When my review copy of Sleeping Beauties turned up, I realised just what an epic enterprise father and son team, Stephen and Owen King, had embarked upon. At over 700 pages, it could appear a daunting prospect to a new reader. But, like most King novels, once you’re into it, you’ll find yourself racing through it at breakneck speed. This book is well worth the time you invest in it.
Sleeping Beauties has plenty of familiar King elements while at the same time offering up something new. Past works of a similar nature would include Under the Dome and The Stand. Like The Dome, Sleeping Beauties is written in a straightforward, dramatic style, and focuses on the microcosm of one town. In comparison, The Stand draws its characters from across the country, yet it still bears a resemblance to Sleeping Beauties in that both books detail the initiation and spread of an epidemic. One of Stephen King’s great talents is being able to describe the minutiae effects disasters have not only on his main characters, but also on the average guy you might pass in the street. Like The Stand, Sleeping Beauties also incorporates supernatural elements, this time in the form of Evie Black as well as the existence of an alternative, women-only Dooling.
The story has such a wide range of characters that there is a list of them at the beginning, for readers to flick back to. I’m always wary of books that have to have any kind of reference material at the beginning, as it’s a sign they could be unwieldy, but it’s relatively straightforward to keep track of the characters here as the authors make them so distinctive.
The action itself focuses almost exclusively on the residents of the small town of Dooling, and the sudden appearance of Evie Black. Evie enters town just as a new sleeping sickness is sweeping the globe. Across the world, women are falling asleep, becoming covered with cocoons and not waking up. If the cocoons are disturbed, the women become violent, killing those who awakened them, before falling asleep again. It’s made clear that the outcome of this epidemic depends on both the actions of the men of Dooling and on the decision of the women. Indeed, one character is even killed when he suggests getting outside help. The authors are careful to keep the narrative within the microcosm, giving a worldwide epidemic a very personal feel.
One of the issues that Sleeping Beauties examines is the terrible inevitability of nature. It reminded me a little bit of Cujo in that respect: you knew what was coming and part of the horror was seeing the inevitable unfold. Indeed, one interpretation of Evie Black is that she is the personification of nature itself, although it is never made clear whether she is the cause of the epidemic or merely a messenger in its wake.
The narrative flows so smoothly that it’s impossible to distinguish which elements Stephen wrote and which Owen was responsible for. There are certainly bits in it that are unusual for Stephen King. Normally his social commentary is focussed on the individual or on a branch of society that is being tortured or tested. In Sleeping Beauties, the battle of the sexes is forefront and doesn’t shy from pulling its punches. We see some men desperately trying to protect their women, while others set fire to the cocoons because they are certain that since the women are coming back filled with violence, they are to be feared and destroyed.
At first, the tone of Sleeping Beauties seems to be very much against men in general. But as we enter the last quarter of the book, the authors present us with examples of women who are just as bad as the men who have been targeted before.
The most notable example of this comparison is the tempestuous relationship of Frank and Elaine. Most readers will groan at Frank’s self-involved, deluded motivations for his actions, such as berating the “stupid selfish chick doctors” when he finds the women’s section of the hospital is closed due to the Aurora emergency. He completely fails to see that it’s closed not because of some female conspiracy to deprive him of assistance, but because those doctors are likely to fighting off the cocoons themselves.
Yet later on we get a glimpse into the mind of Elaine. Nearly every thought she has about men is derogatory, even viewing young boys with a sense of suspicion. At one point, she extrapolates a five year old into a grown man with sinister and selfish tendencies. She also focuses on wanting to protect her daughter without thinking what is best for the child: something which Frank is not only guilty of, but which drives him to commit despicable acts. It’s clear from these insights that Elaine is just as bad as her husband, although it is left open to the reader to decide if this is because of, or in spite of, Frank’s previous influence over her. The possibility that, left to her own devices, she might descend to Frank’s ridiculous depths of self-delusion is tantalisingly left hanging.
However, while there are some obnoxious and selfish women, there is no female character as odious as Don Peters, a prison guard who sees sexual harassment as an acceptable — even expected — part of his job. “They got dressed up to be messed up, that was just a fact.” There is a definite feeling in this novel that the scales of unpleasantness are weighted more heavily with regards to men.
Whether messenger or architect of humanity’s troubles, Evie Black makes it clear that both sexes, in their different worlds, are being tested. The men are tried through their actions and reaction to the sickness. Clint, the psychiatrist at the female prison and perhaps the most appealing male character, shows a great deal of empathy for the women in his care, and a mature response to the lies his wife tells him before she too falls asleep. He struggles to know what to do for the best as he weighs all lives in the balance; he is often encouraged by Evie to embrace his female side now that all the women have gone, and rely on a power so often ascribed to women: intuition. In contrast, there is Frank who isn’t proactive in stopping the other men calling the sleeping women “bitch-bags” because it’s not his job to stop them. It’s clear that even small inactions of this kind are going to lead step by tiny step to an epic cataclysmic event that could so easily have been avoided if just a few men stepped up when needed.
In contrast, the struggles faced by the women in the new Dooling are practical ones, since their new world is pretty much a husk. They fare remarkably well. They form groups to organise farming, construction, healthcare, and education. They make ink from swamp redcurrants. Kayleigh, a member of the prison, is welcomed without prejudice against her past crimes and is valued only for her skills. At various times in the novel, it is pointed out that men in such a world would likely not be as productive or efficient.
Yet even in this new Dooling the women are not safe from men since, if they are moved in the real world, they get dizzy in the new Dooling; if they killed in the real Dooling, they vanish from the new one. Even when carving out a new world for themselves, they are still subject to the whims of men, and that is a very sinister message.
There are distinct fairytale and mythological elements to this story, such as when Evie kisses Maura and sends her to sleep in a reversal of Sleeping Beauty, or whole sections written from the point of view of a fox (who gets his own entry in the cast of characters at the beginning). There is also the fairytale element of transgression: if you wake the sleeper, you will evoke their wrath. The consequences are inevitable and brutal, whether its husbands who have not seen the news trying to wake their wives, or unsuspecting and frightened children trying to wake their mothers. They all meet with the same, terrible fate, bringing us back to the terrible inevitability of nature: you wake them, you die, no matter what your motivation.
For committed Stephen King fans, there is a lot here to enjoy. There are plenty of Stephen King “staples” that will draw you into his world as surely as they did in previous works. However, the social commentary at the heart of this novel might not appeal to some. It might be that, at the end, the reader is in doubt as to whether either sex is better than the other, but to get to an examination of the nastier side of the female sex, you have to work through several hundred pages where the men are most definitely the villains. That’s not going to appeal to everyone, but if you’re looking for a traditional style King novel with something fresh and engaging in it, then this is the novel for you.