What would happen if all the women on Earth fell into an unwakeable sleep? In Sleeping Beauties—the new novel co-written by Stephen King and his son Owen King (who lives in Rhinebeck)—women fall into a deep sleep and the men left behind have to deal with a nightmare of their own creation.
Dooling is a small Appalachian town where drugs are abundant and the main employer is the local penitentiary. When a “sleeping sickness,” which only affects women, becomes a full-blown pandemic called Aurora, women of all ages fall asleep and are shrouded in webs spun from their bodies. They are calm and docile until their cocoons are disturbed—after which they become rabidly violent, hurting anyone in their path.
In typical King (senior) fashion, the novel opens slowly. The Kings take the reader on a meandering tour through the streets of Dooling, peakng into homes and workplaces and family dynamics, weaving a world they are about to unravel. There is a three-page list of characters (including a “common fox”) but the novel mainly revolves around Clint Norcross, the prison’s psychiatrist; Lila Norcross, the chief of police; Frank Geary, the town’s animal control officer; and Evie Black, an ethereal stranger.
After murdering two meth cooks, Evie is arrested and brought to Dooling Correctional Facility for Women. Soon, the prison’s staff begins to notice the new, supernaturally beautiful prisoner is a bit strange: she’s seemingly omniscient; can converse and control animals; heals far too quickly; and, most importantly, she can fall asleep and wake up. It is the simple act of waking that makes Evie the lightning rod for the town’s anger, fear, and confusion.
The novel’s climax features a heart-pounding, gory standoff at the prison. Frank and his militia believe Evie (or perhaps a dead Evie) holds the secret for bringing the other women back, and Clint believes she is a test they have to pass. The test? Not to do what men always tend to do: resort to violence. Meanwhile, the women—who are inhabiting their own plane of existence; a place of their own creation—have a decision to make. They can stay in what they’ve dubbed “Our Place” or they can return to try to reinvent the world in their image. It is an impossible decision that seems to be glossed over a bit too quickly as the novel speeds to its close.
The ending feels cinematic as we once again pan over Dooling. In the weeks and months following the end of Aurora, there are various reactions to the new world. Some women have deep regrets they drown in alcohol; other women try to find a new purpose in the community. Men try to overcome their worst instincts and what seems to be hard-wired in their DNA: their propensity to hurt women. More importantly, we see women attempt to forgive men while also demanding more of them.
Above all else, Sleeping Beauties is a seamless collaboration that is both fun and thought-provoking. Alongside the thrilling pace of a typical King novel, we see glimpses of larger questions about modern women, gendered violence, and toxic masculinity. There’s a moment in the novel where Lila ponders a potential life-changing, marriage-ending secret she believes her husband, Clint, is keeping. She thinks, “If you loved a person, didn’t you have to allow them their quiet places? The rooms they didn’t want to visit?” In the end, the women in Sleeping Beauties show grace in allowing locked rooms while also trusting—despite all evidence to the contrary—that men will not pry theirs open in return.