Stephen King, whose first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974, the year before the last U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam, is the first hugely popular writer of the TV generation. Images from that war -- and the protests against it -- had flooded America's living rooms for a decade. Hearts in Atlantis, King's newest fiction, is composed of five interconnected, sequential narratives, set in the years from 1960 to 1999. Each story is deeply rooted in the sixties, and each is haunted by the Vietnam War. In Part One, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," eleven-year-old Bobby Garfield discovers a world of predatory malice in his own neighborhood. He also discovers that adults are sometimes not rescuers but at the heart of the terror. In the title story, a bunch of college kids get hooked on a card game, discover the possibility of protest...and confront their own collective heart of darkness, where laughter may be no more than the thinly disguised cry of the beast. In "Blind Willie" and "Why We're in Vietnam," two men who grew up with Bobby in suburban Connecticut try to fill the emptiness of the post-Vietnam era in an America which sometimes seems as hollow -- and as haunted -- as their own lives. And in "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," this remarkable book's denouement, Bobby returns to his hometown where one final secret, the hope of redemption, and his heart's desire may await him. Full of danger, full of suspense, most of all full of heart, Stephen King's new book will take some readers to a place they have never been...and others to a place they have never been able to completely leave.
Reading Group Guide: Discussion Questions 1. Hearts in Atlantis traces several characters from childhood through college and into adulthood. How does King explore the maturation process? In King's fiction, what distinguishes childhood from adulthood? In becoming adults, what do we lose? What do we gain? Does the book suggest that "growing up" means something unique to each generation? 2. Why does the escalating war -- and the possibility of the students being drafted -- form an eerie backdrop to the title story "Hearts in Atlantis"? In what way is the Hearts tournament a metaphor for the Vietnam War? 3. How does the supernatural element in "Low Men in Yellow Coats" set the stage for the rest of the collection, which increasingly shifts its focus toward Vietnam? What effect does King achieve by pairing supernatural horror with the human horrors of war? What does the book suggest is more disturbing: actual events, or the inventions of our wildest imaginations? 4. Books play an important role for certain characters, Lord of the Flies for Ted, Bobby, Carol, and Pete, and The Sun Also Rises for Sully. Why are these books important to them? What do they reveal to them about the world we live in? What books have been important to you and why? What does Hearts in Atlantis show us about the world we live in? 5. There are many tender and funny passages in this book coupled with disturbing descriptions of war, human cruelty, and loss of control. Recall the students' laughter at Stokely's fall, and Carol's recollection that the boys who attacked her had been "joking and then...weren't." In what ways does King explore the fine line between humor and horror? 6. Several characters in Hearts in Atlantis experience disappointment in their own actions or reactions. Bobby couldn't bring himself to accompany Ted and the low men. Pete had trouble resisting the allure of the Hearts tournament -- and laughed at Stokely's fall. Sully-John lacked the courage to stop Malenfant's murder of the villagers in Vietnam. How does shame shape identity and influence behavior? Willie Shearman reacts by making "sorry" his "full-time job." How do other characters in these stories cope or fail to cope with their regrets? 7. In several instances, characters physically carry "the wounded" to safety. Bobby carries Carol, the students carry Stokely, and Willie carries Sully-John. What is the significance of this imagery? Which of the book's themes does it advance? 8. The threatening forces in this book often emanate from the least likely places and characters. Liz Garfield, for example, suspects Ted Brautigan of being a child molester when in fact she herself is revealed as a menacing presence in her son Bobby's life. How does King challenge our expectations of where evil and darkness reside? 9. Who are the heroes and who are the villains in this book? Recall Willie Shearman's role in attacking Carol and his later rescue of Sully-John in Vietnam. Recall also Carol's dedication to the peace movement and her involvement in increasingly violent demonstrations. Can someone be both a villain and a hero? Is heroism based on a person's actions or character? How do the conditions of war blur the lines between heroism and villainy? 10. In "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling," Carol says: "People grow up, they grow up and leave the kids they were behind." "Do they?" Bobby asks. Answer his question. Do the characters in Hearts in Atlantis leave their childhoods behind? Or do their childhoods inform and shape their adult lives? Is it possible for anyone to leave childhood behind? 11. Discuss the use of symbols and signs throughout the book. Recall the mundane harbingers of the low men -- the lost pet signs and hopscotch boards -- which become increasingly ominous. Recall also King's depiction of the peace sign, which starts as a fad and gains resonance as the war takes center stage. What imbues a symbol with meaning? How does King use symbols in his fiction to create certain effects? 12. Carol uses symbols when she inscribes Lord of the Flies to Pete (p. 401-402). What do you think she means by [love+peace=information]? What does she mean when she says the book is full of information? 13. Discuss King's treatment of the theme of memory. In what ways is memory a curse and in what ways is it a salvation for the characters in this book? What does Diefenbacker mean when he says "There's memory and then there's what you actually see in your mind?" (p. 493) 14. Discuss the significance of the collection's title: "Hearts in Atlantis". Is King suggesting that the 1960's are a remote and mythical lost world? Is everyone's past a kind of Atlantis? Did the American 60's have a quality that make them especially hard to access by conventional memory or describe adequately to later generations? 15. Some pundits today see the 1960s as mini Dark Ages of Western culture. What impression of the '60s do you get from Hearts in Atlantis and how does it compare with your own experience or understanding of the '60s? 16. The Vietnam War has been the focus of numerous books and movies. How does King's treatment of the war and its era differ from others? In what ways is his approach most compelling and evocative? 17. Ted Brautigan says to Bobby Garfield: "When you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book." Does Hearts in Atlantis have both a good story and good writing? Bobby is distressed after reading Lord of the Flies that he can't decide whether the ending is good or bad. Is the ending to King's latest collection good, bad, both, or neither? 18. In the story, "Why We're in Vietnam," Diefenbacker laments the failure of his generation to act when they had the opportunity to change everything (p. 498). He says, "You know the price of selling the future, Sully-John? You can never really leave the past...And it's better that way. Vietnam is better. That's why we stay there." Do you agree with Diefenbacker's assessment? In what way are we still in Vietnam today? 19. How does every story in Hearts in Atlantis tell the story of Vietnam? Consider the characters choices about when to act and when to simply watch; when to obey authority and when to rebel; when to see and when to be blind.
Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes The Outsider, Sleeping Beauties (cowritten with his son Owen King), the Bill Hodges trilogy End of Watch, Finders Keepers, and Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel and an AT&T Audience Network original television series). His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller. His epic works The Dark Tower and It are the basis for major motion pictures, with It now the highest grossing horror film of all time. He is the recipient of the 2018 PEN America Literary Service Award, the 2014 National Medal of Arts, and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.
"King continues to be dedicated to giving his readers a luxuriant experience, the basic pleasure of getting lost in a book." -- Charles Taylor, New York Times Book Review
"King lets the reader put the book down at night after one story, knowing another horrific treat awaits the next day." -- Amanda St. Amand, St. Louis Post Dispatch
"King is as sharp and disgusting as ever... Haunting." -- People magazine
"King reminds us again of his power to unhinge with a single line or image. A master of the storytelling craft, he gets his ghastly fingernails right beneath the skin." -- John Marks, Salon.com
"In these 13 newly collected stories, we see a master craftsman at the top of his game and clearly enjoying himself.... Each story is a treat not just for King fans but for any fan of good fiction." -- Salem Macknee, Charlotte Observer
"A master storyteller... Haunting." -- Karen Sandstrom, Cleveland Plain Dealer