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Stephen King, BL, and Hearts in Atlantis (book)

Posted by Sick Rose on 2017-May-7 22:22:03, Sunday

Coincidence that Grenfield posted a review of the film based on this novel (or the first part thereof); I was going through some old boxes of books and stumbled onto the novel which I hadn't read since shortly after it came out in 1999 (before I discovered this community and developed the self-understanding that has come with participation here). I'd also recently for the first time in years spent a half-day playing hearts; I'd forgotten what an addictive game this came be. So I thought I would re-read the whole book. I'd just about finished when I saw Grenfield's review.

The book is in five parts linked by the reappearance of one or more of the characters from earlier parts. The first, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is long enough to be a stand-alone novel and centers on a relationship between an eleven year old boy and an older man. The second, “Hearts in Atlantis,” which gives the whole book its name, is a novella set six years later at the University of Maine and recounts how a group of college freshmen have their academic careers wrecked (or nearly wrecked) by their addiction to playing hearts; the stakes are very high since the setting is 1966 and flunking out means being drafted and sent to Vietnam. One of the two closest friends of the boy in “Low Men” becomes briefly the girfriend of the central character in “Hearts.” The remaining three parts are short stories set decades later and tell us what happened respectively to a guy who as a boy had beat up the boy and girl in “Low Men” and later served in Vietnam with the principal “villain” of “Hearts;” the other “best friend” of the boy in “Low Men;” and, finally, the central boy and girl in “Low Men.”

I first encountered Stephen King shortly after he wrote The Shining. (I had seen “Carrie” but hadn't read the book.) I was something of a literary snob whose favorite writers were Jane Austen, J.D. Salinger, and Mary Renault and I thought of King, if I thought of him at all, as a kind of purveyor of schlock. But a friend whose judgment I respected (not one of us) told me that The Shining was a really great read. So I got it. The sheer raw power of King's writing just blew me away (and I hadn't realized it was possible to be THAT scared by something I read). I was going through a bad stretch in my life at that point, much of which was my own fault, and I think what really got to me was Jack Torrence's self-loathing.

So I started reading everything I could find by King. Nothing ever quite equaled the impact of The Shining for me, but I began to notice moving depictions of friendships between boys and between boys and unrelated men. Novels like Christine and The Body (made into the film “Stand by Me”) had some of the best descriptions I had ever read of the intensity of boyhood friendships.

Meanwhile, I kept running into accounts of intense relationships between boys and unrelated men. Now, King puts a lot of kids into his novels. But they come in two categories: boys or girls who are the offspring of central characters (The Shining of course is Exhibit A, but I could also cite Firestarter, Pet Sematary, The Mist). And these intense relationships between boys and unrelated men. Obviously, King put his experience as a father into the former category. But what about the latter? Where did he get the life-experience to write with such conviction about what happens emotionally when a man and a boy become involved with each other?

Here is a partial list. 'Salem's Lot. Apt Pupil. Desperation (where we get a nude scene). Second book in the Dark Tower series (I admit I gave up on this series – there are probably others.) And, of course, Low Men in Yellow Coats.

Now great artists – and yes, even though King has written a lot of crap, I think he is in the last analysis a great writer – must have at least some insight into all aspects of the human condition, even those of which they have limited experience. (Jane Austen, for example, never wrote a scene in which only men were present because she didn't trust herself to get it right. Yet off-hand remarks here and there indicate that she had a real handle on the way men talk and act around each other when women are not present – Knightly's warning to Emma in the novel of that name, for example, of what the Rev. Elton says just among men). And BL, IMHO, is one of the fundamental human relationships. So it's possible that King just has a lot of insight into a type of relationship that he has himself never experienced.

But I don't really think so – or if it is true (i.e., that he never as man or boy was in a BL relationship), he's an even greater writer than I give him credit for. The level of detail on how such relationships come into being; the emotional temper of both man and boy, rings just too true. (In the thread Grenfield started, Will Robinson quote BLues to the effect that King must have been someone's little prince at one point.)

Now, there is no way that King is an exclusive or even primary BL. Rather, I suspect he is like a couple of people I have met through BC – and of a type that was considered “normal” if anyone considered such things at all in societies such as pre-modern Japan or the ancient world – a man whose primary erotic interests were in women but who could also be attracted to boys.

Suppose you wanted to write a really convincing account of what a BL relationship is like. Well, you couldn't just sit down and do it today; not if you were already a major writer. Even the slightest hint of BL will crucify you – I point as examples to what happened to Milo; to Tom O'Carrol's definitive bio of Michael Jackson, or to the way in which the exhibition in New York of artworks of beautiful boys in Edo period Japan is being treated and censored (I have written a couple of posts on this.)

How did King deal with this? What I think he did was use his reputation as a writer of horror/fantasy to provide a smokescreen that allowed him to depict what actually happens in a BL relationship and thereby fly under the radar of the thought police.


– “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is the only part of the larger book to have supernatural elements. (The man, Ted Brautigan, is a refugee from the Dark Tower series. He is human but he is being chased by aliens from another world.) The rest of the book is “about”: the sixties, addiction, “survivor guilt,” what the war in Vietnam did to the generation that fought – or didn't fight – in that war, and how key experiences in late childhood (the cusp of puberty) – including BL relationships for boys who have one-- reverberate through one's life and the lives of those one was close to then.

The circumstances in which the boy, Bobby Garfield, finds himself Ted's YF, ring completely true: living with his single mother; the hole in his life that needs a man to fill it.

Bobby's mother's hostility towards Ted and her suspicion of what is going between them; her hatred for the male sex (including her son, whom she both loves after a fashion and hates) rooted in abusive treatment by nasty men.

The way in which Ted's supernatural attributes prevent physical contact between Ted and Bobby (contact that both man and boy desperately want – at one point, they break down and hug each other even though they know the consequences will be bad for both of them.) King is describing here, I believe, the actual physical emotional effect of the blanket prohibition on any kind of touch between unrelated man and boy when the two love each other.

The way both Bobby and Ted ignore danger signs that the thought police (aka The Low Men) have them in their sights and that their relationship is doomed. They are both smart people, but they trick themselves into thinking that things are not as bad as they actually are. How many times have I seen that happen – read about it here on BC or in a couple of cases had my nose rubbed in it IRL.

The very use of the “Low Men” (the alien invaders) as stand-ins for the thought police as they try to ferret out and destroy man/boy relationships; the way that typically mothers betray their sons, even when they lose their sons' love in the process.

Ted's kidnapping by the “Low Men” as a metaphor for what happens when the AF in a AF/YF relationship does fall into the clutches of the thought police and disappears into the system, never again able or allowed to contact his boy even though the boy is left lonely and devastated. (There is a note of hope – Ted is years later able to send Bobby a coded signal that he is free.)

Maybe this is all coincidence or I'm reading too much into it. (The novel was written in the late nineties when things were not quite as bad as they are now and set in 1960 when things were much less bad. King throws some more smoke when he has Bobby approached by a man who just wants sex – offers him money for a blowjob. It is almost as if he is saying to the muggles “this is not a novel about BL”.)

But I don't think so.


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