Su­per­star Stephen King redeems him­self with a new col­lab­o­ra­tion

Su­per­star Stephen King redeems him­self with the sec­ond of two col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By CRAIG RANAPIA

‘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.

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