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Hearts in Atlantis
Stephen King
Scribner Books, 523 pages

Hearts in Atlantis
Stephen King
Stephen King was born in Portland, Maine, in 1947. He attended the grammar school in Durham, Maine, and then Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. King graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970, with a B.S. in English and qualified to teach at the high school level. He met his wife, Tabitha, in the stacks of the Fogler Library at the University of Maine of Orono, where they both worked as students. Unable to find a teaching job, the couple lived on his earnings as a labourer at an industrial laundry, and her student loan and savings, with an occasional boost from a short story sale to men's magazines. In the fall of 1971, King began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. In the spring of 1973, Doubleday & Co. accepted his novel Carrie for publication. A few months later, its paperback sale provided him with the means to leave teaching and write full-time.

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A review by John O'Neill

Reviewing a new Stephen King title is always a challenge. For one thing, there's the gnawing question of whether anything you have to say matters a whit -- most readers have already made up their minds based on the man's prior work, and the most you can hope for is maybe to sharpen the anticipation a bit. Then there's the total lack of a frontier factor. The chief joy of being a reviewer is "The Discovery," digging up some shiny new thing and then furiously waving people over while it's still breathing. With Stephen King, you're just a roadie at a rock concert. You're lucky if you get to direct someone to the bathroom.

Still, we all have our crosses to bear. And mine arrived in the shape of Hearts in Atlantis, what the word on the street said was a series of four interlinked novellas. Shades of Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight -- two of his finest efforts -- only this time interlinked, whatever that meant. Also new were the sources of the blurbs on the back: The New York Times Book Review, The Observer and GQ, of all places. When King shifted publishers from Viking to Scribner in 1998 with Bag of Bones, his books suddenly stopped carrying warnings from the American Cardiac Institute, instead bearing blurbs from folks such as Amy Tan and Gloria Naylor. Looks like the carefully managed makeover from "King of Horror" to respectable American Gothic novelist is complete, I thought.

Or is it? Is King still secretly plowing the deep trench of modern horror, in stubborn defiance of the Scribner marketing team, or has he jumped out into the wider world of mainstream fiction with no regrets? In other words, would the inevitable chills of Hearts in Atlantis come from unspeakable evils with unseen claws, or from Vietnam flashbacks?

The answer comes most tellingly in the title novella. Here's a pop quiz that will help sharpen the point. Based on what you know of Stephen King, would you expect "Hearts in Atlantis" to concern itself with:

a handful of aging Maine sailors who band together a final time to confront an unseen creature drudged up by a failed off-shore oil expedition;
a six-year old girl, quite possibly with dawning psychic powers, who awakens the long dead group-mind responsible for much of humanity's mass insanity, including Nazi Germany and the likely destruction of Atlantis; or
a dorm full of college students addicted to playing Hearts facing the dawning horror of flunking out, as set to the 60s tune "Atlantis" by Donovan?

You're right, of course. It's the last one, liberally garnished with Vietnam flashbacks. If the King of Horror is back, it's with a brand new back-up band.

Hearts in Atlantis opens with "Low Men in Yellow Coats," a novella in relative terms only (at 244 pages it's considerably longer than King's last book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon; together with "Hearts in Atlantis" it occupies nearly 80 percent of the book). The hero here is Bobby Garfield, 11 years old as the tale opens in 1960. Bobby has a new neighbour, an elderly gentleman named Ted Brautigan, who's moved in upstairs. As Bobby and Ted become friends, two things of significance happen. First, Ted gives him a copy of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a book which Bobby finds both intensely fascinating and very disturbing. Second, he gives Bobby his first real job: to keep an eye out for low men in yellow coats -- men who may well be chasing the harmless Ted Brautigan, and who appear to communicate through signs and symbols: secret messages in lost-pet posters, odd symbols etched in hopscotch games, and kites dangling from telephone wires. Bobby has to deal with both the sudden adult responsibilities of a job, and the even more adult realization that his new friend may be very much insane.

"Hearts in Atlantis" pulls us 6 years deeper into the 60s, beginning on the day when a small group of college freshmen get their first glimpse of the peace sign, and fail to recognize it. As the first stirrings of anti-Vietnam sentiment begin on campus, sweeping up some of his close friends, Peter Riley and his companions at the University of Maine are gradually but inexorably sucked into a never-ending Hearts tournament on the third floor of the Chamberlain dorm. The game continues for weeks as players lose their girlfriends, transfer, drop out, and even attempt suicide... until a small handful recognize it for what it is, and what it will take for them to be free of it.

Willie Shearman, who as a boy played a minor role in "Low Men in Yellow Coats," takes centre stage as an adult in the third tale, "Blind Willie," set in 1983. Willie is a deeply scarred gentleman -- both by the events of "Low Men in Yellow Coats," and by a disastrous (and only partially revealed) battle in the Dong Ha province of Vietnam. As a result he leads a very unusual life, a life that requires him to daily change identities in the bathrooms of Manhattan hotels. "Blind Willie" hangs together least well as a stand-alone story -- and paradoxically is the only one to have appeared separately, published in an earlier version in the final issue of Antaeus magazine in 1994.

"Why We're in Vietnam," the final novella in the book (the last piece, "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling," at 14 pages is really more of an epilogue) ties the threads of the other tales together to reveal at last what happened in Dong Ha in 1970. Characters from each of the previous three novellas meet here in the jungles of Vietnam, in an explosive moment of violence that has repercussions up and down the decades, from 1960 to 1999. King takes for granted that you know your Vietnamese history. You'll get more out of this tale if you're familiar with the major events and players in the war, and in particular the infamous My Lai massacre in which an estimated 500 unarmed Vietnamese peasants and children were killed by American soldiers furious at their own inability to locate the Viet Cong. The actions of American helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and his crew, who would later receive the Soldier's Medal for attempting to stop the massacre by threatening to open fire on their own troops, are referred to indirectly by several characters.

Are the tales interlinked? Yes, but to reveal how would be telling. They each have a different narrator (some 1st-person, some not), and minor characters in one tale can become central in another. Are they linked to King's previous fiction? Yes, but in oblique ways. "Low Men in Yellow Coats," in particular, contains a rich slice of King's ongoing Dark Tower mythology (Ted Brautigan even shares a last name with the cover artist for the series' old Plume paperbacks). And you may see a regulator or two hanging out near the margins.

Are the tales horror? Ah, there's the rub. There it is indeed.

This is perhaps the most experimental book Stephen King has ever written, and consequentially I believe it will be one of his most controversial (and, quite possibly, one of his least understood). As he acknowledges in his brief afterward, he has taken some unusual risks -- including a very big risk at the close. But in large part the risks have a significant payoff. While I've enjoyed many King novels over the decades, I can't ever recall having the theme driven home so effectively.

When Bobby Garfield at last closes the pages of Lord of the Flies in "Low Men in Yellow Coats," he voices perhaps the central question of Hearts in Atlantis, a question that bubbles up more than once as the children Bobby calls friends (and enemies) grow up, face the adult world, and step out of helicopters into the green fields of Vietnam:

"Bobby found himself thinking of what William Golding has said, that the boys on the island were rescued by the crew of a battlecruiser... but who would rescue the crew?

"The words still haunted Bobby. What if there were no grownups? Suppose the whole idea of grownups was an illusion? What if their money was really just playground marbles, their business deals no more than baseball-card trades, their wars only games of guns in the park?... Christ, that couldn't be, could it? It was too horrible to think about."

Is Hearts in Atlantis horror? That's probably a question best left to the reader. But I think it's something to which King would very much like an answer.

Me too, Steve. Me too.

Copyright © 1999 by John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site.

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