The characters and overall plot line of Sleeping Beauties will be familiar to most Stephen King readers. While he hasn’t explored a world without women before, he has made a career of looking at small towns facing extreme circumstances and using those small towns to stand in for society as a whole. In some ways, this novel reminded me of Under the Dome, both in how isolated or confined the setting felt and in the way that the community quickly splintered and divided.
As the news is filled with reports of women in Asia and Australia falling asleep, developing odd spiderweb-like growths on their faces and not waking up, Dooling is dealing with its own shocking situation – a double homicide at the local meth dealer’s trailer. Seemingly unrelated, it quickly becomes obvious that the perpetrator of these killings is somehow related to the sleeping sickness that is soon dubbed Aurora after the Disney princess. Eve Black is the only woman that appears to be able to fall asleep and wake back up, and as the rest of the world goes crazy, her fate in a West Virginia women’s prison becomes crucial to the future of the world.
While this novel is co-written by Stephen King and his son, Owen King, the usual prototypes of King characters quickly make their appearances – the prosaically evil sexist guy at the prison, the generally good guy with some baggage in his past, and a large cast of supporting characters. While I enjoyed the set up part of the novel most, there was a slight overabundance of character introductions at the beginning, especially at the women’s prison. Overall, I would say King is a bit more critical of his protagonists than he has been in previous novels but there is still a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys.
As the women fall asleep, they find themselves in together in a dream space. Meanwhile, the physical world around them falls into chaos. Some of the reactions the Kings describe feel very realistic, especially in this day of fake news and fake science, where false information can spread quickly. And human hysteria and herd mentality is not exactly a new phenomenon. Similarly, King makes people that normally consider themselves the good guys question their past behavior. Is not participating in bullying enough to be considered a good person, or does it require actual action/speaking up? This part is very topical, and no one, especially no man, comes away from this story guilt free. All have sinned in some form or another in their treatment of women or their tolerance of the treatment of others. Men quickly casually refer to the cocoons as “bitch bags” and other actions show a certain casual sexism that lives in the average men of this novel.
While there is an obvious villain, he is more of a minor character that is able to take advantage of events but he is never trusted with leadership and is looked down by the rest of the people on his side. Instead, it is Frank Geary who plays the role of the antagonist to Clint. Frank as the average every man has redeeming qualities, he loves animals and gets angry when people mistreat dogs and other innocent animals (one usual way King likes to demonstrate who is evil in his books is to show them mistreating dogs, so I liked that he played that trope a bit by using a guy that is nice to animals to present a man that could go either way) but his anger and temper are uncontrollable and out of proportion to events. His anger scares his ex-wife and while he justifies his motivations as coming from a place of love, he also scares his daughter.
While the novel doesn’t try to portray women as all good opposed to all evil men, I also wonder how this could have played out if King had chosen to coauthor this story with a woman rather than his son. They don’t portray the women’s dream space as idyllic but it was still optimistic. Since it was two men trying to talk about the evils of men, they may have gone farther in their portrayal of the mostly good women than necessary. I enjoyed that they pointed out the many small ways in which even supportive and feminist men can disregard the women in their lives. I am sure this may have even involved some self reflection since King’s portrayals of women have on occasion been a bit simplistic or problematic, though he obviously tries to be an ally.
My other issue as with most King novels came with the ending, or near the ending. While Dooling is a small town, the climatic scene ends up boiling down to the decisions of a few dozen men, and ends in what I felt was a rather over the top way. While I enjoyed the set up and many of the ideas behind it, the way it played out felt forced rather than a natural lead up (of course, there is at least one character manipulating the actions so that may justify the escalation but I wasn’t entirely convinced that this is where the plot needed to go). However, I appreciated that the novel didn’t end abruptly, and King took some time to talk about the aftermath of the events. Overall, it was an enjoyable story – far from King’s best, far from his worst, and it was a rather fitting novel for the current times.