NOW, THERE are cynics in the publishing world who say that Stephen King using the abortion/pro-life debate as the linchpin of his latest novel, Insomnia, is a (gasp]) barefaced attempt to ignite media controversy. King's sales slip is showing, they say, so it's perfectly understandable that he should follow Michael Crichton's Disclosure, the bestseller that cannily colonised a traditional women's issue - sexual harassment - and reversed the angle. If it worked once, why not twice? So let's have an ordinary man caught between the opposing forces, let's have wife-beating, lesbians and fundamentalist terrorism, too. Can't miss.

Well, darlings, the cynics are wrong. For dedicated King watchers - count me in - Insomnia is simply the latest stage in the horror writer's ongoing relationship with the Ultimate Monsterous Other: the female of the species.

King is . . . what is the Americanism? Oh, yes, conflicted, seriously conflicted. Get him on the subject of women and the contradictions fly in every direction. Regarde.

On the airbrushed pages of Playboy he meekly agrees with a critic's assessment that 'It is disheartening when a writer with so much talent is not able to develop a believable woman character between the ages of 17 and 60.'

Spilling his guts to Rolling Stone, he insists he has never written women in 'stereotypical fashion' and that (wait for it) 'Carrie is a parable of women's consciousness'. Nevertheless, the girls in Carrie are more vicious than the boys because girls are 'always much more vicious than boys'. Still, King knows what Flaubert meant about actually being Madame Bovary because 'there's a little bit of Carrie White in me too'.

Which of these statements is true? Why, all of them. It's understandable that a man who was a pudgy, bespectacled teenage dweeb should be, let's say, ambivalent, maybe even vengeful, about vixens of a certain age, the sort who wouldn't give him a second look, let alone a tumble.

And King knows, good old Gothic soul that he is, that power is tied to sexuality; hence the fascination/repulsion with menstrual blood exhibited by Carrie and The Tommyknockers. That's why he has all the adolescent heroes of It have group sex with the budding heroine before they confront the Big Evil.

And yet . . . King is also the man who has Misery's nominal bitch articulate one half of himself - the half that upholds the tenets of popular writing. He even invests Annie Wilkes with his own pain. Her terrifying 'stressaches' are taken straight from the writer's life.

King inherited his 'stressaches' from his mother, a middle- aged, working-class Methodist who held the family together when Daddy took a walk when Stephen was two. The mother who would cart the sickly Stephen to church three times a week and take on a succession of jobs - laundrywoman, doughnut maker, housekeeper - along with a certain masculinity: she was mother and father both. Her manner could be butch-blunt-bitter. She once came upon Stephen preening before a mirror, grabbed him and threw him against the wall with a mighty shout: 'Inside our clothes, we all stand naked] Don't ever forget it]'

Let's play cheap Freudian theory. Me first. Mrs King sounds like who? Carrie White's mother? Annie Wilkes? Is Stephen King 'working out' a complex about strong women?

Strong women like his Mommie Dearest and wife Tabitha, who endured her husband's morose drunkeness early in their marriage, rescued the typescript of Carrie from the trash ('She was amused by it') and finally embarked on her own career as a novelist, earning equal measures of her spouse's admiration - 'I'm so proud of her' - and irritation: 'I felt like saying, 'Hey, these are my toys; you can't play with them.' '

King would disagree about the psychological sub-text (c'mon, does he look like someone who works out?) After all, the motto brandished in the short story The Breathing Method reads: 'It Is The Tale, Not He Who Tells It'.

But pause and consider King's recent book, Dolores Claiborne, the tale of a working-class housekeeper (does this woman sound familiar?) stuck with the traditional women's job of taking care of the aged - mad Mrs Donovan, rich and demonic and eventually murdered. If Dolores is the killer, King makes us understand she is no monster; he illuminates the pressures that might have driven her to spill blood - he even makes us grasp why Dolores' famous writer daughter deserted her in shame.

Insomnia happens through male eyes; tired male eyes that constantly weep. There are nervous jokes about New Men and Iron John and an admission which appears frank - 'Yes, I'm sexist, I'm old-fashioned, and sometimes it gets me into trouble' - until one realises that King is struggling with, and lying to, himself - again. He's getting older and, if not wiser, definitely more self- aware. He's simply not sure of anything any more.

No wonder the hero can't sleep at night. Like his creator he's . . . what's the Americanism again? Oh yes, conflicted, seriously conflicted.

'Insomnia' is published by Hodder & Stoughton today at pounds 15.99.

(Photograph omitted)