Eves all interesting

Lead review

Stephen King’s enthralling “Under the Dome” (2009) dreamed up a small Maine town thrown into a surreal situation: the place was suddenly covered by an invisible, impermeable dome. It’s a sprawling book with a big cast of characters, but the drama of this crisis brings every one of them into sharp focus. It’s one of his best books, drawing its terror from human nature, not from a voyage into fearsome fantasyland.

Now he and his son Owen King have attempted something similar in Sleeping Beauties. The small town is Dooling, somewhere in Appalachia within reach of Wheeling, West Virginia’s television and radio signals. The strange situation is this: women who fall asleep don’t wake up, and they begin growing tendrils that are big trouble. The tendrils turn into cocoons, and it’s tempting to brush those cocoons away. This is ill-advised. The sleeping angel who looks so peaceful may gouge out an eye if her floss is mussed.

Like “Under the Dome,” “Sleeping Beauties” is straightforwardly written. There are no long, dreamy passages in italics here. That’s the good news; the less happy news is that this co-authored book is sleepy in its own right. It too has a lot of characters, but very few of them spring to life, and many of them seem repetitive. Without speculating on what the father-son writing process was like, it feels as though some kind of politesse kept this 700-page book from being usefully tightened.

The main setting is a female prison inspired by “The Auld Triangle,” the song from Brendan Behan’s play “The Quare Fellow,” most recently re-popularized by the film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” We meet everyone at this prison, from the warden to the insomniac inmate who killed her whole family, dog included. (That insomnia will come in handy later in the plot.) We also meet Dooling’s sheriff, Lila Norcross, who is the closest thing the crowded book has to a main character.

And we meet the beautiful, mysterious, witchy Eve Black, whose name may be meant to recall “The Three Faces of Eve,” the nonfiction classic about a woman with multiple personalities. Maybe Eve speaks to the different aspects of womanhood.

Or maybe Eve is a wicked spin on Genesis. “Evie doesn’t trust the snake, obviously” the Kings write in a brief prologue set in an Eden-like clearing featuring exotic animals and a large tree. “She’s had trouble with him before.”

Whatever she is, Eve calls the shots here. She mocks all men, has supernatural powers and commands the armies of moths that provide the book’s only real fright. And she is important during the many, many scenes in which women start falling asleep. Long after we get this idea and learn that the malady, called the Aurora virus, is a worldwide blight, the women whose webs have been disturbed start doing their zombie thing. And then a select group of them are drawn to the magical spot where the tree is. They find a haven. And this may be all you need to know about “Sleeping Beauties”: They name that haven Our Place, as if it were a support group running its own coffee shop.

While the sleeping/waking women bond and leave behind their conveniently bad marriages, the men left behind act out their own stereotypes. Some are righteous. Some are brutes. One idiotic trucker starts preaching about why the women have gotten what they deserve for wearing pants, and vigilante brigades want to torch the cocoons. (Terrible idea.) Rumors run amok. “In a terrified world, false news was king,” the authors write, deliberately just avoiding the more common phrase that is now so popular. This book has its political opinions, and it is no fan of the “fake news” crowd.

Not even the inevitable zombie apocalypse feels like anything new. “It seemed like something straight out of that show where rotting dead people came back to life,” which is a strangely stale reference for the senior King to make, considering the fact that he’s currently better known for writing films and TV shows than for watching them. “Sleeping Beauties” will inevitably wind up on the screen somehow. Whoever adapts it will have to beef up the characters and deflect attention from the nonthrilling main theme. As Eve puts it: “I think it might be time to erase the whole man-woman equation. Just hit delete and start over. What do you think?”

What you may well come away thinking is: meh. For a book about resetting gender stereotypes, this one clings surprisingly tightly to them. Women are healers (though there are some tough customers here, thanks to the cast of law enforcers and prison inmates); men are either warriors or jerks who deserve to die. Everyone who survives this story is a little nicer by the time it’s over, but the basics still apply. And for a book that separates the sexes, the sudden impossibility of heterosexual sex goes strangely unnoticed. When it comes to cravings, Mountain Dew ranks higher than the libido.

Finally, this father-son collaboration has produced some prose that the older guy’s fans will find unrecognizable. He has been known to ramble, but he’s rarely sensitive or vague. In one typically becalmed paragraph in “Sleeping Beauties,” a character “could ask the question, but her brain could not break it down in a way that allowed a satisfactory answer. Any response dissolved before it could form. ... Why did it feel so bad, just to have done her job? Those answers wouldn’t coalesce, either, couldn’t even begin to.” Stephen King didn’t become Stephen King by waffling this way.

Stephen King is newly 70, but still tapping into his inner demonic kid. Neither King needed to contemplate such pointless imponderables as: “Had Evie come from the Tree? Or had the Tree come from Evie? And the women of Our Place — were they dreamers, or were they the dream?”

Sleeping Beauties 
Stephen King, Owen King
Hodder & Stoughton
2017, pp 736
Rs 672





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