The first epic collaboration between Stephen King and son Owen King is ambitious, heartbreaking and, when it comes to its central horrors, all too timely.
Their novel Sleeping Beauties (Scribner, 720 pp., ***½ out of four stars) is part enchanting fable and part cautionary tale, positing this “what if?” notion: What if all the women in the world were to nod off to sleep and not wake up?
As you can probably guess, an increasingly all-male Earth is not a great thing, and Sleeping Beauties roars with a sense of fiery violence and righteous fury. While the book’s quasi-apocalyptic scenario offers a wide variety of heroes and villains, both male and female, it maintains an unbreakable sense of empathy amid the crazy supernatural (and man-made) shenanigans that tear apart an Appalachian community.
The first half of the massive Beauties is chock-full of slow-burn exposition — it’s sometimes a little too sluggish, with more than 70 characters in its dramatis personae, including a talking fox.
The small West Virginia town of Dooling is struggling even before the outbreak of a sleeping disease known as Aurora (named after the snoozing Sleeping Beauty princess): Drug abuse, crime, sexism and a not-so-neighborly undercurrent plague this bit of coal country. It all simmers beneath the surface until an enigmatic woman named Eve Black inexplicably shows up and leaves her bloody mark on some unlucky meth junkies.
Lila Norcross is the town’s embattled female chief of police who takes Eve into custody. Lila remands Eve to Clint, Lila’s husband and a psychiatrist with a good soul but a hard upbringing who works at the local women’s prison.
The inmates as well as the ladies around town start to fall asleep, becoming enveloped in a cocoon composed of a sticky organic substance of unknown origin. Waking them up is a bad idea — doing so launches the victim into a vicious assault on anybody nearby.
Eve, who quotes Shakespeare and is addicted to smartphone games, flummoxes Clint and others when they discover that the Aurora disease doesn’t affect her — not only can she emerge from a dream state, she seems to be the key to fixing the situation. She becomes a target for a group of men in town, and Clint becomes “the Man” in charge of her safety.
Beauties melds the elder King’s talent for exploring the darker sides of human nature when people are thrust into terrifying situations with his youngest son’s gift for juggling multiple genres and complex characters. The final chapters bring all their skills together in a fast-paced, explosive finale and emotional aftermath.
The Kings create a thought-provoking work that examines a litany of modern-day issues. Toxic masculinity, police brutality and fake news all find their way into the narrative. Yet just as important are the intimate conversations between jailed lovers trying to stay awake, a couple navigating their imploding marriage, and the arc of an ordinary dog catcher and devoted father who ends up the leader of a dangerous movement.
Gender politics obviously fuel a lot of the divisiveness, and the Kings are clear in pointing out pretty much every male fallacy other than not asking for directions. “He said, she said,” Eve says in one of her cryptic conversations. “The oldest story in the universe.”