‘Sleeping Beauties’ is a nightmarish look at gender, agency, horrors we’re capable of

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From the moment a naked woman walks out of the woods and violently murders two meth heads, one of whom she throws through a wall, it’s clear whose book you’re in. “Sleeping Beauties,” a joint effort between Stephen King and his son Owen King, imagines a world where all women are suddenly out of commission, and the chaos that ensues as a result.

Inexplicably beginning one morning, women who go to sleep do not wake up again. The phenomenon is dubbed the “sleeping sickness.” Any attempts to break open the filament entrapping them results in the woman viciously killing the man responsible for waking her. Men quickly find themselves on their own, along with the few women who manage to stay awake.

“Sleeping Beauties” has many of the staples one expects from Stephen King. The action is focused in a small, American town. There are scenes of intensely vivid gore riddled throughout the novel, but rather than a horror story, this story has the feel of a fairy tale. The title of the book and the name of the sickness are both overt references to fairy tales — but there is also the presence of a mysterious woman who can communicate with and control animals, a magical tree and a puzzling otherworld. This is a fairy tale as the Brothers Grimm, rather than Walt Disney, would imagine it — much more grotesque than sweet.

More than anything else, “Sleeping Beauties” considers gender. Only one woman, the enigmatic Evie, is immune to this sleeping sickness. She quickly becomes the center of a rabid, mad struggle for power, control and answers. With the mystery of Aurora, the nickname for the sleeping sickness, still in its early stages, the men can’t seem to understand how this one woman goes to sleep and is able to wake back up — one character even wonders whether they’d actually picked up someone “in drag.”

This idea is quickly put aside when the men realize that they’ve seen her naked, and Evie was definitely female. This is one glaring gap in the Kings’ logic for their world: who exactly is a woman. The narrative is clear on which characters are and are not women, but the clarity is achieved by a lack of exploration into people that do not clearly fall within the gender binary. Is womanhood determined by genitalia? In which case, what does that mean for trans men and women? The sickness has nothing to do with puberty or sexual development; infant girls are just as susceptible to the “sleeping sickness” as young women.

For a book that ultimately boils down to looking at how the gender binary damages society, the logic of the novel itself wavers when you start to consider the people that challenge the binary. “Sleeping Beauties” is by no means choked in heteronormativity — it’s made clear that not all the characters are straight — but its scope feels limited at some points.

In addition to gender roles, the novel explores the power dynamics brought on by these roles. As mentioned above, the novel is rather violent — and much of this violence centers around gender. There are multiple scenes detailing the rabid, feral manner in which awakened women attack the men around them (they then return to sleep once the man has been killed) — but the violence perpetrated by men dominates much of the latter half of the novel. The sleeping women exist in another world, a better world, where any male babies born can be raised into a peaceful nature. Clint, the male protagonist, argues against this and claims that the peace won’t last because the boys will grow into men and their violent natures will assert themselves. Evie, the mysterious woman, disagrees with him: saying that tendency to violence is a human, not sexual, trait.

Indeed, men and women both commits act of violence, both justified and senseless, within the novel. But the reality of the power dynamics is made clear: men have more power and are able to abuse more because of that.

The conclusion of the novel is somehow both satisfying and unsatisfying. It’s hard not to wonder if that’s exactly how the Kings wanted us to feel. Even without knowing the details of the novel, the complexity of the choice to be made is clear: Are the women better off in the world of the novel? Are the men hopeless? If they are, do we want the women to return to the “real” world?

The answers to these questions no doubt fluctuate depending on the gender of the reader, and perhaps that’s the point. Men and women face different realities — literally, in the world of “Sleeping Beauties”.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].