Stephen King and son: the family business is in safe hands
‘Sleeping Beauties’ is an unabashed feminist fable that feels very timely
Stephen King; his wife, Tabitha; and the son he has cowritten ‘Sleeping Beauties’ with, Owen. Photograph: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Stephen King & Owen King
Hodder & Stoughton
Every son must learn to negotiate the paternal shadow. This process is rendered more complicated when the father in question has achieved some degree of fame, but becomes potentially fraught with conflict should the son then choose to enter the father’s trade.
Both of Stephen King’s male heirs are novelists, although it sometimes seems that the best way to dissuade someone from becoming a writer might be to live with one – or, in the case of the King clan, two, since King’s wife, Tabitha, is also an author.
Each King son has found his own way to deal with this dynastic weight. Joe, the elder, jettisoned the family surname to publish as Joe Hill, but did so while planting a flag firmly in the horror genre, and the best of his work closely resembles his father’s. Owen, meanwhile, kept the King name but chose a less genre-specific route, and it is his name, perhaps surprisingly, that shares the cover of this first full-length King collaboration between father and son.
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Any flaws in the book can be forgiven by placing it in its historical context. This is very much a work written in the aftermath of Trump’s presidential victory
In Sleeping Beauties, the women of the world fall prey to the mysterious Aurora sickness, which leaves them cocooned and inert. Waking one of these titular beauties leads to violent reprisals, with the result that their menfolk either quietly place them out of harm’s way, or begin burning them alive. Only one woman appears entirely unaffected by the disease: Evie Black, who is quickly revealed as a supernatural entity, a possible manifestation of a – female? – deity, or an avenging Eve from some stranger Eden.
Evie is sequestered in a prison cell in the southern US town of Dooling, leaving a small group of men and women to protect her from the males beyond the walls who, it seems likely, will kill her if they can lay hands on her.
A better parallel world
Meanwhile, in a parallel Dooling, a representative assemblage of sleeping women finds itself living, or dreaming, a potential alternative existence in a realm without men, one that, in its relative absence of conflict, becomes increasingly appealing to the exiles.
“There were bad women and there were bad men … But men fought more; they killed more. That was one way in which the sexes had never been equal; they were not equally dangerous.”
There is much to admire in Sleeping Beauties: its unapologetic feminism; its compassion for the female victims of male brutality, with a corresponding critique of a male-dominated justice system that punishes women forced to use violence to save themselves from their abusers; and its sly dissection of the rarely acknowledged male fear of female rage, leading the book to resemble, at times, some XY-chromosome commentary on The Power, Naomi Alderman’s Baileys Prize-winning speculative novel of female dominance.
In a post-Terry Pratchett universe, it’s a brave, even foolhardy, pair of writers who choose to give a supporting role to a talking rat
The characterisation veers from subtle to broad – a little too broad in the case of some of the more abhorrent men, but then every King tale needs its villains, and this one is firmly on the side of the female sex. The division of labour between father and son is neatly disguised, although one detects an occasional floweriness to the prose that King snr has long since excised from his solo work.
On the downside, Sleeping Beauties evinces a peculiar fascination with anthropomorphised animals. In a post-Terry Pratchett universe, it’s a brave, even foolhardy, pair of writers who choose to give a supporting role to a talking rat. This lengthy novel also suffers slightly from a lack of tension, a consequence, perhaps, of making an immortal being the prize for which the protagonists must fight.
Finally, it favours violence over scares, and the part of me that has been reading Stephen King since my preteen days rather wished for more of the latter and less of the former. Writing violence is easy, but evoking terror with prose is harder – and rarer.
Yet any flaws in the book can ultimately be forgiven by placing it in its historical context. Sleeping Beauties is very much a work written in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential victory and all that has followed in its wake. This is made explicit towards the end of the novel, when the unnamed US president, glimpsed in his motorcade, is described as “just another swinging dick”.
If Trump is the best the male sex can offer as a leader, Sleeping Beauties seems to argue, then the world would be a kinder, safer, and more just place under female guidance. Americans rejected that opportunity in 2016, but it will come around again. Until then, the King family business appears to be in safe hands.
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