I am a big enough Stephen King fan that the majority of the time I know about his books way in advance and they get preordered. I have read damn near everything he ever wrote, excepting only his book about the Kennedy assassination (which I refuse to read, because Wrong) and for no clear reason the third book in his Bill Hodges trilogy, which I’ll get to eventually. So the fact that I hadn’t heard about Sleeping Beauties until finding it on a shelf in Target, of all places, was more than a bit unusual.
Here’s the inside jacket text:
In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep: they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent. And while they sleep they go to another place, a better place, where harmony prevails and conflict is rare.
One woman, the mysterious “Eve Black,” is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Eve a medical anomaly to be studied? Or is she a demon who must be slain? Abandoned, left to their increasingly primal urges, the men divide into warring factions, some wanting to kill Eve, some to save her. Others exploit the chaos to wreak their own vengeance on new enemies. All turn to violence in a suddenly all-male world.
Set in a small Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, Sleeping Beauties is a wildly provocative, gloriously dramatic father-son collaboration that feels particularly urgent and relevant today.
I read that mess, laughed, and handed the book over to my wife, saying that she had to buy it. Now, again, usually new King is an insta-buy. And I can’t recall any other King books that were bought so explicitly for a hate-read as this one was. But… I’m not wrong, right? That description sounds absolutely terrible. From the weird “future so near and real” (the book is not set in the future, at all) to the deeply odd “urgent and relevant” (how?) bit at the end, it’s a cavalcade of bad. It makes the book sound awful.
Having read all 700 pages in the last… week? or so, and having stayed up way late last night to finish it, I can confirm: it’s not nearly that bad. It’s one of those books that’s better while you’re reading it and not so much the day afterward when you’re thinking about it, though. And I’m pretty sure, despite what Stephen and Owen have said in interviews, that Owen wrote most of the book. The plotting is pure Stephen King, but on a sentence-to-sentence, page-by-page basis, most of the prose doesn’t sound like him to me. Part of me wants to feed the book into a computer and go all Documentary Hypothesis on it, to be honest; I think it’d be fun.
So, yeah, the book: that description’s not far off in a literal sense, it’s just way crappier. All the women in the world suddenly start spinning cocoons around themselves when they fall asleep, because Reasons, and there’s this woman named Evie (not “Eve,” which would have been way less subtle) who doesn’t web up and seems to be psychic because Reasons, and they get really violent if you remove the webbing because Reasons, and eventually (spoiler!!) the women all come back because Reasons.
A careful reader will have discerned my issue with the book already. Unlike, say, The Stand, which is my favorite King book, what happens to the world’s women in this story is presented as purely supernatural, with no scientific explanation of any kind at all. And while most of King’s work does have at least supernatural underpinnings to it, even Under the Dome did a better job of providing reasons why the Bad Shit was happening and not a bunch of handwaving. This book is composed of 100% dura-grade premium Handwavium, and nothing in the basic premise happens for a reason. Once the scenario is up and running, okay, characters tend to respond in reasonable and understandable ways. But the setup itself?
Why do the women all fall asleep? Why is Eve so tremendously violent when we first meet her? Why the cocoons? Why can’t I spell “cocoon” without putting a double-C in there? Why do the women go to what they call the Other Place, and why aren’t there any women from outside Dooling there? Are only the women from Dooling sent to the Other Place? Why? Why does Evie seem to be trying to get herself killed for part of the last third of the book?
(The Other Place, in general, is narratively unnecessary, and every page set there could have been cut without harming the book.)
I’m generally okay with a book not tying up every loose thread and leaving some questions unanswered, but holy shit, this book is nothing but unanswered questions. My lack of reading comprehension can probably be blamed for a couple of them, but there’s basic worldbuilding shit here that’s left undone in favor of handwavium and it bugs. And the ending is weak as hell. Spoiler, but you know this already anyway: the women come back. They literally just decide to not be sleepers anymore and then they aren’t. Or maybe Dooling’s women decide for the whole world? Why do they specifically get to decide? Who knows! But they all have to decide to come back for any of them to come back, which is not as much of an obstacle as it might seem. Why do they all have to agree? Reasons!
(Apropos of nothing, in case you’re wondering, the book doesn’t know trans women exist.)
I dunno. I four-starred this on Goodreads originally, but I’ve dropped it to three while I’ve been writing this. The book wasn’t bad while I was reading it, but the lack of any real resolution at the end dooms the entire enterprise.