The world has ended in many ways in post-apocalyptic fiction, but Owen and Stephen King have created a scenario unlike any other. It happens all at once, around the globe. Women who go to sleep (or are already asleep when the epidemic begins) won’t wake up. They form cocoons and go into a kind of hibernation. Disturbing sleeping women is a bad, bad idea: they attack anyone who breaks through the gauzy material.
Apparently pitching story ideas is a thing in the King family. Sleeping Beauties came about because Owen King suggested this idea to his father; it sounded like a Stephen King kind of story. The elder King immediately thought of all the possible ramifications of this concept, but told Owen he should write it. Eventually they agreed to work on it together.
Without women, mankind is doomed. With no more children being born, the population will eventually die off. However, women have been a moderating force on men throughout history. The Kings compare them to the original coolies, young men with barrels of water who kept the mining machinery from overheating. The near-future world is already in a precarious state, and men don’t react well to this catastrophe. Without women, they may bring about a quicker end of the world. Within hours, pointless riots and territorial skirmishes break out. The horror plays out on live TV and on social media, with misinformation and rumors spreading equally quickly. Insecure men suggest women deserve this fate because they have been achieving equality too quickly. Religious fanatics see the affliction as God’s punishment for feminism, stoking the fires of misogyny already prevalent in society.
Although Female Sleeping Sickness, dubbed “Aurora” after the Disney character, strikes everywhere at once, Sleeping Beauties concentrates mostly on the fictional Appalachian town of Dooling. Mining used to be the main industry in this region, but the primary business now is the women’s prison, which currently houses 114 inmates convicted of everything from theft and drug offenses to manslaughter.
Because Aurora appeared on a Thursday morning, Eastern Time, most women in Dooling are awake and well rested. The world record for going without sleep is 264 hours, but that’s an aberration and few will last more than a few days, even with the aid of pharmaceutical substances, both legal and illicit. Cognitive skills will become impaired. Sheriff Lila Norcross isn’t as fortunate as most: she’s been awake for eighteen hours already when the epidemic strikes.
Why focus on Dooling when this is a global catastrophe? A women’s prison is an interesting locus to explore the struggle to stay awake. Many of the inmates have been incarcerated because of trouble with a man, and often the man in question wasn’t prosecuted. “Men play, women pay,” one says. A few prisoners are dangerous and volatile, but most are well-behaved and compliant, doing their best to keep from getting black marks on their records that will interfere with parole. The guards are a mix of men and women, with one bad apple who takes advantage of his position of absolute authority—a man whose mother warns off his girlfriends because she knows how he behaves toward women. The warden needs to decide what measures to take to keep her charges, many of them drug addicts, awake. Should she even try, or let nature take its course? Sleep will come soon enough, so why fight it?
There’s another reason why the novel is set in Dooling. Though the disease was first reported on the other side of the planet, Dooling is ground zero for Aurora. A beautiful, naked woman who calls herself Evie Black arrives near a meth lab and goes on a murderous rampage. When Sheriff Norcross takes her into custody, she deliberately injures herself so she’ll be taken to the prison for psychiatric examination instead of to the lockup.
The first half of the novel covers the 24 hours after Aurora appears, introducing the characters and their pre-existing relationships, exploring the struggles of various women to remain awake, and ultimately launching two opposing factions against each other.
Evie is at the middle of this conflict. She’s no ordinary woman. She knows things about people and details about situations where she wasn’t present, and can communicate with animals. Most significantly, she can go to sleep and wake up again. Who or what is she, and what is her reason for being in Dooling? If she’s to be believed, the fate of the world will be decided here. She chooses Clint Norcross, the prison psychologist and Sheriff Norcross’s husband, to be “the man”—the one who stands for all mankind. He’s not a bad choice, though he’s far from perfect. Raised in the foster system, he has had to overcome his natural urge to fight his way out of trouble. He also has a tendency to annoy his wife by making unilateral decisions. A typical man, to Evie’s way of thinking.
Evie and Clint aren’t adversaries but uneasy allies. All Clint has to do is keep Evie alive for four or five days, and she might be able to fix things. No guarantees, but if she dies, the women will never wake up, she says. Why should she die? Because men will be men, and their solution to most problems involves violence. Once word gets out that a woman at the prison can sleep and wake up, a group of men decides to get their hands on her so she can be tested and experimented upon for a possible cure. It’s a reasonable enough strategy, but without women around to moderate them, men will fall prey to their worst inclinations.
The Kings also explore what the world would be like if it had been the men who went to sleep. Women could sustain the population using frozen sperm, even if male offspring went to sleep, too. A world without men wouldn’t be utopian, but it would be much more peaceful. No woman ever started a war, someone says, but wars have been waged over them. Women probably wouldn’t have caused riots if the roles were reversed. One way the sexes aren’t equal: they aren’t equally dangerous.
Even the best men behave badly at times, and those who already had violent tendencies are easily riled up. A couple of the town’s hotheads assemble a posse. The ringleader is Frank Geary, the town’s animal control officer, a man with a history of violent outbursts that have him separated from his wife and make his young daughter wary around him. Added to the mix is Don Peters, the recently fired prison guard who is male chauvinism personified. Geary isn’t a bad man, and he initially attempts to gain custody of Evie Black by legitimate, legal means. It’s only when Clint stymies and stonewalls him that he resorts to stronger tactics. A growing faction believes Evie may be a witch, and there’s one sure-fire way to destroy a witch’s curse. The solution involves an impressive array of weaponry.
Sleeping Beauties was originally conceived as a limited TV series. The Kings wrote a pilot and a follow-up episode before Owen said he felt hemmed in by the format. He wanted to explore the characters beyond what one-hour episodes allowed. For the next two years they tossed the novel back and forth, ending up with a long first draft. They subsequently revised each other’s work to the point where they’re no longer sure who wrote what, arriving at a third voice, distinct from either author’s solo work.
According to one female character, the sleeping epidemic is just one more thing men will never be able to understand because they are immune to it. That doesn’t stop men from continuing to tell women how to behave, though. The book arrives at a time when there is increasing awareness of feminist issues. Epigraphs include Mitch McConnell’s “Nevertheless, she persisted” quote about Senator Elizabeth Warren and lyrics from the 1966 Sandy Posey hit “Born a Woman.” Sexual harassment, prejudice, unequal pay, domestic violence and the pervasive male gaze are all tackled in the book.
Sleeping Beauties is a hefty volume with a large cast (helpfully listed at the front of the book). Its 700 pages span less than a week, and once the conflict begins in earnest—you could think of it as a sort of “stand”—the action never lets up. While socially relevant and timely, it isn’t a polemic. First and foremost, it is a gripping story spun out from an intriguing concept. The heroes and villains, such as they are, are realistic people who straddle the line between good and bad, and none are without the possibility of redemption.