BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping Beauties by Stephen & Owen King

The sleepy (pardon my pun) town of Dooling is hit, like the rest of the world, by a strange phenomenon where women and girls who fall asleep succumb to being shrouded in a mysterious webbing. Wrapped up in body bags like cocoons, these women and girls are lost to their husbands, brothers, fathers and friends, with no apparent cause and no conclusive cures. If the cocoons are probed and the webbing torn in any way, the women respond violently and often cause fatalities.

This phenomenon is named “Aurora” and accelerates its spread like a global bush-fire. No woman is immune: aside from loading up on stimulants to temporarily resist the lull of sleep, the outcome is inevitable.

When Dooling’s Sheriff Lila is called to the scene of a gnarly crime on the first morning of Aurora’s appearance, she notes the coincidental arrival of a very enigmatic Evie to the town. Scantily clad, chillingly knowledgeable and capable of major destruction, the otherworldly Evie may have the answers to the world’s questions about Aurora.

However, in order to serve any use in reversing the weird global phenomenon, Evie will have to first survive the threats that face her from some of Dooling’s very awake, and angry, male citizens…

Aspects of the novel I wasn’t so keen on:

  • The tired repetition of themes and character arcs from other Stephen King titles. As to be expected, there are some recurring ideas within Sleeping Beauties that, to me, drew instant comparisons to the likes of The Stand, Under the Dome and Desperation. You have your classic good guys, the morally questionable guys who go on to discover great untapped potential and turn their lives around, and finally the completely unsaveable evil guys who exploit others at any available opportunity. Characters that instantly raised red flags include Eric Blass, Garth Flickinger, Frank Geary and Clint Norcross. The aforementioned cast aren’t exact replicas of other characters in the King universe, but definitely share very distinct personality traits with other characters, enough so that I’d noticed and had to take a few moments to get through the odd deja vu. That being said, I’m not sure if some repetition is entirely avoidable when a writer like Stephen King has such a vast bibliography under their belt.

Things I like about the novel:

  • The merging of two Kings in one book (trust me, no relation whatsoever to 2 girls, 1 cup). I swear I could feel from the outset that this wasn’t solely a Stephen King book. I have absolutely no idea why or whether it was entirely a placebo phenomenon because I’d seen Owen’s name on the front cover, but I did feel like the tone and writing style was ever so slightly different in a very rewarding way. I feel like, without this, I’d have maybe stalled in reading at certain points where blatant comparisons to other King novels were particularly striking.
  • The social commentary on what the world as we know it could really look like without women. I think we’re all fundamentally aware that we take aspects of our lives for granted. There are things we overlook without a second glance, and I feel like the patriarchy has done a pretty magnificent job of systematically unseeing women and their value in society for thousands of years. So yeah, reading this book was a nice imagination-booster and made me think about the inherent value of those around me, as well as the neverending battle to be seen and heard by those who are so damned good at ignoring the privileges afforded to them thanks to the hard work and exploitation of half the world’s population.
  • I really enjoyed the post-apocalyptic and fantastical elements of “Our Place”. Our Place was depicted as an almost Stranger Things-esque “Upside Down” edition of the real world. The sense of community and peace achieved by the cocooned women, when given an opportunity to start again, was utopian and dreamlike but also raised questions of viability and sustenance.

BOOK REVIEW: The Dead Zone by Stephen King

Adored by his parents, Vera and Herb Smith, The Dead Zone’s tragic hero Johnny Smith is an only child bearing an unremarkable name and an unremarkable life, for all extents and purposes. This is until one day at the ice rink when Johnny has an accident which leads to a brief stint of unconsciousness. He picks himself up, slightly disoriented, and makes his way home to his parents as though nothing has happened with only a small bump on his head to show for the accident. The event is altogether forgotten, however, it leaves its mark on Johnny by irrevocably changing his brain and bestowing the young boy with an uncanny ability of precognition and clairvoyance through touch.

Later on in life, Johnny appears to have a flair for teaching and is well-liked by his students at a high school in Cleaves Mills, as well as his peers. In particular, his sense of humour wins over the affections of Sarah Bracknell, a fellow teacher, and the two go out on a date to the fair. That evening, Johnny is caught up in an almost-fatal car crash and ends up comatose for five years. When he wakes up, he learns his girlfriend Sarah has moved on and married another man, his mother has descended into religious hysteria and the world as he last knew it has completely and utterly changed. Oh, and he has also unlocked a more powerful iteration of his pre-coma abilities.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Johnny encounters a great many helpless folk who want his omniscient eye to offer answers to their questions about where missing relatives have disappeared to and how the deceased are coping in the afterlife, but he also crosses paths with another more ominous type of folk. The type of folk who harbour the deepest, darkest secrets and are up to dastardly deeds… There also comes a package deal with the local/national media, who hone in like vultures as the rumours spread of a coma victim with extraordinary abilities.

Like many of King’s novels, there are recurring tropes and the scope for crossover with the worldbuilding of his other titles. For instance, within The Dead Zone, the fictitious town Castle Rock is alluded to as the home of serial murderer Frank Dodd, though this town is also referenced in Pet Sematary, Doctor Sleep and The Stand. Also, one of the marginal characters drops a cheeky metatextual reference to the novel Carrie when confronting Johnny’s Mystic Meg abilities. There are additionally parallels to be drawn with King’s later work of Under the Dome, whose antagonist Rennie Jr is plagued by crippling headaches, the result of an undiagnosed and particularly aggressive brain tumour.

That being said, aside from the small similarities, The Dead Zone’s story is still an original concept from King which focuses on the isolating effects of trauma. From the moment Johnny wakes up from his coma, he’s out of place in the reality of a world that moved on in his absence. His existence is disjointed from that of his loved ones and, despite the companionship offered by new friendly faces such as Dr Sam Weizak and Robert/Chuck Chatsworth, Johnny is overwhelmingly alone.

I think The Dead Zone is a signature King offering with a slightly supernatural story, grounded by very human experiences like loss and loneliness. There’s no weird creatures or ghouls to titillate readers, just Johnny Smith’s unlikely survivor’s tale- I would argue that he is on par with the likes of other tortured protagonists such as Jack Torrance of The Shining, with them both being tragic heroes seeking redemption throughout the narrative arc. All in all, I thought The Dead Zone was generally a great read, but must admit that I found the pacing of the second half to be a little slower than the first and had to work a little to persist through a patch where not much was happening. I think die-hard King fans will nestle into the book and consider it an easy, satisfying read.