I‘m reading Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King’s collection of 5 related stories of kids who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Yesterday I finished the first of the stories, “The Low Men in Yellow Coats.” It is this story upon which the movie Hearts in Atlantis was based. My memories of the movie are sketchy which was nice because it made most of the story fresh for me. But I also remembered just enough to recognize that in many ways, the story is rather different than the movie, something that is certainly not atypical. (And it is something that I have recently come to terms with.)
“Low Men In Yellow Coats” could conceivably be a stand-alone novel in its own right. My Kindle edition of Hearts in Atlantis is 671 pages, and “Low Men,” the first story in the book, takes up half the book at 325 pages. I wonder if it is the longest piece of fiction that King has published that isn’t a novel?
I loved the story. King’s eye for detail, and his ability to bring to full life even the most ephemeral of characters is part of the charm of his stories. The tension over whether Ted Brattigan was crazy or something else was pitch-perfect. What I found most surprising (and I believe that virtually none of this existed in the movie) was how tied to King’s magnum opus, “The Dark Tower” series, “Low Men In Yellow Coats” really was. I haven’t read any of “The Dark Tower” series as of yet, but I have enough of a gist and background to pick things up. In some ways, I think “Low Men In Yellow Coats” could be characterized as a Dark Tower story, fitting independently into the series in the appropriate place.
Another pleasant discovery were the references to some of my more revered science fiction authors. Clifford D. Simak’s “Ring Around the Sun” makes a prominent appearance in the story–and one that ultimate deals directly with the Dark Tower-side of the plot. Isaac Asimov’s pseudonymous Lucky Starr novels (written as Paul French) also make an appearance, as do mention of his robot novels. British science fiction author John Wyndham is rather prominently featured through the movie Village of the Damned which is based on his novel The Midwich Cuckoos. It just goes to show that King was clearly a fan of these stories–I’m certain of that. No one can write about the stories the way he does without not just appreciating their messages, but enjoying their content. It comes through in “Low Men.”
In the audio book version of Hearts in Atlantis that I am listening to, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” was read by William Hurt. It took a little while for me to get used to the differences in his reading over Lindsay Crouse’s voice acting, who I’d previously listened to read Misery and Gerald’s Game. But I grew to enjoy Hurt’s cadence. Toward the end of the story, when the Low Men finally show up in full force, his voice adds quite a bit of gravitas to their stage presence.
The next story in the book is the title story, “Hearts in Atlantis” and this one is narrated by Stephen King himself. I went into this one with a little trepidation because it has been my experience that great writers don’t always make great readers. Turns out in King’s case, nothing can be further from the truth. He is no Harlan Ellison when it comes to reading, but his reading, so far, carries a sense of authenticity that none of the other readings I’ve listened to have had so far. That authenticity stems from, I think, the fact that he wrote the material. He knows how it should sound aloud better than anyone else could possibly know. And while so far, the story is much more mundane than “Low Men,” I am enjoying “Hearts in Atlantis” at least as much (and laughing a heck of a lot more) and I think a good portion of that is owed to King’s reading.