As a metaphor for what’s wrong with present-day American society and culture, this book is a success. But not the way Steve and Owen intended, I think.
On the surface, Sleeping Beauties is another trademark Stephen King novel. So much so, in fact, that one is left wondering what, if anything, Junior contributed. There’s the small-town New England community. There’s the external force causing horror and mayhem in said community. There’s the skillfully woven tapestry of characters, relations, and interactions. There’s the escalation into a violent climax that brings together all character arcs and completes the central story line. There’s the coda, wrapping up each story thread separately, and showing us what, if anything, happens to the characters next.
All of that is so familiar to King readers that I imagine Senior writing this on his laptop while simultaneously binging on Netflix. We know King can write such a novel; he’s written dozens. Writing another one on autopilot is no achievement at all; making his son an accessory in the crime a disservice to Owen (unless as a kind of literary trust fund, a source of father-to-son royalties). This is vintage King, but literally so: it could have been written by Senior, almost exactly as it stands, thirty years ago. Very readable, but eminently forgettable.
So if the story and the characters bring us nothing new, perhaps theme and message redeem the novel? But no. In fact, that’s where the book changes from an mediocre, three-star King, to a two-star disappointment.
The two central aspects of the book’s theme make it the unintentional metaphor I mentioned in my first paragraph, and thus make it a bad, almost evil book.
The first aspect, and the most obvious, is the insiduous inverse sexism that pervades the story. It’s no surprise that two men wrote this book; I’d wager good money that they did not, in fact, consult any women at all during the writing process. Throughout the book, women are good, and men are evil (with only a handful of exceptions on the male side). Because men are the root of all evil in the world (and that is no hyperbole by this reviewer; King almost literally states this in several places), women are given the chance to start over without them. Their new menless society develops smoothly into a peaceful, functioning, idyllic paradise, even as the womenless men escalate into self-destructive violence within days. The message here isn’t subtle, on the contrary: King shouts it into the reader’s face with a megaphone.
And it’s not just the separation of men and women, and the result in those separate societies, that screams the deplorable sexist message. At the detail level, it’s painfully obvious how all the bad men in the book escalate to worse and worse men, while all the bad women–and we have a cast of female murderers, as much of the book takes place in a women’s prison–turn nice and sweet once they have only women around them. Men cause all evil, the Kings shout at us, even the evil perpetrated by women.
Maybe father and son thought they were being all feminist-like in taking this absurdly black-and-white misandrist stance, but to me, it seems they’re just contributing to the further polarization of the issue, by presenting a hideously caricatural vision of the differences between the two genders. And that’s setting aside the fact that as they desperately attempt to sound progressive, the two Kings ignore all aspects of the current gender identity debate, acknowledging only that people can be gay, and portraying homosexuality in the book only if it leads to lesbian sex.
Not just the book as a whole could have been written thirty years ago; its handling of gender and sexuality issues is as least that old.
The positive-action sexism pervading this novel would be enough to cast it aside in despair and disgust, but the other aspect of the theme’s failing makes it even worse.
Women world-wide have been wrapped in cocoons upon falling asleep, to give them a chance to start a new, female-only society some time into the future. Not all women are transported to this new, ydillic world though; only the women of Dooling, New England. As the men left behind proceed to kill and destroy, the women of Dooling are given a choice: remain in their paradise, or return to the world they knew, their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. (That their unanimous decision to return is driven primarily by the mother instinct is another deplorable example of Kings’ ridiculous reverse sexism.)
The women of Dooling are given to understand that their decision will affect all women in the world: if they decide to stay in their new paradise, all women worldwide will tranfer there, if they decide to return to our world, all women will wake up from their cocoons.
Chew on that for a moment, if you will.
A handful of women from a small New England town, the Kings have imagined, have the right to decide for over three billion women worldwide. A handful of predominantly white, affluent, American women (for the Dooling prison population far from balances this out) gets to decide the fate of every single woman in the entire world.
American women are given the power to decide for the entire world.
As a metaphor for American bully-style imperialism, this is painfully apt. If that’s what it was, it would even be interesting from a literary point of view. But Steve and Owen present this not as a mirror, but as a reasonable thing, and a happy end. For me, this edges the entire book from deplorably bad into the realm of active evil.
If this is Stephen King’s world view, I choose to end my fandom now.