harveys of the world with their predatory behavior and toxic masculinity to thrive.

But beyond addressing misogyny in situations where it’s obvious — for instance, there’s a guard at the prison who sexually assaults the inmates, and a lot of the locals just casually throw around sexist slurs like it’s nothing — the book tries for a centrist approach that ultimately settles on how we all need each other, men and women, but we need to better ourselves as individuals first, then hopefully we can all just get along.