“Sleeping Beauties,” the new tome by Stephen King and his son, Owen King, is the story of an epic, biblical day of reckoning. It is as apocryphal as the flood in Genesis and the fire of the End Times. In “Sleeping Beauties,” women across the world succumb to an epidemic of sleep, becoming cocooned in white gauzy sacks that sprout from their mouths and skin. A beautiful woman named Evie, immune to the plague of sleep and locked away in a woman’s prison in Dooling, West Virginia, is the only one in the world capable of offering an awakening.

But as more and more women fall asleep, the men of the community split into warring factions – as men are wont to do. Some Dooling men want to slay Evie/Eve, or at minimum have her removed to a federal lab to be probed and studied. A small group of others, led by Dr. Clint Norcross, the prison’s psychiatrist, described by the wimpy assistant warden as a “politically correct softie,” battles long odds to protect her.

A prophetic epigram at the front of the book illuminates the deep, ageless roots of the plague: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

These sentences come direct from the front pages of our times. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uttered these pearls to explain the chamber vote to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was objecting to the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

A list of characters running four pages precedes the opening. As in the Bible, the cast is legion. On the side of Right, in addition to Eve and Dr. Norcross, are Lila Norcross, chief of police and Dr. Norcross’s wife; Janice Coates, widow and warden of the Dooling Correctional Facility for Women; Barry Holland, husband, father, and attorney; Vanessa Lampley, correctional officer and champion arm wrestler; and Angel Fitzroy, Jeannette Sorley and Ree Dempster, all inmates of the prison; among others.

On the side of Darkness are Don Peters, a sexually perverted correctional officer; Lowell and Maynard Griner, low-life drug pushers, killers and all around miscreants; Kent Daley, a dirtbag high school kid; Kingsman Brightleaf, a crazed militia leader; and Fritz Meschum, a gun-running wife-beater; among others. Those that straddle the fence include Frank Geary, animal control officer, ex-husband and terrifying father with severe anger management issues; Terry Coombs, Dooling police officer and second in command; and Dr. Garth Flickinger, meth tweaker and plastic surgeon. And also a sly woodlands fox.

In the early days of the epidemic, people – mostly men – discover to their regret that tearing away the gauzy cocoons that hold the sleeping women, what some men refer to as “bitch bags,” awakens wrathful souls who rip jaws off and peel faces with a single bite.

Remarks guard Don Peters, “This stuff, it’s like the ultimate P-M-S, am I right.”

“We should have seen this coming,” another man at a gathering of vengeful men says. “The women flew too high … They flew too close to the sun and God put ’em to sleep.”

Jaime Howland, a professor of communications and a wiser, cooler head, assesses things from a different slant. “The idea (of women getting ahead), badly stated, is this: Women are sane, but men are mad.” This raises protests from men ready to storm the prison. He counters by asking who, then, makes up biker gangs and gangs that have turned urban neighborhoods into free-fire zones. Who are in power and start wars “and who are the ones – with the exception of a few female helicopter pilots and such – that fight those wars? Men. Oh, and who suffers as collateral damage? Women and children, mostly.”

At the center of all this, the imprisoned Eve is anything but defenseless. She isn’t susceptible to the pull of sleep; beyond that, she has supernatural powers that enable her to know everything about everyone. She was at the battle of Troy and hated the gore, but detests the stench of Dooling prison more. She can breathe sleep into anyone, and also awaken anyone with a single breath. She commands the vast legions of brown moths that heralded the epidemic, and the hordes of rats in the tunnels and crawl spaces inside the prison. Her safety and survival offers the only path to an awakening that will save… well, ironically, the men. Women – most of them anyway – are already somewhere close to Paradise in an Adam-less Eden.

“Sleeping Beauties” bares the inimitable King storyteller’s imprint. It must have been a blast for father and son to create such a fantastic, dramatic world in such grave peril. It is a blunt, riotous reckoning of the sins and crimes of Adam’s sons against the daughters of Eve. Seven hundred and one pages of spellbinding story, and not a single page flags.

“Sleeping Beauties” is a rich feast of the imagination. And a timely tale. It casts the craziness of our world in a stark, lacerating light. The ultimate question it raises – will the awakening come soon enough?

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. His novel was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website:


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