On the back of the broadly brilliant Bill Hodges books, a succinct and suspenseful series of straight stories that only started to flag when their fantastical aspects filibustered the fiction, Sleeping Beauties sees Stephen King up to his old tricks again. It’s a long, long novel that places a vast cast of characters at the mercy of a speculative premise: a sleeping sickness that knocks all the women of the world out for the count, leaving the men to fend for themselves.
Of course, the world is not now, nor has it ever been, King’s business. Standing in for it in this particular story, as a microcosm of all that’s right and wrong or spineless and strong, is a small town “splat in the middle of nowhere,” namely Dooling in West Virginia. There, tempers flare—explosively so, soon enough—when it dawns on a dizzying array of dudes that their wives and daughters and whatnot may be gone for good. It’s Under the Dome part deux, in other words, except that this time, the Constant Writer has roped one of his sons in on the fun.
The author of an excellent short story collection, a gonzo graphic novel and an overwritten love letter to the silver screen, Owen King is clearly capable of greatness, but—rather like his father—falls short as often as not. I’d hoped to see him at his best here, what with the help of an old hand, however it’s hard to see him at all, so consistent is their collaboration. But as tough as it is to tell where one King ends and the other begins, Sleeping Beauties is such a slog that it hardly matters.
The show opens on a sprawling ensemble. Some seventy characters, up to and including a talking fox, are arrayed on the stage at the start of the first act, which chronicles the spread of the strange contagion that comes to be called “the Aurora Flu, named for the princess in the Walt Disney retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale,” particularly as it pertains to the women one Clint Norcross knows.
As Dooling Correctional Facility for Women’s resident shrink, Clint knows a lot of women, but for once, knowledge is not the same as power. When one of his favourite inmates has to be subdued, say, Clint is powerless to stop a sort of fairy handkerchief from forming over her face:
The growth on Kitty’s face was white and gauzy, tight to her skin. It made Clint think of a winding sheet. He could tell that her eyes were shut and he could tell that they were moving in REM. The idea that she was dreaming under the stuff troubled him, although he wasn’t sure why.
He wants to wake her up, to simply peel back the cocoon made of mucous and other, equally icky secretions, but by now the Aurora Flu is all over the news, and the affected women who’ve already been awoken have come to transformed into vicious killers, lashing out mindlessly at the men who dared disturb their dreams. For the time being, at least, the advice is to leave the sleepers be.
So it is that remaining compos mentis is the name of the game in “the next act of that day’s continuing nightmare.” Energy drinks and wakefulness supplements, not to mention certain prohibited pick-me-ups, suddenly become hot commodities, and when they’re gone—when all too soon demand starts to outstrip supply—society practically falls apart. There’s rioting, looting and lynching, all for the sake of staying awake.
Happily, as the Sheriff of Dooling County, Clint Norcross’ wife Lila has other options: an evidence room full of other options, in fact, such as the uppers she and her team seized during a recent drug bust. As “a conscientious and reasonable representative of the law,” Lila struggles with the idea of eating precious evidence, but not for all that long, under the circumstances. Maintaining law and order is more important now than ever, she believes, not least because many men have gotten it into their heads that they might catch the Aurora Flu too, and have started incinerating vulnerable women:
Blowtorch Brigades […] they were being called. There were bad women and there were bad men; if anyone could claim the right to make that statement, Lila, who had arrested plenty of both, felt that she could. But men fought more; they killed more. That was one way in which the sexes had never been equal; they were not equally dangerous.
Pivotal as it is, that’s not Lila only motivation. What saved her from being struck by the first wave of the Aurora Flu was an early call to attend the scene of a double murder at a local crack shack. There, she quickly caught the killer: a beautiful young woman who introduced herself as Eve during the drive to Clint’s prison—and Eve may hold the key to this whole bloody puzzle. There’s definitely something different about her. She’s immune to the sleeping sickness, you see. Also, she can, ah… talk to foxes?
She was an extension, and a possible answer to the original questions, the great How and Why of their situation. They discussed the likelihood that she was something more than a woman—more than human—and there was increasing unity in the belief that she was the source of everything that had happened.
Sleeping Beauties’s sluggish first third is enlivened every time it presents Lila’s sensible perspective, but sadly, she plays second fiddle to her supposedly heroic husband in the story’s action-packed second act. There’s something faintly ridiculous about this—about the notion that all the characters of note in the novel orbit Clint in some capacity—and it’s something that underscores the more problematic elements of the text’s very premise.
The Kings don’t appear interested in asking what if all the women in the world were to fall asleep. Instead, they want to know what the men would do if that were to happen. To make matters worse, they don’t even have an interesting answer to that question. Without the sensitive sex to smooth their poor furrowed brows, the blokes behave exactly as the stereotypes Sleeping Beauties trades in have led us to expect: badly.
Neither of this door-stopper of a novel’s authors have ever been much for subtlety, but in this instance, a little thought about something other than plot may have gone a long way. As it stands, Sleeping Beauties is a tedious read, full of gratuitous shooting and shouting but empty in every other sense. It’s such a big book that you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a lot going on, but there’s not; aside from Lila, and perhaps the prison warden who pops off to the Land of Nod early on, its characters are bland as bran; and the setting is so bog-standard that it reminded me of all things royalty-free. Last but not least, in its theme and meaning, Sleeping Beauties isn’t just decidedly disappointing—ultimately, it’s insulting.
Approach this one with caution, Constant Reader.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.