Superstar Stephen King redeems himself with a new collaboration
Superstar Stephen King redeems himself with the second of two collaborative efforts.
‘What does a woman want?” is a question Freud posed towards the end of a lifetime of not listening to any woman impertinent enough to answer it. In Stephen King and his son Owen’s Sleeping Beauties, this is how the world ends. Not in fire or ice, but a brutal spasm of toxic masculinity as women fall asleep and become murderously violent zombies if anyone is foolish enough to disturb them.
Despite the book’s 700 pages, opening with a closely printed four-page dramatis personæ that includes a talking fox, its plot is simple. Dooling, West Virginia, is a small, isolated town whose major sources of employment are the meth trade and a women’s prison described in such detail the novel resembles a mash-up of Orange Is the New Black and The Walking Dead.
While the Kings are busy setting up the crowded board, there are cable news reports of a strange “fainting sickness” that only affects women and easily excited right-wing pundits. Unhappily married sheriff Lila Norcross and her prison psychologist husband Clinton cross paths with Evie (don’t expect much subtlety here), as it soon becomes clear that she is the only woman immune to “the Aurora Flu” and knows more than she’s letting on about its origins and ultimate purpose.
As the rapidly devolving male population of Dooling become aware of this, battle lines are drawn between the men who want to kill Evie (and any other sleeper they can find) and those who want
Dooling is a small, isolated town whose major sources of employment are the meth trade and a women’s prison.
to save her. Meanwhile, the dreaming women are in an idyllic alternative reality where a choice must be made: do they stay in paradise, or return to save mankind from themselves?
That is where Sleeping Beauties becomes much less than meets the eye. For a novel
that so obviously wants to subvert gender stereotypes and doesn’t miss a chance to remind us of the horrors men inflict on women every day, the two male authors have stuck surprisingly close to them. Evie is the most fleshed-out female character in the book, and she is non-human. Lila comes a close second, but eventually succumbs to the virus (after working her way through the evidence from a recent drug raid) and gives way to her tiresome nice-guy husband, who appoints himself Evie’s protector, and paper-thin teenage son. Otherwise, it takes nothing to pretty much turn every man into a murderous beast.
Gender Manichaeism is as valid a creative principle as any, I guess, but it was indefensible in the 70s when Joanna Russ’s When It Changed and James Tiptree Jr’s The Screwfly Solution were exploring similar ground with more nuance and style. In 2017, it’s simply inexplicable when a new (and not-so-new) generation of female writers – from Margaret Atwood to Naomi Alderman and more – are wide awake and rewriting the dystopian rule book.
That’s not to say writing intelligently about misogyny, great and small, is women’s work. It isn’t, and both Kings have proved it elsewhere. But when you ask, “What do women want?”, it does help if you don’t keep echoing Freud by saying, “Whatever men need them to want.”
Stephen King’s other new title, Gwendy’s Button Box, is a more modest and successful work. This novella, written with Richard Chizmar, is a return to Castle Rock, the small Maine town upon which he unleashed much havoc, until he destroyed it in 1991’s Needful Things.
But here it’s 1974, a more innocent time when 12-year-old Gwendy Peterson not only talks to a stranger while out for her daily constitutional but accepts the titular box. As in any fable, it comes with a warning: “It gives gifts, but they’re small recompense for the responsibility.”
A body-conscious teenager happily accepts magic chocolates that aid in weight loss, but what about those buttons that can also deal out destruction both near and far? That would be telling, but set beside Sleeping Beauties, Box is graceful proof that less is more.
The mundane and magical blend seamlessly in Castle Rock, the moral of the story is lightly worn and Gwendy is an endearing character who convincingly changes from an adolescent to a woman older and genuinely wiser.
SLEEPING BEAUTIES, by Stephen King and Owen King (Hodder & Stoughton, $37.99); GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (Hodder & Stoughton, $29.99)
Set beside Sleeping Beauties, Gwendy’s Button Box is graceful proof that less is more.
Owen (left) and
Stephen King: collaboration is less than meets the eye.