Sleeping Beauties: How Stephen King and son Owen joined forces in the nightmare business
What Owen King remembers is how much time his father spent alone. Typing. Making up stories. Going to dark places in his head and coming out with books about killer cars, shape-shifting clowns, and burial grounds that bring the dead back to life.
That’s just how it was being Stephen King’s son. His mother did it, too. When Tabitha King was writing novels, both of Owen’s parents would disappear into that other dimension, hunched in front of a screen — the trance of a writer. They always came back, of course, just as pretty much all moms or dads leave every day for work and then come home. But it was their self-imposed solitary confinement daunted him. Haunted him.
“It was something they did every day, and they did it for hours at a time,” says Owen, 40. “It was kind of scary to look at how much time they spent alone, working at this thing. I didn’t really get serious about my own writing until I was convinced it was something that I wanted to do, that I wanted to spend that much time alone.”
It turns out nightmare-making doesn’t have to be a lonely business. Stephen King and Owen King figured out a way to turn storytelling into a shared effort, collaborating on their new novel Sleeping Beauties, which hits shelves Tuesday.
The 700-page tome is part plague thriller and part fable. It’s the story of a sleeping sickness (nicknamed “Aurora” after Disney’s drowsy princess) that overtakes all the women and girls of the world, leaving the men of the planet to sort things out on their own. Guess how that works out.
When the women go under, they are enshrouded in mysterious, protective cocoons. Peel away wrapping to wake them, and the women’s bodies lash out, like savage sleepwalkers. The novel centers on a female prison in the small town of Dooling, West Virginia, where an ethereal woman named Evie is both the genesis of the plague (take that pun as you will) and the key to ending it.
Evie is beautiful, alluring, magical, and able to meld with the minds of moths, and foxes, and rats. She is mother nature, the princess locked away in a castle, and Maleficent, the wicked fairy, all rolled into one.
“She’s all those things,” Owen says, on a conference call with his father in Maine. “I don’t know about you, Dad, but I like her un-know-abilty. She really isn’t quite defined.”
“She has a twinkle of humor there that gives the character some texture, and she seems human as well as otherworldly. So she’s got a foot in each, and I like that about her,” adds Stephen, who just turned 70 last week. “I like the mystery of her.”
But if the men of the town of Dooling end her first, the women of their world will be lost forever, living out their days in a separate dimension, where they are starting society anew. Maybe they don’t really want to come back.
Stephen has collaborated a few times before (look for EW’s gallery tomorrow), most famously with Peter Straub on 1984’s The Talisman and co-writing comic books like IDW’s Road Rage with his other son, Joe Hill (The Fireman, NOS4A2).
But he hadn’t yet teamed up professionally with Owen, who’s the author of the 2014 novel Double Feature, a dramedy about a young filmmaker trying to make a masterpiece, and co-writer (with Mark Jude Poirior and artist Nancy Ahn) of Intro to Alien Invasion, a blackly funny 2015 graphic novel about an extra-terrestrial spore that infects a college campus.
Owen has inspired his father’s work before, however. Many times.
CHILDREN OF THE ANT FARM
Stephen has previously told EW he studied his own kids like “an ant farm” to glean insight into the many child characters who populate his novels. It is dedicated to Owen, his brother Joe, and their older sister Naomi with the inscription “My children taught me how to be free.” In the 1990 non-fiction essay “Head Down,” Stephen chronicled the ups and downs of Owen’s 1989 Little League team on the road to becoming Maine State Champions.
But being Stephen King’s son was … not very scary or weird. “I went to public schools in Bangor, Maine and had as normal a childhood as you could imagine someone could, living in an enormous red house and being the son of a millionaire best-selling writer,” Owen says. “I mean I actually had a strangely normal childhood despite all that.”
In some ways, they’ve been collaborating since Owen was just a kid. (We’ll get to the G.I. Joe character they invented a little later.) In the 1985 short-story collection Skeleton Crew, Stephen shared the achingly sweet poem “For Owen,” about walking his son to school down a road called Fruit Street and imagining together that the other students are blueberries, bananas, and oranges. It was also toddler Owen wandering too close to a busy road that led Stephen to explore every parent’s bleakest fear in Pet Sematary.
With Sleeping Beauties, the idea of a world of women enchanted into slumber was Owen’s, and he invited his dad to join him in writing the horror fantasy. The reason is obvious Stephen King, like Liam Neeson’s father in the Taken movies, has “a very particular set of skills.” He has passed them on to his kids, and this was a chance for father and son to use them together.
“I never said to them, ‘This is what I want for you to be, you should follow in my footsteps.’ But the house was full of books, and it was full of people who wrote stories, so they just came along,” Stephen King told EW. “To be asked by Owen to collaborate on a book was the greatest thing in the world. You see these signs that say Smith & Son’s hardware or stuff. So, sons do follow in their father’s footsteps. But in a specialized area of one of the arts? It was very gratifying to me.”
“We really did do it for fun,” Owen adds. “We didn’t know if it would be any good or that we would be happy with it. I was really excited that we could have this time together to talk and to work on something, even if it was just for a drawer.”
ONCE UPON A DREAM
Sleeping Beauties’ creators were seldom in the same place at the same time. Stephen splits his time between Maine and Florida, and Owen lives in upstate New York, with his wife, novelist Kelly Braffet (author of the 2013 thriller Save Yourself.) But they did get together to tour a real correctional facility together, to get a first-person sense of their setting.
It helped them add realism to a project that some friends joked sounded like a grindhouse exploitation flick: the Kings are working on a thriller set in a women’s prison? But despite its fantastical elements Sleeping Beauties is no Caged Heat or Big Doll House. It’s much closer to Orange Is the New Black — but with mystical undertones.
“We went to a women’s prison in New Hampshire, and any of those fantasy movies where you have a prison filled with these gorgeous women with great hair, we found out that wasn’t the case,” Stephen jokes. “A lot of the women there just seemed to be working through their time and not very happy about it, but doing what they have to do. We tried to put that in the book and make that prison as realistic as possible. I’m sure that a lot of people who staff women’s prisons will say we got this wrong and we got that wrong, but I’m hoping that we got the flavor right.”
“Yeah, and we wanted to respect people’s experiences,” Owen says. “It’s something that we cared a lot about getting right as much as we possibly could, and of course, fiction takes its own path, but we tried to stay true, even though the book is a fable.”
When the actual writing began, it sounds a lot like a dad and his son putting together a Lego kit: One of them would work on a section, while the other offered little bits and pieces. Then they would hand off that chunk for the other to build and complete before handing it back.
The only difference is, they didn’t fully know what they were constructing.
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“There were things that I didn’t expect, but that’s the fun of it, man,” Stephen says. “It’s like going along the road and finding things that are valuable. You think you’re exploring a little cave, and then you find an opening, and there’s a huge cave behind it. Does that make sense?”
“I totally understand what you mean, Pop, and I think that was what happened,” Owen says. (Let’s pause to appreciate that Stephen King’s kids call him “Pop.”) “We didn’t exactly know what was gonna happen in the second half of the book until we got pretty deep into the first half, and then it all snapped into focus.”
Sometimes they deliberately wrote sadistic cliffhangers for the other to resolve. A sort of dare or challenge as they handed back the book. Owen says his father never failed to keep the plot from plummeting into the abyss.
“Every once in a while, there’d be something like, ‘I know what’s got to happen here, but I don’t know how the f–k I would write this,’” Owen says. “And he always could. It’s like these guy that build the hotrods in their barns and then go driving them at 200 miles an hour on the salt flats. My dad’s got that. He’s got a barn full of tools that he’s gonna find a way to put together and get us out of there.”
THE COBRA HYPNOTIST
Sleeping Beauties may be the first book they’ve co-authored, but as mentioned above, it’s not technically Stephen and Owen’s first professional collaboration.
That honor belongs to Crystal Ball, a villainous G.I. Joe character they concocted together back in the mid-‘80s, when Owen was a 9-year-old. Stephen wrote down a pitch, and sent it to Hasbro, which mass produced the toy in 1987 and put him in the Marvel comics.
“It’s true,” Owen says, sounding a little bit chagrined, and handing the credit (or blame) off to his dad. “I think that he’s much better suited to explain because, I think my contribution to the creative element was more limited to being like, ‘Yeah, Dad, that sounds awesome.’”
“Oh, I mean that is such bulls—,” Stephen King replies. “It was his idea! He had all the G.I. Joes and we watched it on TV, and we read the comic books.”
Stephen has pretty specific recall on that day. He says it was winter, snowy outside, and the two were going around the wide yard on cross-country skis. “He said, ‘Dad, it would be great if there was a G.I. Joe who could read minds.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, that would be really great. What would you call a character like that?’ And Owen said, ‘Crystal Ball!’”
The character has a lenticular holographic shield and looks a little like Vincent Price crossed with Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos.
“I think the character that we wrote wasn’t particularly well-liked, which is the funniest part,” Owen says. “This is one of the reasons why I always feel like it’s dicey to even talk about this, because the G.I. Joe people don’t really like him.”
This does not wash with Stephen King, who dropped a mention of the toy in his 1987 novel The Tommyknockers. “I think Crystal Ball was one of the most popular ones!” he insists. There’s a clacking of computer keys on his end of the line. “I’m looking right now on the internet…”
“No,” Owen assures him. “He’s not particularly popular, but I like him.” Hasbro did, too, and the company was so grateful for the contribution that they named another G.I. Joe good guy, the recon ranger Sneak Peek, “Owen King” after the young fan.
The typing stops. “I’m gonna make you very unhappy,” Stephen says, like a doctor who has a folder full of bad test results to share. “I just scrolled through ‘The Top 50 Greatest G.I. Joe Characters of All Time,’ and… he’s not on it.”
“Would you believe — put this in the article somewhere — I don’t think Funko has sent him a Pennywise,” Owen says, eager to change the subject.
“The most popular G.I. Joe is what, Owen?” his dad asks. A pop culture test for the child of the ’80s.
Owen guesses Destro – the silver headed arms-dealing villain, who works with Cobra on its quest for world domination.
“No,” Stephen says, with a tsk of his tongue. “Snake Eyes.”
“Oh, yeah. That makes sense,” Owen replies.
Crystal Ball may not rank at the top, but that dastardly hypnotist still stands for something special. Most dads can buy their kids a toy, but not many can invent one with their son.
Sleeping Beauties and Crystal Ball don’t have a lot in common, but they do prove one thing: The work of a writer may seem solitary, but it’s actually a playground. And you can visit together.
No matter how old you are.
No matter where you live in the real world.