Stephen King is, and always has been, an extraordinary popular novelist. I don’t mean that disparagingly; not in any sense. The stories he tells are meant to entertain, but that doesn’t mean they’re not built on a solid foundation of clear, honest, and even at times, lyrical prose, well-drawn characters, and situations that somehow feel plausible, even when utterly fantastic. With Sleeping Beauties, his son, Owen, joins the family business. They co-wrote this, and I couldn’t tell who wrote which passages, so that’s all to the good. Anyway, I enjoyed the novel immensely, Couldn’t put it down, in fact. When I say that they seem to be aiming for a profundity they never quite achieve, I say that with full appreciation for everything the novel does accomplish.
It’s a genre novel, of course, but it’s really more sci-fi than horror. It traffics in the supernatural, but through a character that seems more alien than fantasy. Above all, it’s a novel about gender. It’s about men and women, and the ways we’re different, and the ways we’re similar. In fact, as the title suggests, an examination of ‘gender’ is at the heart of everything the novel is trying to achieve. I have a sneaking suspicion that it resonated with me because I’m a guy, and it’s a novel about women written by guys. I wonder if it would be a different novel if Stephen King had written it with a daughter (if he has one; I don’t know), instead of with a son. Or with his wife, Tabitha, a fine novelist too.
Okay, here’s the premise. In the town of Dooling, a town of 30,000 in the American Midwest, the sheriff, Lila Norcross, has worked a long overtime shift, is dog tired and ready for some shuteye, when she’s called to a crime scene. In a low rent trailer, next to a shed where he cooks meth for sale, one Truman Mayweather sits with his meth-head girlfriend, Tiffany, and a visiting cousin, when a woman, a stranger, astonishingly strong, breaks in, kills the two men–ramming one’s head through a trailer wall–and then disappears. Lila sees her, covered with blood, walking mostly naked down the middle of a highway. She arrests her, takes her into custody. This woman, who will only identify herself as Eve, is, in appearance and language and skillset, otherwordly. Not sure what else she can do with her, Lila arranges for her to be incarcerated, not in the local jail, but in the town’s nearby women’s prison, where her husband, Dr. Clinton Norcross, works as the prison psychiatrist.
About the same time, all around the world, women fall asleep and do not wake up. I don’t mean that everyone falls asleep at once, but just that when women do fall asleep, they don’t wake. Instead, they quickly are covered with a kind of cocoon. If anyone removes the cocoon, the women instantly wake, are possessed with a superhuman strength, and commit unspeakable acts of violence to whoever woke them. They then go right back to sleep, and the cocoon reforms around them. While sleeping, though, they’re fine. To the extent that medical personnel can measure their vital signs, they’re perfectly healthy. But all bodily functions stop; they don’t seem to need to eat or relieve themselves. And this mysterious affliction, which media dubs ‘Aurora’, hits every woman in the world. No men, all the women. No exceptions.
Except one. Eve, the mysterious stranger in the Dooling women’s prison. She can sleep and wake up. She also can talk to the prison’s resident rats (all prisons, apparently, are troubled with rodents), and the rats do her bidding. As Dr. Norcross observes her (and talks to her), she also can read minds. What the good doctor does not know is that she can also communicate with other animals, including a fox, and including the ubiquitous moths that begin gathering.
Knowing that they won’t be able to wake up, many women choose to stave off sleep. All groceries and drug stores have runs on any kind of upper drug. The women in the prison in charge of the mess hall brew up a super strong batch of vile-tasting but effective coffee. Men, meanwhile, freak out. Riots break out. Violence increases–civil order is disrupted. Of course, lots of men try to wake up their wives and sweethearts, and suffer immediate and lethal consequences. The news media sends out the direst of warnings. The CDC is overwhelmed. And in Dooling, mobs begin to gather. Rumors spread of this strange women, Eve, who is immune to the illness. And vigilantes decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands.
Guys, in other words, act like guys. Irrational and violent. Aggressive.
About halfway through the novel, we learn where all the women are. The women of Dooling (and apparently, nowhere else), find themselves in, well, Dooling. But it’s an overgrown ruin of the town they knew. Time moves at a different rate in Our Place, as the women begin calling it. And they build a new society. With no men around, they cope for themselves just fine. They find food. They grow crops and they kill game. They manage to rebuild the electrical grid. A few of them were pregnant when they fell asleep; they carry their babies to term, and give birth, and the children born to them are the usual mix of boys and girls. And they’re determined to raise their male children to be less, well, guy-like. Less aggressive, less violent, less irrational.
I’m not going to give away the ending. But the novel posits two separate worlds, one with no men, the other with no women, and draws parallels between them. Except the guy world is pretty dystopic. And the gal-world is . . . less so.
In other words, gender is described about the way you’d think it would be described by two men who would self-identify as feminists, but who are not particularly sophisticated students of gender. (For one thing, the novel never even mentions transgender people).
As I said, I enjoyed it a lot. I thought the characters were very well drawn, including Frank Geary, an animal control officer with a real temper who becomes the head of the vigilantes and probably serves as the novel’s villain. He’s an interesting character, though, and I liked that he wasn’t really painted as ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ I thought the two Norcrosses, Lila and Clint, who are the leaders of the two worlds, were both superbly drawn. And I loved “Eve”, the supernatural character.
I do think the Kings were striving for something more important, a statement of greater significance, than what they achieved. I still, I liked it, very much indeed. And, like Stephen and Owen King, I do worry about my gender, especially in the light of recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. Anyway, it’s a good one. Give it a read.