A couple of weeks back, I wrote about the Netflix series, Godless, a good show on many levels but one that fell far short on living up to the promise of its preview, which looked to be a lot more woman-driven than it turned out to be. This week, I’m finally coming back to Sleeping Beauties, a 700+ page fantasy/horror novel by father-and-son combo Stephen and Owen King, a book I’ve been turning over in my mind quite a bit as I’ve thought about this particular post.
The basic premise of Sleeping Beauties is fairly simple: a mysterious ‘flu’ spreads across the world. Any female, from the tenderest infant to the most withered hag who falls asleep is quickly enshrouded in a cocoon of some mysterious substance. They’re still alive, but woe to the person who removes the cocoon: doing so causes the woman to turn into something like a murderous zombie who destroys the fool who opened the cocoon. Having dispatched the offending sap with whatever is at hand (including hands, teeth, a rock, whatever), she falls back asleep and is re-wrapped. What is the world to do?
The sharp-eyed critic of media and society that lives in my house (aka, The Magpie), kind of sneered at the book when she saw that I had it, having heard of its premise on line and having read some reviews. When presented with this bare bones outline, it sounds inherently misogynist. Yet King the Elder at least has never shied away from putting women in starring roles (heck, his very first novel had women in pretty much every important role), and he is quite capable of delivering fully-fleshed out women who are not just damsels in need of man for either rescue or a good lay, or to serve as the sacrificial lamb to spur the hero on to Great Deeds. There are plenty of the latter in his books, to be sure, but not all of his heroines quite fit this mold.
And there’s hope at the outset for Sleeping Beauties. The action centers on the down-at-its-heels town of Dooling, West Virginia, and Lila Norcross, town sheriff, and her husband, Clint, who is the psychologist at the nearby women’s correctional center. When the story opens, Lila is coming home from a night shift while Clint is about to leave for work. Lila, who is brooding over a particular problem in her marriage, is just about to fall asleep when she gets an urgent call. She spends the first half of the book waging a heroic battle to stay awake and keep order in a rapidly unravelling situation. Predictably, the men of the world–and Dooling–start to come unhinged as the women of the world conk out and get cocooned.
As writers, we’re told that one of the things that makes for a strong character is agency, namely, that the character makes choices and decisions based on his or her motivations and desires, and that these actions change the world around them. Without giving too much away (I hope), it’s ultimately the women of Dooling who hold the fate of the world–our world, as we know it–in their cocooned hands. The Kings take a great deal of time (too much time, in my view) exploring SPOILER the Man Free version of Dooling that the women of the town find themselves in.END SPOILER The choice the women make, and how they make it, takes a back seat to the action taking place in the man’s world.
And that’s part of what disappointed me. Despite the huge amount of page time Lila Norcross gets, this is really her husband’s story. Clint Norcross has a backtory, one that includes living in The Most Awful Foster Home Ever, which drives so much of his behavior. Lila, on the other hand, seems to have been born Sheriff of Dooling and Wife of Clint. We never really get to know her, not in the depth that we get to know Clint, anyway. In fact, we get more backstory on a lot of the side characters than we get on Lila, and that’s too bad.
OKAY, this little post is already too long and I have more to say on this book (some of it good), but it’s going to have to wait for next time. How’s things by you?