Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
What happens when all the women disappear from the world, leaving the men to their own devices? Stephen King, along with his son, Owen, attempt to answer this question in their new novel, Sleeping Beauties. It begins with older and infirm women: it is impossible to wake them, and they soon develop a protective cocoon around themselves. Before long, Aurora (named after Disney’s Sleeping Beauty princess) has laid claim to the world’s female population and the men are left alone. In the West Virginia town of Dooling, Aurora brings with it a beautiful stranger who calls herself Evie Black. When she brutally slays a couple of meth dealers, she finds herself in the Dooling Correctional Facility for Women, where she proves that she is different – Evie can wake from sleep, and has the uncanny ability to know everything about everyone in this small, close-knit community. While Dr Clint Norcross tries to protect Evie from the town’s men, the women of Dooling have a much weightier challenge, for while their bodies sleep, their selves will be faced with a choice that will determine the fate of the planet, and of the human race.
While the seed for this new novel came from King’s youngest son, Owen, a successful novelist in his own right, the result is, without doubt, classic King. Viewing potential apocalypse through the lens of small-town America, the Kings manage to make Aurora personal, while at the same time giving the reader a sense of the scale of the problem: the world’s women are going to sleep, and it’s anybody’s guess as to if or when they might wake up again. The result is a sort of grown-up Lord of the Flies, as the men turn on each other, their first course of action to stockpile on weapons and try to resolve their differences through violence rather than diplomacy.
Evie Black is special; this is something we know from the opening pages of the novel, and something that the other characters only come to understand gradually. Upon arrival in the town she dispatches a pair of meth dealers, killing them in a way that leaves no doubt in our minds as to her otherworldly origins. Sheriff Lila Norcross pulls strings to get her a cell in the nearby Dooling Correctional Facility for Women, under the care of the prison psychologist, Lila’s husband Clint. When the town’s women fall asleep, Clint finds himself in the unenviable position of having to protect Evie from the town’s men, led by a new Sheriff and the town’s Animal Control Officer, Frank Geary, who believe that if they can get their hands on this strange visitor to the town, she might be able to bring their wives back from their seemingly endless sleep.
If the events that occur in Dooling over the week or so that the novel covers reflect the events that are occurring throughout the planet, then the relationship between Lila and Clint are a reflection of a typical marriage: a relatively happy pairing that has its moments of tension, the small problems that can often blow up into larger problems that put potentially fatal pressure on the relationship between two people who have loved each other deeply at some point in the not-so-distant past. Secrets kept on both sides will have an important part to play as Lila slowly succumbs to the cocoon that will inevitably take her, and Lila’s relationship with Clint will come to represent the relationship between every husband and wife, or father and daughter in the world.
The global scope of Aurora forms a background to this geographically-constrained tale. The affliction is unstoppable and no-one knows how long it will last, or if the women will ever recover consciousness. King pere et fils use this fact to shift the focus of Sleeping Beauties from the apocalypse to the personal stories that play out in Dooling. Very much a character-driven piece, the Kings examine a world left in the hands of men, and how the same world might look if women were given a chance to start over again. Stephen King has been writing real, identifiable women characters since he first put pen to paper – Carrie White, Donna Trenton, Rose Daniels, and many, many more – so we know from the outset that we’re in safe hands, and that the female characters will be more than just silk-cocooned window-dressing. Given how much of the cast of characters are female (a good portion of the novel is set in a women’s prison), this can only be a good thing: these are women that spring fully-formed from the pages, women who are defined by who they are and what they have done, rather than by their relationship to the male characters. While most of the women fall asleep early in the story, this is by no means the last we’ll hear of them, and they play an important role as the story progresses, often allowing the authors to more deeply explore the human psyche than do the men, who revert to a caveman-like way of life without a female presence to guide them.
At the centre of everything sits Evie Black, a beautiful woman who looks to be around thirty, but who claims to be much, much older. The Kings leave the reader as much in the dark as the residents of Dooling about this mysterious character who is in some way connected to the sleeping sickness, if not the root cause. She’s a difficult character to get a handle on: at times she comes across as a female version of King’s ultimate bad guy, Randall Flagg, and at others she seems to possess more humanity than the people around her. She can control animals; she can see things and know things she has no earthly way of seeing and knowing; and yet, she seems powerless to stop what is happening, or give a straight answer as to whether she is to blame.
Unlike King’s collaborations with Peter Straub, where each author attempted to mimic the voice of the other, father and son have found a unique voice that gives the story a seamless feel – it’s impossible to work out where one author left off and the other began. Despite its size (the finished product comes in at just over 700 pages, although in a note at the end, a much longer version is mentioned; I can’t be the only Constant Reader who would love to get his hands on that!), Sleeping Beauties is an engaging and thought-provoking read. Through their careful handling of their characters, and the work that has gone into their backstories, the Kings give us food for thought, and leave us to consider what kind of world this might be if all of the women – or, indeed, all of the men (although that might be slightly less noticeable!) – were to suddenly disappear and leave the other half of the population to work things out for themselves.
Sleeping Beauties is classic late-era King, sure to stand alongside 11.22.63 and Under the Dome as one of Stephen King’s best. Owen brings a fresh new voice that sits well with Constant Reader, while potentially opening Stephen’s work to a whole new generation of readers. It’s also likely to draw considerable attention to Owen’s own writing, the short story collection We’re All in This Together and the novel Double Feature, both of which I can recommend unreservedly, though not at all horror. As always, Hodder & Stoughton have gone above and beyond, producing a first edition hardback with hidden covers – tiger, fox, moth, snake, representing the animals that guard the tree between our world, and the world where the sleeping women of Dooling end up – printed on the book’s case, behind the stunning and eye-catching dust-jacket.
Thoughtful, timely and thought-provoking, Sleeping Beauties is a masterclass in how to write apocalyptic fiction. Beautifully-written, and populated with characters that we can’t help but care about, it’s undoubtedly a Stephen King novel, though one that has obviously been very heavily influenced by the Chabon-like writing style of Owen King. Its heft may be daunting, but you will cherish every moment you spend in Dooling with these people. If you haven’t read the work of either of these incredible authors yet, this is the perfect opportunity to get two-for-one, and the result of this collaboration will suck you in and change the way you think about everything. It’s a story not to be missed, and a moral that every reader should take to heart.