It’s easy to draw comparisons between Sleeping Beauties and several other books in Stephen King’s back catalogue. There’s the unstoppable pandemic and battle between good and evil of The Stand, there’s the isolated small-town panic of Under The Dome and The Tommyknockers, and the institutionalised abuse of women of Dolores Claiborne. However, this latest novel, which King co-wrote with his son Owen, feels like it’s born out current fears and concerns. Are we set on our course of callousness, violence and destruction? Or is their hope for humanity yet?
The fate of mankind will be decided in the Appalachian town of Dooling after the so-called Aurora sickness hits. When the women fall asleep, they don’t wake up, becoming cocooned in an organic webbing. As the women desperately try to stay awake and the men scrabble to figure out what’s going on, a stranger calling herself Eve arrives in town claiming to be the key to the whole situation. What the people of Dooling do with her will doom the world or save it.
As you’d expect from a King novel (especially one of this size), there are a lot of characters to meet (so many that there’s an index in the front of the book). While the abundance of protagonists isn’t a problem in itself, the authors seem to be content to let events unfold at a leisurely pace, slowly moving the townsfolk around like pieces on a chessboard until the inevitable final conflict, and it certainly feels like a good chunk of the 700+ pages could have been cut.
Like The Stand, factions of dark and light emerge, but the Kings refuse to make things so simple. Our apparent hero is Dr Clint Norcross, the prison psychiatrist and husband of the town Sheriff, who is forced to take responsibility for Eve and keep her out of the hands of the men who are coming for her. On the other side of the prison fence are equally determined and desperate individuals led by Frank Geary, an animal control officer with a serious temper problem and an unshakeable will.
What makes the book work are the shades of grey. We see how Clint, for all his good intentions, has been a distant and possibly unfaithful husband. Frank, for all his violence and manipulation, is driven by a terrible fear for the safety of his daughter, and the belief that getting his hands on Eve will bring his girl back to him.
It’s the question of what these characters are truly capable of that drives the plot forward and which will determine their fate. Because while it seems, especially early on, that the message is somewhat simplistic (that men are the driving force behind the violence and cruelty in the world and that the planet would be a lot better off without them), the Kings’ lengthy exploration of background, motivation and personality is key to Sleeping Beauties, and that extends to the women of the novel too, from the inmates to the police to a local reading group. In the face of catastrophe, it’s all up to us. It’s predictable, but it feels like that’s also part of the point: we know how bad things can get, and we know what we have to do to overcome them.