There’s usually a moral lesson to be found at the core of Stephen King’s novels tucked into the inner layer of a horror story. Sleeping Beauties, his latest novel co-written with his son Owen King, follows this staple with a sudden turn to address misogyny, sexism, and female empowerment, resonating strongly with the narrative of current events, including the 2016 presidential elections.
Think of an amalgam between The Handmaid’s Tale and yes, Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, but with a bit more gore and truth, and a lot less princess.
The novel takes place in Dooling, a rural town in Appalachia small enough to be rendered unremarkable and completely forgettable. This story begins not with a prologue per se, but with a Dramatis Personae of more than fifty characters, allocated by “Town of Dooling,” “The Prison,” and “Others.” The latter category includes a fox that turns out to be an important trump card later. No pun intended.
In the opening chapter, Dooling goes about its usual business: a meth dealer cooks up his livelihood, while beating around his unfortunate cousin, who has the misfortune of being a woman at the receiving end of constant abuse. The town’s first female sheriff Lila Norcross, goes about her daunting task of keeping mostly drug-related crime under some sort of control, while carrying around the burden of a secret that is big enough to implode her marriage.
But as normality in Dooling seems uneventful, the introduction of Evie Black, a character deemed “a stranger” in the list, is about to change everything.
Evie isn’t of this world; this we know right away. She lingers under the shade of a majestic tree, a moth landing on her forearm, a symbol perhaps of changes to come. A red snake hangs from one of the branches, and Evie is wary of it: “Evie doesn’t trust the snake obviously. She’s had trouble with him before.” The fact that the snake is male points toward an oncoming reckoning, and as Evie makes her way into town, leaving white web-like tendrils behind as she walks, we know “business as usual” in Dooling is about to shift.
To say that Sleeping Beauties may be in essence a feminist novel could seem hyperbolic, even when the prologue includes a quote from the now infamous words spoken by Sen. Mitch McConnell referring an admonishment he made to Sen. Elizabeth Warren in answer to her grilling of the then-candidate for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions. McConnell stopped Warren’s reading of a letter by Coretta Scott King, and later justified his actions by stating:
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
But more gut-wrenching than McConnell’s words, are perhaps the inclusion in the prologue of the lyrics written by Martha Sharp for Sandy Posey’s song Born a Woman:
“A woman’s place in this old world, is under some man’s thumb.
And if you’re born a woman, you’re born to be hurt, you’re born to be stepped on.
Lied to. Cheated on. And treated like dirt.”
Evie’s presence serves as the catalyst for what begins to happen not in Dooling but all over the world as women spontaneously start falling asleep and not waking up, a white cocoon growing like a caul on their face. Men perhaps being men, attempt to take charge by waking up their wives, girlfriends, daughters, and mothers forcefully removing the strange shroud from their faces. When they do so, the women awake briefly in a primal murderous rage killing whoever interrupts their sleep.
Hell hath no fury like a woman whose cocoon is removed against her will.
There are too many references to previous Stephen King novels in Sleeping Beauties to ignore, but this has been a trait that is far from unwelcome among his readers. When Sheriff Lila Norcross arrests Evie after she murders Truman Mayweather, our previously mentioned meth entrepreneur, her motive seemingly prompted in defending his victim of choice Tiffany Jones, Evie says to Lila, “Everyone knows me, I’m sort of an It Girl.” No cameo by Pennywise the Dancing Clown follows this statement, but for a moment we fear the possibility of a small family resemblance.
“What does a woman want?” Evie asks Clint Norcross later, Lila’s husband and resident shrink at the local women’s prison, which will later become the center of a final showdown. A Freud reference, yes, but also in the context of the soon-to-be slumbering women, it becomes more of a conflagration.
The men in town begin to take sides in how to handle the situation of the “Aurora,” as scientists around the world have labeled it. There’s also the question of how to deal with Evie, who remains very much awake and seems to not only know everyone’s past but maybe even the way to bring the women back.
A small side note here: the women are by no means dead. They are waking up elsewhere, in a world much like their own, in a town much like Dooling, minus the men. And as it turns out, this is not an unwelcome prospect to face.
If there’s a constant in Sleeping Beauties, it’s the reference to transformation. Evie is often surrounded by moths, as is the imposing tree rooted to the center of a clearing that wasn’t there before. Lila herself begins to feel something that pulls her towards it when she first sees it, but only later will she understand its purpose not only in Dooling but also in the Other Place, where the sleeping women rise from slumber.
The question remains: is Sleeping Beauties a feminist novel? Perhaps, in the same way that Cell was a statement about the ferocity of the human species and our obsession with cellular phones. Or maybe in a similar manner that The Stand spoke of the fear of a “super virus” that killed everyone in a span of twenty-four hours with only a handful of survivors who are divided by their preference to follow either good or evil.
Feminism is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, 2 :organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”
These are the exact things that the women in Dooling begin to strive for in this new world they suddenly inhabit. Sleeping Beauties is a flawlessly written narrative of fascinating new possibilities and complicated characters who are much too three-dimensional to be completely likeable, in which even the simple-minded are difficult to warm up to. But it’s the transformation of their world and how they react to it that endears them to us or causes our complete abhorrence. Because we find that when feminism, bigotry, and misogyny are in the same room, the end result can never be a happily ever after.