Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (26 September) | 715p | Bought copy | Buy the book
In the near and very real future, a virus is sweeping the world. When women fall asleep they do not wake. Their bodies produce a threadlike substance that wraps them up like mummies in cocoons of their own making. If their frightened menfolk disturb the wrapping, they don’t usually live long enough to regret it. Inevitably the virus reaches the small town of Dooling in West Virginia. Dooling is dominated by its women’s prison. Its inmates are stricken one by one but there is one woman, a recent arrival suspected of a terrible crime, who can both sleep and wake up. As the men of the town try and fail to cope without their wives, mothers and daughters, they turn to the prison and this mysterious woman who surely holds the answer and can make life normal again. A few women are doing all they can to stay awake, especially Lila, Dooling’s sheriff, but sooner or later all women must sleep and when they do the men can only wonder where they have gone.
A new Stephen King novel is always a big event but Sleeping Beauties is a book that I was determined to read the day it was published. There’s something about this story that really appealed to me and it reminded me of classic King – the American small town stricken down by something otherworldly and horrifying. And also the impact of such extraordinary events on the ordinary. Often the most terrifying elements of such a novel aren’t the supernatural, ghostly or monstrous, but the men and women whose base characteristics thrive when normality breaks down. This is what we get here and I loved it.
Sleeping Beauties is a tale of two worlds – the sleeping world of the women and the waking world of the men and it is the society of men that breaks down almost completely. That doesn’t mean that all of the men are to be hated. Most are just frightened and lonely. Others are doing the best they can in awful circumstances, like Clint Norcross, the prison psychiatrist who has no choice but to take over the running of the prison. But there are a few who are truly evil. Predators in every sense. And they run wild. Interestingly there are a couple of other men, one in particular, whose morality one feels can still be saved. His acts are motivated by love. He just doesn’t know how how to control the situation. Nor does he know his own strength.
Dooling is so wonderfully described. It feels very real and it is richly populated by many memorable characters who come and go throughout the novel – there’s a handy list at the beginning. It feels as cut off as any other place in a Stephen King novel. There’s that same claustrophobic sense of confinement – quite literally in the prison. But that spreads into the women’s situation. They have been given the chance to escape it. What they see is marvellous, different and beautifully described by the authors. This you must discover for yourselves.
Sleeping Beauties is a father and son production. I’m not familiar with Owen King’s work but I found this novel’s writing and prose seamless and the fact that it was a collaboration did nothing to dispel my initial feeling that this is classic King. This novel felt both disturbing and comforting – a strange combination. I haven’t really got on with Stephen King’s novels since the utterly superb 11.22.63, one of my favourite novels of all time, and so it felt wonderful to immerse myself in a book that reminded me of everything that I have loved about Stephen King. It’s a long book, as all his best books are, and yet I hung on to every page, taking my time, and appreciating where I was being carried.
Sleeping Beauties is rich in people’s lives. There are so many strands to follow. Some end in tragedy while others are almost comical and grotesque. But at its heart is the devastating impact of a world of sleeping women. This affects people in different ways but it strikes at the core of them all, whether they are male or female. And that is just one of the many reasons why Sleeping Beauties feels like a significant book – Stephen and Owen King make us take a good look at the human condition. Whether we like what we see is another matter entirely. But the horror these women feel – their determination to do anything to stay awake for hours and hours and hours. That’s something we can all empathise with and fear.
This is a truly beautiful hardback. Underneath each slipcase hides a drawing of one of the strange creatures that we encounter through Sleeping Beauties. There are several to choose from but all are gorgeous.