Reviewed by Melanie and Gerry Cutting
If Stephen King is the “king” of horror fiction, Gerry Cutting is the king of the Stephen King novel, having read nearly all of them. He kindly agreed to speak with me about his abiding interest in Stephen King, and in particular about 2017’s Sleeping Beauties, a 700 page brick of a book.
“I love King’s novels because he mixes several different genres. One is horror, using creatures that are part of our mythology, such as vampires and werewolves; another is science fiction and the creation of alternate universes, such as in The Dark Tower series. Another aspect I enjoy, a feature of many of King’s later books, is his use of children as his main characters, leading to immediate empathy and liking for the character. You read Stephen King because at times you like to go to bed needing to leave the light on: is there something under the bed or in the closet?”
According to Gerry, one of King’s main themes is how everyday life can be influenced—and completely altered—by the introduction of the unexplainable. He skillfully uses the concept of the unkillable (or undead), to introduce the conflict between good and evil, life and death, and the triumph we experience when the unexpected hero or heroine saves us from the unspeakable horrors that lie beyond our comprehension.
This novel is the King boys’ description of the interplay between men and women, gender power and relationships. Set in a small prison town in Appalachia called Dooling (most of King’s novels are set in Maine, where King still lives), the main employer is the Dooling Correctional Facility for Women. We’re quickly introduced to some of the main characters in Chapter 1: inmates Jeanette Sorley and Ree Dempster, Dr. Clinton Norcross, prison psychiatrist, his wife Sheriff Lila Norcross, and their 16 year old son Jared. We get a sense that almost all of the characters have experienced complicated lives that have impacted their ability to relate to others. As we read the novel we realize that Stephen and Owen King have taken on the role of explaining to men why relationships with women are often dominated by power struggles and in particular, violence. The characters’ stories reflect the struggles that women have always encountered related to finding their place in a world where force and domination are a part of the fabric of daily life, sometimes overt, sometimes hidden, but always present.
In the midst of these troubled relationships, the authors introduce the element of the supernatural, the unexplainable, and the terrifying, manifested in the appearance of a woman aged about 30, known to the police as Evie Black. She is found naked at the scene of a horrific crime; it seems she has murdered two drug dealers in their makeshift meth lab. She is apprehended by the sheriff and taken to Dooling prison to be held in custody.
The story now becomes more complicated, as the complexities of the relationships between the prison guards, inmates and townspeople unfold. The characters are masterfully depicted, as we begin to see how the authors view the everyday relationships that exist in Dooling; this could be a story in and of itself, apart from the appearance of the mysterious Evie Black. What she brings to the story is classic Stephen King: where does she come from? Why is she here? Why does she seem to have mysterious powers, such as curing herself of serious wounds and knowing what people are thinking? Besides her being a murderer, there are many other factors that cause people to be happy that she is locked in a cell. What becomes highly problematic and absolutely terrifying is the fact that when women go to sleep they are immediately enveloped in a cocoon-like structure that literally grows out their bodies. Within a relatively short period of time, women, across the planet, are going to sleep and developing this cocoon, yet they are still alive.
Needless to say, the female inmates are now falling asleep inside cocoons. Suspicion naturally falls on Evie: is this of her making? What powers does she have? We go back and forth with characters that work in the prison and live in the town. Some particularly unsavory characters begin to appear. One family in particular, the Grearies, is used to show us how the propensity for male violence can destroy and manipulate what is the most fundamental of all human relationships, the family. Without exception, the women in the correctional institute are there in whole or in part because of male intolerance and violence.
What happens to the men in Dooling (and in the rest of the world) when eventually all but 2 or 3 women are encased in cocoons? A central question is, “What would men do if women were no longer there?” What the Kings suggest is that the male reflex to become violent would win out; Evie, clearly the cause of “the sleeping beauties”, must be killed or captured. Eventually, the Dooling women end up an alternate universe, finding themselves very happy without the male presence, and Evie offers them the alternative of waking up, or remaining in their alternate, peaceful universe.
Whether or not this venture into shared authorship lives up to the reader’s expectation is a matter of opinion. The storytelling is effective, but where we see that this is not a classic King novel is in the ending, which is too pat. We never get an answer as to who Evie is, or what happens to her. King père et fils seem to have run out of steam at the end, leaving the reader feeling dissatisfied.
I would recommend it as a good read up until the simplistic ending, a commentary on contemporary antifeminist and violent society, where the quick-draw approach is used to solve all problems. Like most of King’s books, it can be read on many different levels.