Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King

A review

I pre-ordered SK’s latest masterpiece and took advantage of Amazon’s cheap launch hardback facility which included a limited edition front cover illustration (as you can see on the golden sticker in the picture.) This illustration happens to be of a fox – which features heavily in the story, along with a mysterious giant magic tree, moths, peacocks, white tigers and a cast so large there is a list of characters in the initial pages just to keep you straight.

Sleeping Beauties (SB) took me a couple of months to finish, not because I grew bored of the story but because I’ve got into an unhelpful habit of having several books on the go and it’s all getting out of control if I’m honest. Then again it is a big book at 718 pages long. Thank Crom that the print was large with plenty of appropriate white space which made this edition easy on the eye. Oh, and by the way, I loved the matt feel to the dust jacket with the raised lettering. Shame the smell of the book was nothing to write home about (it’s a fetish of mine.)

If you watch interviews with SK and his son, you’ll be familiar with how the collaboration came about. The king of horror was sat at the table having a family meal when Owen told those present of a story idea he had about a mysterious contagion which afflicts only women, causing them to fall asleep and effectively be removed from the functioning world. What would be the result? How would men react? How would they cope? Would women be finally set free to live their lives unfettered by male dominance? How would the washing get done? (red spots from sniper rifles are already roving over chests after that last statement.)

SK was so taken with the idea that he suggested they both write the book together. How exactly they did this remains a closely guarded secret as they wanted things to appear seamless. So, I guess the big question is: how does this book differ from a standard SK story (if there is such a thing?) Well, from my point of view, this is a book that wouldn’t have existed at all if SK had chosen not to partner up with his son. It might have come about as something else, but like previous collaborations of his e.g. Talisman/Black House with Peter Straub and (more recently) Gwendy’s Button Box’ with Richard Chizmar, the result is more than the sum of its parts.

As is usual with my reviews, I won’t give a synopsis (you can get this from the blurbs), but I’ll highlight the impacts this novel had on me.

Firstly, there’s that sense of settling into a favourite pair of ill-fitting old slippers. Familiar, yet faintly uncomfortable because you don’t quite know if there’s something waiting inside. A bit like when I donned a pair of wellies as a kid and promptly put my foot on a toad that had attempted to hibernate there for the winter. What I mean is, SK’s style is evident in that uncanny way he has of conjuring metaphor and character insights in a way that seems effortless. But there’s something else in there, which could be Owen or Owen’s effect on SK. A sense of discipline, or streamlining, allowing the story a chance to contain extra layers or scenes that might not have come about if SK had had his hand firmly on the rudder and allowed the boat to meander up one of his many side channels. This is a good thing and, as I say, makes the novel fresh and exciting. It also means the plot isn’t quite as predictable, plotwise, as some of SKs can sometimes be.

Secondly, each character had likeable aspects and understandable conflicts. The way these played out as the story progressed made this book something to attract my wavering hand through my ‘to read’ pile and settle on it again and again. Masterful storytelling.

What did I like most? The way scenarios were explored and the nature of the male-female dynamic laid bare. Can one gender/sex survive without the other? Can every woe of mankind be laid at the feet of testosterone-fuelled anger? I was impressed with how the motivations of each character were entirely believable and allowed suspension of disbelief for the more fantastical scenes.

What did I like least? Despite the handy reference list at the beginning (and this may be a sign of my age and inability to focus as well these days) I did get a little lost with who some of the minor characters were. Perhaps some could have been cut out without affecting the run of the story. That said, the thought processes of all characters were interesting little vignettes into how each of them cope with the pandemic crisis called ‘Aurora .’ The name of the contagion also has meaning by the way. Nothing is left to random chance or whim in the King universe.

What struck me throughout the book was how the writers seem to get away with multiple head hopping within scenes and not lose the reader. This surely has to be an example of rule-breaking used to its maximum effect.

As with many SK dark fantasies, there are some questions which remain unanswered e.g. (spoiler alert) what happens to Evie at the end of the novel? I skipped back and tried to ascertain where she bowed out of the story but couldn’t find it. Not all of these unanswered questions were actually the sign of a bad ending, they leave the reader wondering what would happen next which keeps the story alive for months and years to come.

Whether this world and alternative reality will come to be seen as part of SK’s ever expanding multiverse remains to be seen, but Dooling and its correctional facility will remain in my memory for a lifetime. I will never see the incarceration of women in quite the same way again.

Verdict: a great and provoking read. Entertaining as well as disturbing – like all good stories should be.

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