Sleeping Beauties, co-written by Stephen King and his son Owen King, is a doorstop of a book with an ensemble cast that seems designed for a television series–and in fact was optioned for one before it was even published last fall.
In the small Appalachian town of Dooling, a naked woman mysteriously appears from the woods with a bunch of moths trailing her and proceeds to swiftly destroy the trailer of a nearby meth-head. She’s shortly picked up by the town sheriff, Lila Norcross, who along with her husband Clint, the psychiatrist at the town’s correctional facility for women, come the closest to constituting main characters and whose conflict comes the closest to constituting chronic tension: Clint has just realized that Lila has lied about where she spent the previous night; Lila spent it out after watching the basketball game of a girl she’s recently discovered to be Clint’s apparent daughter. Clint has to check the moth woman in to the prison; she says her name is Evie, and her self-inflicted wounds heal much faster than they should.
The same morning Evie appears, women who fall asleep worldwide start to grow cocoons over their faces and bodies and won’t wake up. If the cocoon is forcibly removed from a sleeping woman, she will fly into a violent rage and likely kill whoever removed it, as several people learn the hard way. The sleeping sickness is dubbed “Aurora.”
Across the wide cast of the townspeople, a couple are straight-up evil, including a prison guard, Don Peters, who abuses the inmates, and a group of classmates of Lila and Clint’s son Jared who are going to pee in a cocooned homeless woman’s ear before Jared intervenes. Another prominent character is animal controller Frank Geary, whose problem controlling his temper has cost him his marriage.
Chaos descends as women try to stay awake and men are left increasingly to their own rudimentary devices. Lila discovers a giant supernatural tree with a tiger, snake, and lots of moths in the field where Evie came from, though she might be hallucinating from sleep deprivation. Right before Lila falls asleep, she confronts Clint about his alleged daughter and finds out that while a woman from his past gave the girl Clint’s last name, the girl is not actually his and he’s never been unfaithful. Clint grew up being shuttled between foster homes and has kept much of his violent past from Lila, who despite the fact that he didn’t cheat is still fed up with how closed off he’s been and how he always had to do things his way.
When we get to Part Two after Lila falls asleep, we finally get to see what the cocooned women are experiencing: they’ve gone to a version of the town where its dilapidation makes it seem like a lot of time has passed. They confirm time is moving more slowly there when new women show up months later telling them that only a couple of days have passed in the other world since Aurora started. Despite lacking a lot of comforts and amenities from the other world, they build a nice life for themselves. A former meth addict, Tiffany, who came in pregnant, is particularly better off, until she dies giving birth to a son.
Meanwhile, Evie, who’s being kept in a jail cell and has demonstrated her supernatural abilities by getting rats to do things for her, by knowing things about people that she shouldn’t, and, most importantly, by being the only woman able to wake up after going to sleep, tells Clint that some of the men are going to try to kill her and that he can’t let them do that, or all of the sleeping women will die for real instead of having a chance to come back. The tension builds until Clint and his recruits have to defend the prison from an assault by a faction led by Frank Geary, who wants to take Evie and get her examined by a doctor to see if she’s the key to a cure for Aurora. Even though Clint and Frank want the same thing–for the women to wake up–they descend into a bloody battle in which several people are killed. When Frank and the few men he has left finally make it to Evie’s cell, defended by Clint and the few people he has left (which include a couple of women Evie has breathed new life into so they can stay awake), Evie tells Frank that if he kills her the women will wake up, but Clint says she’s lying as a test to see if they’ll continue to resort to violence, and she actually has to leave through the supernatural tree.
(There was an altercation with the supernatural tree on the other side when the women figured out it might be the key to returning, and Frank Geary’s estranged wife Elaine decided they had better lives on their side of the tree and resolved to burn it down so they couldn’t return. Evie sends back a prison inmate, Jeanette Sorley, who’d managed to stay awake until then, to defend the tree, and just after Jeanette stops Elaine from burning it down, Lila Norcross shows up and shoots and kills Jeanette, thinking she was the one trying to burn down the tree. (Jeanette is black, btw.) Jeanette laments that she has a son as she dies.)
Frank is going to kill Evie, but then one of the men on Clint’s side has a heart attack, and when Frank wants to help him, Clint says he won’t unless they let Evie go. Evie then saves the man herself by breathing life back into him, and Frank agrees to let her go back through the tree. Once she does, she tells the women they can choose whether to stay on that side of the tree or to return, but that they have to come to a unanimous decision. The women all agree to go back, and go through the tree, and wake up.
In Part Three, we get a very short resolution telling us about Aurora’s aftermath; some people are better off than others, naturally. Notably, Lila and Clint’s marriage dissolves after Lila, burdened by having killed Jeanette, adopts Tiffany’s son against Clint’s wishes. The End.
The premise of juxtaposing a world without men and a world without women initially sounds promising, but in this case becomes reductive. The two men writing the book definitely got a little heavy-handed in pushing a moral that men are responsible for all the violent problems of the world. It feels like they’re trying to be like, “Hey, we’re on the women’s side!” But this is undermined by the basic fact of how little time they spend on the women’s side of the tree: the book is probably seven-eighths describing the world without women and one-eighth describing the world without men; it almost feels like the supernatural tree gets more description than the women’s world. The women get some airtime before they fall asleep and go to the other world, but still.
There’s an interesting possible redemption of the disproportionate structure when Frank Geary’s estranged wife ends up being as hard-headed as he is in thinking she knows what’s best for everyone and trying to burn down the supernatural tree, which is an act of violence. Then there’s Lila shooting Jeanette further underscoring that women are capable of violence, despite the repeated lip service paid to how much better off the women are in their world without the horribly violent men. Then there’s the fact that women ripped manually from their cocoons turn into mindless killing machines, a seeming symbol of the violence necessary to survive in the world on this side of the tree.
And then there’s the fact that all the women choose to come back pretty unequivocally, despite it supposedly being so much better off in their world without the men (though to be fair it seems a lot of them just want to come back so they can watch Netflix). This climax of the women all choosing to come back felt very anticlimactic. Not necessarily because it didn’t seem like a choice the women might conceivably make, but because there was no conflict in their decision. Lila and Elaine were two possible wild cards, women who might not want to go back, but when it’s their turn to vote, they both immediately decide that yes, fine, they’ll go back. The only one who was significantly focused on as being better off in the new world was Tiffany, and she’s dead, so. There was just no conflict in the decision, perhaps underscoring the point that women don’t have conflict, despite Lila and Elaine having just complicated that, temporarily. There was such a buildup to the climax in the men’s world that again it just felt like the implicit point was that men were more important, or at least more interesting. The lesson is that violence is more interesting, at least.
One of the major female characters, Michaela Morgan, a Dooling native turned celebrity news anchor who returns to Dooling during Aurora and one of the women Evie breathes life into to keep awake, gets a lot of setup that pretty much goes nowhere. She’s around for the climactic confrontation over Evie, but contributes nothing to it but some throwaway statements of the obvious.
Michaela turned to Evie. “Whoever sent you here thinks this is how men solve all their problems. Isn’t that right?”
Evie made no reply. Michaela had an idea that the remarkable creature in the soft cell was being torn in ways she had never expected when she appeared in the woods above that rusted trailer.
She turned back to the armed men, now halfway down the corridor. Their guns were pointed. At this range, their bullets would shred the little group in front of the strange woman.
Michaela raised her weapon. “It doesn’t have to go this way. Show her it doesn’t have to.”
One of the only extended passages that takes place in the women’s world seemed to have little importance in terms of impacting the overall plot. A group of women goes exploring and only one comes back after the men’s prison they stayed the night in slid down the unstable mountain it was at the top of (due to coal mining). The women thought they saw a woman inside the prison, but after Lila explores the ruins it turns out to be a blowup doll. This episode further cements Lila’s relationship with Tiffany, who went with her but, being pregnant, did nothing to help during the actual exploration, and it seems to somehow resonate thematically with further inverting the structure of the real world they came from (men’s prison in women’s world a counterpoint to the women’s prison in the men’s world), but no plot impact, making it feel like unnecessary baggage. The Author’s Note notes that there was originally a draft of the novel that was much longer, but it still feels like the book is significantly longer than it needs to be.
One possible point to the above episode is to show that the women of Dooling are the only women who appear to have gone to this other world after falling asleep. Evie mentions toward the end that the women of Dooling represent all women, and that if they choose to stay on the other side of the tree, then all the other women in the world will wake up there instead of the world they went to sleep in. This begs the question of why the women of Dooling are the representative of all women. This question goes unanswered, as does the question of where exactly Evie came from–she says she was sent by a higher power and that she’s just an emissary, but that’s all we get. I’m fine for that level of explanation for this point–it doesn’t matter where Evie came from, per se, or how exactly Aurora works–what’s really interesting is to explore its possible consequences, exploring what a possible world without women, and on the other side a world without men, would look like. Though the nature of Evie’s actual connection to Aurora feels tenuous, she’s definitely necessary as a plot device, otherwise the men have nothing to fight over. But the explanation of why Dooling felt like it could have been shored up a wee bit more. Same for Evie as a general character. Same for why Clint is “the one who stands for all mankind.”
While the writers excel on the level of vivid physical descriptors–the recurrence of the moths became an especially creepy detail–many characters felt more like a body-holder for a particular trait than actual people, like the alcoholic Magda who lives with her son and sits at home drinking all day, yelling at the television and slopping her drink all over herself.
Though the novel attempts to complicate its neat, happy ending of the women all getting to wake up by showing that some women regret their decision to return, and by having Lila and Clint’s marriage dissolve, these efforts felt more heavy-handed than true-to-life. Lila and Clint’s failed relationship was a nice theory–that Lila gets fixated on something (the alleged daughter) that seems like a concrete manifestation of him being a bad husband that then turns out to be untrue, but still reveals her dissatisfaction with him anyway, but I was as dissatisfied with the actual execution of it as Lila was supposed to be with Clint. Their failed relationship was underscored by one of their son Jared’s that was even more two-dimensional. Jared had a crush on a girl named Mary who liked the totally evil asshole Eric Blass, but then Jared and Mary bond while she fights falling asleep. But when she wakes up at the end, she starts dating another guy (who had not appeared previously) for no apparent reason. Tough luck for Jared. Them’s the (undeveloped) breaks.
Mary couldn’t have dated Eric Blass when she came back because, being a totally evil asshole, he was marked for authorial destruction, as was our other totally evil asshole, prison officer Don Peters. Of course, after Aurora hits, our two evil assholes team up, both volunteering to shore up the police force (and together they burn the homeless woman whose ear Eric tried to pee in earlier). Peters ends up accidentally shooting and killing Blass once the assault on the prison starts, and then Peters is violently and graphically killed by a female prison inmate Evie’s breathed life back into. Cue audience cheers for the triumph of good.