‘Sleeping Beauties’ Book Review: Like Father, Like Son

Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties (Scribner, 700 pages, due Tuesday), Stephen King’s first novel with son Owen, is a sprawling, horrific page-turner with scads of interlaced, potent characters and gut-punch stabs at the dark sides of human nature.

In other words, it reads like a Stephen King novel, and son Owen is clearly on board with that.

I’m unfamiliar with Owen King’s work, so I can’t say what he brings to the fear feast at this table. But I do know Sleeping Beauties will make his papa’s legions of fans pop up — and the father-son collaboration should make papa pop with pride.

Their story involves pointed use of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale to drive a global catastrophe: Women everywhere are falling into deep sleeps while being spun into weblike cocoons by watchful moths — or something — and if the cocoons are opened, women awake to wreak mindless, savage vengeance.

The entire world falls into panicky collapse, but our focus isn’t the world at large. It’s a small women’s prison in West Virginia, at which one mysterious, special woman winds up.

Why special? Because the worldwide sleeping sickness doesn’t affect her. And she can control rats. And read minds. And cause other mumbo-jumbo weirdness. And — well, you get the picture. She’s a key to the supernatural upheaval and becomes the focus of a fierce fight among men to protect her, kill her or use her to set things back to normal.

Of course, what is normal? For women — from this book’s point of view — it’s the relentless oppressive misogyny of the world’s hateful, hurtful and stupidly callous men.

There. No way you can’t get this tome’s message. Sleeping Beauties is 700 pages of anti-men, pro-women sermonizing in the context of entertainingly violent melees.

But don’t get me wrong: For me, the book’s feminism isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s preaching to the choir. I’ve championed women personally and in my published writing as a film critic for decades. I’m on their side, and I don’t need King and son’s horror tale to convince me.

Which is why, for me, Sleeping Beauties often reads as a bit much. I don’t need strident convincing. And its wholesale condemnation of men fails to fault women at all, save for token looks at their own violent acts — which are still largely forgiven because they’re blamed on men’s goading.

Yet the world is more complicated that that, no matter how much I revere the female sex which I was raised from childhood to respect as a gentleman. Stand when a lady enters the room. Hold her chair for her. Defer.

That, of course, was indoctrination, which always should be suspect. But in the years since,  I’ve internalized and solidified my respect for women via my own volition and cognition. I’ve worked toward — dare I say? — a feminist foundation of true wisdom.

Sleeping Beauties doesn’t concern wisdom so much as a zealously propagandist mind-set. It teaches me nothing I didn’t already know, except to re-emphasize it with the broadest possible “take that!” strokes of piercing male condemnation.

The problem is, we’re all human — even men — and as humans, we share traits, so-called masculine and feminine.

To be sure, shining a blinding light on the horrible abuse and injustices still plaguing women is vital. But demonizing — and, thus, repelling — men in the process is playing a simplistic blame game.

Sleeping Beauties is still a great read. I loved its wildly eventful narrative’s chaotic, desperate impetus. I loved the rich, vivid characters. I loved getting cozy with another big, boisterous King book, thanks to father and son this time.

But I’m human too — even if I value my own sex less than I do women. And that should count for something in this crazy, mixed up world. But in the simplistically damning reality of Sleeping Beauties’ ax-grinding modern fairy tale, it’s incidental.

— Bruce Westbrook

 

 

 

 

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