Stephen King’s “Low Men in Yellow Coats”: The Hardy Boys meet the Lord of the Flies
David K. Vaughan
One. Hearts in Atlantis: the Book
Stephen King’s writing is filled with references to American popular culture: movies, food products, music, and books. Usually the books and movies he mentions are in the horror and science fiction genres, no surprise there. As he readily admits, he is as much a product of American popular culture as any character in his novels. It would be natural, therefore, to expect an occasional reference to one of the most familiar genres of American popular culture: juvenile series books. In one of his most recent works, he makes direct use of the plot devices, themes, and attitudes of American juvenile series books. King applies his own special interpretation of the model, however. In fact, in “Low Men in Yellow Coats” he turns the American juvenile series model on its ear, inverting the usual outcomes and showing the main character meeting a challenge and failing, finally being reduced, by the end of the story, in his sense of self-worth and personal achievement.
“Low Men in Yellow Coats” is the lead-off story in King’s recent Hearts in Atlantis, published before he suffered a near-fatal accident in Maine, and is by far the best story in the book. This story takes place in the early 1960s; each story in the book takes place at a later time, ending finally in 1999, the year the book was published. The second story in the book, “Hearts in Atlantis,” suggests that King spent his college career at the University of Maine in a non-stop Hearts game with his dormitory buddies. The second and third stories in the collection, “Blind Willie” and “Why We’re in Vietnam,” focus on the activities of veterans of Vietnam after they have returned to America, but they are less successful stories because they misrepresent the experiences of Americans in Vietnam and are not really redeemed by the Kingian twists. The final brief story, “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling,” brings closure to the lives of the three main characters in the opening story. But the opening story gains our attention and holds it from the opening chapter.
The story describes the spring and summer months during the year Bobby Garfield turns eleven. He lives with his mother Liz in a slightly run-down apartment building in Harwich, Connecticut. The time is 1960, the “last year of the Eisenhower presidency,” as King pointedly mentions. Bobby’s best friend is Sully-John, a skilled athlete and a steady type. Carol Gerber is a good friend, a “girl friend” in a non-romantic sense. At the beginning of the story the three of them share an easy and comfortable relationship that is broken by the time the story ends. In the first chapter, a new roomer moves into the apartment building, Theodore Brautigan, an older man who brings his possessions with him in a collection of small disreputable suitcases and paper bags. Bobby’s mother is immediately suspicious of him. “Call me Ted,” he tells Bobby, who is initially reluctant to do so.
Ted discovers that Bobby wants to save money to buy a bicycle that he is unable to convince his mother to buy for him, and gives him a job, paying Bobby to read selected items from the newspaper to him. Bobby eventually learns that Ted is looking for clues to tell him if the “low men in yellow coats” are looking for him. The “low men” represent the epitome of bad taste, dressing in vulgar clothing and driving gaudy cars. Worse, Bobby learns, they have come for him from an alternative space and time continuum, a link to the “Dark Tower” world of other King stories. Their presence can be detected by especially inane advertisements for lost cats and dogs and unusual chalk markings near hopscotch diagrams.
While visiting Ted’s room, Bobby learns that Ted has brought with him many interesting books to read, including works by William Golding and John Steinbeck. Bobby, who is developing advanced reading skills, is intrigued by these books and by the discussions he and Ted have about these books. The first book Ted gives Bobby to read is Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a story about a group of young boys who survive on an island after an aircraft accident in a world devastated by nuclear attacks resulting from the Cold War turned hot. Lord of the Flies is a grim allegory about the basic animalistic behavior of humans when the strictures of civilization are removed. Once Bobby reads the book, his view of the world changes, and he begins to see the world as an adult.
Soon after Ted’s arrival, other events cause Bobby’s view of the world to change, so that he begins to see the world as a darker, more unpleasant world than he had previously thought. His girl friend, Carol, is attacked by three boys with a baseball bat, who beat her seriously, dislocating her shoulder. At almost the same time, Bobby’s mother is assaulted by her boss and two co-workers when she travels alone with them to a motel in another town, where she thinks she will be attending a real-estate seminar. His mother returns home from her assault in time to see Ted trying to comfort Carol, whom Bobby has found in the park after the attack and brought her home for Ted’s assistance. Never having trusted Ted, Liz assumes he has been taking liberties with the girl and attacks him without giving him a chance to explain. Liz tells Ted he must leave and never have anything to do with Bobby. The result is that Bobby can never quite forgive his mother even though she is in a state of distress caused by events as traumatic as those Carol experienced. His friend, Sully-John, away at summer camp, is not there to help Bobby deal with these emergencies.
Liz worries that Ted has touched her son in a sexually inappropriate way. Ted in fact has touched Bobby, but that touch has given Bobby a limited ability to sense what other people are thinking and to increase his perception of events going on around him. Soon after the attacks on Carol and Liz, it becomes clear that the “low men” have discovered Ted’s location, and they are starting to close in on him. Through his special telepathic powers, Bobby is able to avoid leading the “low men” to Ted. Bobby tries to warn Ted of the danger by traveling to a bar in a lower-class part of town he knows Ted visits, but he discovers that he is totally unable to help. He is confronted by the “low men” and pleads for his release by sobbing that he wants to be with his mother. He is released from the control of the “low men” only after Ted says he will cooperate with them. Ted is taken away by the men and Bobby never sees him again.
The story ends as Bobby continues a decline into petty thievery and trouble with law enforcement officials. Sully-John and Carol go their separate ways, and Bobby and his mother move to another town. The story ends with Bobby and his mother together in their new lodgings: “’Oh Bobby,’ she said. ‘We’ve made such a mess of things, you and me. What are we going to do?’ ‘The best we can,” he said, still stroking her hand.”
This summary of the plot of the story initially suggests that it bears little resemblance to the standard plot and theme of the American juvenile series books. But the similarities in the plot are quite striking: a young boy who has another boy to share adventures with; a girl who is a friend also. And immediately there is a mystery: who is this strange old man who is reluctant to discuss his background and who likes to read books? Who are the men who are after him and why are they after him? Will the boy solve the mystery without himself getting in trouble?
Obviously, the standard plot developments are there, but the outcomes are the reverse of those normally expected in a series book: the boy/hero does not solve the mystery in time to thwart the plans of the “low men,” and he cannot outwit the men who want to bring harm to his friend. And in the process, the boy’s sense of personal worth and values are reduced, not enhanced. Bobby is unable to help his friend and feels fortunate to escape with his life. Bobby seeks revenge on the boys who hurt Carol, but he does so in a mean and vicious act that, however it may seem to be justified (by striking from behind with a baseball bat), is definitely not in accordance with the standards of traditional juvenile series heroes.
The social world of Bobby Garfield is not that of the Hardy Boys, Rick Brant, or Ken Holt. There are no special, exotic locales in this story: only the lower middle-income environment of a working-class city on the east coast. The most enlightened individual in the story, Ted Brautigan, is a suspicious character himself. He smokes too many cigarettes (which motivates Bobby to imitate the act). When he disappears forever, no mature adult remains in the story to provide stability and guidance. The world of the action is inner city playgrounds, seedy side shows, and lower class bars where you can place bets on fights that are fixed.
How do we know King meant this story to be a modern, darker version of juvenile series stories? He gives us many clues. In his autobiographical On Writing, published the year after Hearts in Atlantis appeared, he acknowledges his early interest in juvenile series stories: “Most of that year  . . . I read my way through approximately six tons of comic books, progressed to Tom Swift and Dave Dawson (a heroic World War II pilot whose various planes were always ‘prop-clawing for altitude’), then moved on to Jack London’s blood-curdling animal tales” (12-13). But he gives us even more information in the story itself.
Two pages into the story, Bobby Garfield asks his mother if his father, who died young, hadn’t left them some money: “A week or two before, he’d read a Nancy Drew mystery where some poor kid’s inheritance had been hidden behind an old clock in an abandoned mansion. Bobby didn’t really think his father had left gold coins or rare stamps stashed someplace, but if there was something, maybe they could sell it” (4). The use of the juvenile mystery story as a frame of reference continues a few pages later, when his mother gives Bobby an adult library card for his birthday. Although Bobby really wanted a bicycle, he accepts the library card with pleasure:
“An adult library card. Goodbye Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Don Winslow of the Navy. Hello to all the rest of it, stories as full of mysterious muddled passion as The Dark at the top of the Stairs. Not to mention bloody daggers in tower rooms. (There were mysteries and tower rooms in the stories about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but precious little blood and never any passion.)” (7)
When Bobby thinks of his friends Carol and Sully-John, he thinks of them specifically in terms of juvenile series characters: “Carol was a fluffy blonde who looked like a Bobbsey twin after some growing up; John Sullivan was tall, black-haired, and green-eyed. A Joe Hardy kind of boy” (12).
One of the first books Ted Brautigan gives Bobby to read is Lord of the Flies, and “it didn’t take him twenty pages to . . . find out that Lord of the Flies was a hell of a book” (27). Ted suggests that Lord of the Flies “wasn’t much like the Hardy Boys, was it?”
“Bobby had a momentary image, very clear, of Frank and Joe Hardy running through the jungle with homemade spears, chanting that they’d kill the pig . . . . He burst out laughing, and as Ted joined him he knew that he was done with the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Rick Brant, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. Lord of the Flies had finished them off. He was very glad he had an adult library card.” (37)
At this point in the story, references to popular juvenile series books end, to be replaced with a steady, continuous reference to the dark world of Lord of the Flies. Other frames of reference are provided, mostly through mention of popular television shows and movies of the time, like Hawaiian Eye and The Fugitive. Increasingly, the events of the story take place in dark and dingy surroundings, and the final capture of Ted Brautigan occurs outside the Corner Pocket Bar in a seedy part of town at night. When Bobby senses that the “low men” are near, he forces himself to clear his mind of any thoughts of Ted by imagining a sexual fantasy of Carol without any clothes on, hardly a standard series book stratagem.
During the final episode one final reference to juvenile series books occurs, and it is thematically significant. Bobby is forced to run out of the bar where he came to warn Ted of the danger awaiting him to a more deserted and disreputable part of town:
“There was nothing he could do about it. He was just a kid and it was out of his hands. Bobby realized that, but he also realized he couldn’t let Ted walk into The Corner Pocket without at least trying to warn him. There was nothing Hardy Boys-heroic about this, either; he simply couldn’t leave without making the effort.” (205)
There is no system, no sidekick, no adult leadership, to help Bobby Garfield out of an impossibly difficult situation. There is no network of friends and acquaintances available to rescue Bobby. Sully-John, the “Joe Hardy” type, is off at camp, enjoying the kind of upper-class life style not available to Bobby.
Does this inversion of the series book formula mean that Stephen King did not think highly of the genre? On the contrary, it appears that the genre was important to him, for “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is full of references to the perspective of series books. It seems clearly to have been his intent to show that the real world (or at least Stephen King’s version of it) is not much like the kind of world suggested in those series books, either in style or culture, and that there was no way that well-meaning juveniles could seriously challenge the doings of the “low men” of the world. Yet, by pointedly denying the validity of that perspective, Stephen King validates the significance of its impact on American culture.
Two. Hearts in Atlantis: the Movie
In “Low Men” King turned the series book model on its ear. Instead of a story in which an eager young boy (assisted by another eager young boy or girl) is able to solve a mystery and correct an injustice in the world, the story shows the young protagonist, Bobby Garfield, unable to save his adult friend Ted Brautigan from the actions of the “low men,” as they successfully capture Brautigan and carry him off. Bobby Garfield is not only unable to prevent this injustice, he pleads for his life and his safe return to his mother when he is captured by the “low men.” In this story King introduces a number of references to series books characters to demonstrate their ineffectiveness as role models for the situations in which Bobby Garfield finds himself. The most frequent—and most symbolically important—references are to the Hardy Boys. References to the Hardy boys are replaced in the story with references to the Lord of the Flies. Other series book characters are mentioned in the story, including Don Winslow, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, Bomba the Jungle Boy, and even Rick Brant, as if King wants to dismiss all such books as irrelevant to the harsh gritty realities of modern life (or at least those of Bobby Garfield’s life in the early 1960s).
When Hollywood made the film based on the story “Hearts in Atlantis,” I anticipated seeing a good film if for no other reason that the versatile actor Anthony Hopkins was cast in the role of the psychic displaced person, Ted Brautigan. Unfortunately, the film, directed by Robert Hicks and with a screenplay by William Goldman, is not successful, in spite of Hopkins’ presence. Part of the blame results from an unnecessarily simplified plot, and part of the blame results from a lack of resonance in linking the film’s opening and closing scenes (set in the present) with the main story itself (set in the 1960s).
However, what was most interesting to me is the reversal the film gives to King’s efforts to deny the effectiveness of series books’ values and ideas. The film in fact validates the values the story denies.
On the surface, the film acknowledges the role of series books in the lives of the young characters, but in a much less significant way than does the story. One scene in the film shows Bobby Garfield lying on his bed reading, with a small group of series books on a shelf in the background including two Rick Brant books, a Tom Swift Jr. book and one of the Whitman series. It’s hard to read the titles on the spines of the books due to the distance of the camera. The film appears to mildly disparage series books; in the film, the boy character Bobby Garfield tells Ted Brautigan that the Hardy Boys don’t compare to the kind of books he can read now that he has an adult library card. But there is no discussion in the film of Lord of the Flies (or any of the other books discussed by Bobby and Brautigan in the story) as Bobby’s new substitute for series books.
The most important scene suggesting the loss of the innocent world of the series books is associated with Carol Gerber, not Bobby Garfield. In the scene in which she is attacked by a boy with a baseball bat, we see her reading one of the Dana Girls books (The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage) on a tree limb overhanging a small stream. When she is attacked, the book falls into the stream and is carried away in the water, contrasting the idyllic life of the series books world and the brutality of the real world.
However, the issue of the values and ideas of series books is not a thematic part of the film’s story in the way that it is in the original story. The series books seem to be important in the film only for the sense of “local color” they provide, like the period cars and black and white television programs (including a scene from a Lone Ranger episode). In fact, the plot of the story supports rather than attacks series books norms. In the original story, Bobby Garfield is briefly captured by the “low men” when he attempts to warn Ted of their presence. After he pleads for release on the basis that he is powerless to do anything, the “low men” let him go. In the film Bobby never has an encounter with the “low men” and is never humiliated by them by being forced to admit his own inability to deal with the situation. In the film Bobby Garfield gives his best efforts to help Ted and maintains his dignity even if he cannot save his friend. The scene in which Ted is captured is really a disappointment, because the film never shows us the “low men” directly. They are seen as little more than determined undercover agents collecting a fugitive from some higher form of justice, not as a force that is capable of destroying the confidence of well-meaning individuals and undermining the fabric of society.
The film suggests that the efforts of Bobby Garfield are worthwhile but ineffective and validates the values and ideas of series books. The film supports series books values by changing some important details. For instance, the film does not show Bobby seeking revenge on the boy who attacks Carol (in the story Bobby hits the boy with a baseball bat from behind). And the film gives a more popular “Hollywood ending,” in which the main figure (Bobby Garfield) does achieve a degree of success in a mean world. The film ends by showing Bobby in a strongly positive light, similar to that of series books figures. In King’s original version, this aspect is denied. If the film had been more faithful to the King story, it would have been much more disturbing. But the filmmakers apparently wanted something not so disturbing, something more familiar and more comforting to its viewers. Hollywood film-makers, like the publishers of series books, know that it preferable to satisfy their viewers and readers rather than disturb or unsettle them.