Sleeping Beauties: Here Lies Stephen King

Sleeping Beauties signals the death of Stephen King as the master of horror. Pushing past 70 years old, King forgets that readers want a cohesive story – not the ramblings, and there are many, of an old man who feels like the world is going to hell.

In an exhaustive 700 page spread that is in desperate need of tightening, King’s debut collaboration with his son, Owen, depicts a dystopian world where a supernatural plague places women, and women only, in a cocooned sleep while men are left to indulge in their own savage urges. The ensuing chaos (the rise in rape, the torching of women’s cocoons, and the complete breakdown of civil society) provides the seeds for a horrifying portrait of the male psyche. But these seeds, sadly, never grow to fruition due to the continuous interruption of King’s incessant need to slam the Alt-Right. If readers want that, they can gorge themselves on his tweets.

Set in Appalachian coal country, the book focuses on the small town of Dooling whose main employer is a female correctional facility; here, the majority of the characters either work or are institutionalized. After a grisly murder of a redneck meth-dealer, inmates and townies alike slowly succumb to a global sleeping sickness, named Aurora after the sleeping princess. But unlike the Disney tale, these beauties should stay asleep. If awake, the women turn feral – likely to remove an eye, an ear, or simply rip the throat out of anyone nearby.

The book is written straightforwardly, a welcome respite from Kings typical dreamy passages. But the good news ends there. King sacrifices his rich detail-oriented prose for vague sentimentality, as characters wonder what the meaning of life is, or for the sake of taking political pot-shots. “In a terrified world, fake news is king” is a sentiment uttered not once, not twice, but a total of five times throughout the novel as characters turn to the media pundits for updates on the Aurora virus. On the first day of Aurora, the white house issues a statement, “no one cares more about women than I do – this disease will be cured.” And if that reference was too subtle, it’s immediately followed up an inmate ruminating that there is “no bigger asshole than Donald Trump, except maybe cannibals.” For those readers who follow King’s politics, these moments are hilarious. But they also detract from the story, proving that in this divisive era, not even horror stories are immune to political bias.

But the prose is not the book’s only fatality; characterization is also stripped down to the bare minimum. Sleeping Beauties is glutted with characters, including, ridiculously, a talking fox who adds nothing to the story. These characters lack the complexity found in King’s earlier work, becoming tedious caricatures of backwoods Virginia and rigid examples of gender norms. In fact, of the seventeen different points of view offered throughout the novel, almost none of the characters save for Lila Norcross, Dooling’s ‘take no prisoners sheriff’ and the closest this book has to a hero, escape the two-dimensional confines of the page. It’s hard for readers to become invested when the characters are in mortal danger when the emotional stakes ring so hollow.

King’s attempt to explore and subvert gender stereotypes completely backfires. The book reinforces, rather than questions, the gender status quo in American society. The women of Dooling fall into two categories: there’s the Jeanette Sorleys (victims of circumstance) and the Angel Fitzroys (straight-up sociopaths). The men of Dooling don’t fare much better. They are characterized as either incompetent, misguided, or deeply misogynistic.

By all accounts, Sleeping Beauties is a failure: it is neither feminist nor complex or even frightening. In fact, the true of horror of this book lies not in the evil machinations of a witch but rather in the illustration of what the horror genre will look most certainly look like when King is gone — hollow, repetitive, and utterly unrecognizable.

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