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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Bentley Little has made his name as one of the newer masters of the horror tale, in both novel and short form (You missed The House? The Ignored? The Store? Catch up on 'em now!) He's written a superb and incisive review of Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis , originally published in Hellnotes: The Newsletter for the Horror Professional, and we just had to reprint it because we loved it so much.
Now, on to Bentley Little's take on Hearts in Atlantis...
Bentley Little says:
Thank God for Stephen King.
When Robert McCammon decided to prove to the world that he was a serious writer, he put out Boy's Life, an overrated amalgam of recycled Ray Bradbury, strained magic realism, and a rather lame mystery that was similar in tone (too similar, some thought) to the 1988 Frank LaLoggia film, Lady in White. A virtual renunciation of his horror past, the novel jettisoned his strengths and highlighted his weaknesses, making it hard to believe that the same author who had penned the brilliant and darkly literary Ushers's Passing had turned out this nice, tame, Mor coming-of-age story.
Stephen King has no such chip on his shoulder, no burning desire to disassociate himself from the field that made him famous. King realizes where his strengths are and also recognizes that there is nothing intrinsically demeaning about horror fiction, that it is in fact the most literary of genres.
He proves this without a doubt in the brilliant Hearts in Atlantis.
Consisting of two novellas and threeshortstories, all connected and all set between the years 1960 and 1999, Hearts in Atlantis concerns itself with the '60s, their fallout, and the lost boomer generation that they spawned. And while it's not possible to make a definitive statement about that complex and turbulent decade, King here comes pretty damn close.
The opening piece, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," is the book's best, a dizzying mix of fantasy, horror, and domestic drama that is, at its core, a heartfelt paean to the power of love. In it, 11-year-old Bobby Garfield develops a summer friendship with the mysterious old man who rents an apartment on the third floor of his building, and what he learns during the course of that summer forever sets him apart from his best friend, Sully John, his nascent girlfriend, Carol Gerber, and, indeed, the rest of the world. Extremely original and populated with the type of realistic, sympathetic characters that have become King's trademark, the story references both The Regulators and the Dark Tower books and ingeniously ascribes fantastic origins to mundane city sights, managing to make even sidewalk hopscotch squares threatening. A truly impressive achievement.
If "Low Men in Yellow Coats" is the standout, coming in a very close second is the title story, "Hearts in Atlantis." Narrated by a college student whose awakening social conscience coincides with the escalation of the Vietnam War and his exposure to the herd mentality of his fellow dorm buddies, "Hearts in Atlantis" is a piece of mainstream fiction that finds freshman Pete Riley at a crossroads in his life. Unable to resist the siren's call of an endless card game that has caused more than one student to flunk out and thus be eligible for the draft, Pete is also becoming aware that the thoughts, opinions, and worldview he once took for granted do not necessarily serve him in these changing times. Constancy is nowhere to be found, and even his conservative mother is touched by the vicissitudes of the age. Salvation is offered to Pete through Bobby's old girlfriend, Carol Gerber, who is a member of the burgeoning peace movement and with whom he becomes emotionally involved.
Along with the '60s, Carol is the thread that ties all of these stories together. Although she doesn't appear in the next piece, "Blind Willie," the chronicle of a suburban man with a haunted past and a double (or triple) life, she is at the crux of this tale, as she is in "Why We're in Vietnam," where Bobby's childhood friend, Sully John, looks back from the vantage point of 1999 at the war that forever changed him. The last and shortest story, "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," brings everything full circle in a way that is both satisfying and unbearably sad.
The stories that make up Hearts in Atlantis are connected not only to each other but to the rest of the King canon as well. In this latest and strongest bid to become the Faulkner of the fantastique, King has managed to incorporate elements of earlier works into these pieces as part of an evolving overarching mythology. While some of his past efforts to weave the threads of disparate novels into a single tapestry sometimes seemed awkward and obvious, in 1997's Wizard and Glass and now in Hearts in Atlantis, he has found a way to smoothly integrate these elements that is not only consistent but seems natural and predetermined. There is also a strain of melancholy that links these two books, a sweet sadness that suffuses the narratives and reveals a writer at the top of his form.
A deft, assured work, Hearts in Atlantis addresses a generation's loss of innocence, and its observations about childhood and growing up make those found in King's earlier It seem clumsy and simplistic by comparison. Taken in toto, the stories here offer a powerful argument against groupthink and the madness of crowds, while reaffirming the importance of individuality, love, and friendship.
According to all of the publicity at the time, Bag of Bones was King's bid for legitimacy, his calling card to the reviewers who had previously dismissed his fiction out of hand because of its subject matter. Bag of Bones was a strong novel, but it did not have the depth or scope of Hearts in Atlantis This is the one that is going to wow the critics (or should, if there is any justice in the world). A book of heart, wit, intelligence, and moral reflection, it is one of Stephen King's very best.
>Bentley Little is the author of tons of short stories as well as the bestselling horror novels The House, The Ignored, The Store, and many others. He lives in southern California. This review was reprinted with permission from Hellnotes: The Newsletter for the Horror Professional.