One could make the argument that Stephen King is the most popular American writer of the last 50 years … and as far as I’m concerned, one would be right.
And while there will always be those who seek to dismiss Mr. King’s work with little more than a disdainfully sniffed reference to “genre fiction,” the reality is that his popularity springs from the simple fact that he was, is and likely will continue to be one hell of a writer.
But have you ever wondered where that guy was formed? The guy whose imagination spawned stories that have haunted the dreams of generations of readers? Well, he grew up and succeeded and failed and struggled and triumphed just like we all did.
“Hearts in Suspension” (University of Maine Press, $30) is a look at one of the most formative times in King’s life – the years he spent attending the University of Maine in Orono. And while King’s writing – a new essay, a reprint of his novella “Hearts in Atlantis” and a collection of some of his old columns for UMaine’s student newspaper – serves as the foundation of the book, his are not the only words we find here. Some of the people whose lives intersected with King’s during that turbulent time also relay their stories within these pages, and while most of these additional works are King-adjacent, they are by no means solely about him.
These years – from the mid-1960s into the early 1970s – were among the most tumultuous in recent American history. The war in Vietnam was changing the way that the American people viewed their institutions – their government, their military, their entire society. People from all over the country – even on the sleepy Orono campus of the University of Maine – were looking for new ways to make their voices heard and new messages to convey with those voices.
Jim Bishop – a professor of King’s during that time – is the driving force behind assembling this new work. A dozen of King’s contemporaries from his stint at UMaine – friends, activists, teachers, fellow writers – share their own memories of that period.
Yes, Stephen King’s is the name that is going to prompt most people to pick up this book – and that’s perfectly fine. They won’t be disappointed. “Hearts in Atlantis” is a great piece, one of the many stories you can point to when someone attempts to dismiss King’s literary merit. His accompanying essay, titled “Five to One, One in Five,” is fascinating; it’s basically a peek behind the curtain. King remembers the real-life events that in turn inspired the novella; his autobiographical account as captivating as the fictional one.
There’s a coming-of-age freshness that could be cheesy but isn’t, with King’s thoughtful nostalgia refusing to veer into the realm of the maudlin. It feels honest and genuine, and if – as the author himself suggests – perhaps some of the details have evolved over the years, what of it? Memory’s fickle nature is part of why we cherish it so much.
Additionally, it’s great fun to look at King’s old Maine Campus columns as well. “King’s Garbage Truck” was a mainstay in the student newspaper’s pages in the author’s later years at UMaine. In its rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness, we can see flashes of the writer King would become. His unapologetic smart-assery is clever and brash; perhaps a touch self-indulgent, but what college senior isn’t? It’s a brief poke at King’s literary origins.
But the rest of the pieces are compelling in their own right. These contemporaries of King were all part of his orbit – and he of theirs – in their time at Orono. They were living through the same things at the same moment, taking part in the same classes and marching in the same protests. It’s the sort of varied context that winds up painting a very vivid picture.
Granted, considering the small, insular nature of UMaine, a lot of the stories related in these personal narratives (composed by Michael Alpert, David Bright, Keith Carreiro, Harold Crosby, Sherry Dec, Bruce Holsapple, Frank Kadi, Diane McPherson, Larry Moscowitz, Jim H. Smith, Philip Thompson and Bishop himself) overlap and repeat. But if anything, that only serves to accentuate the impact they must have had on the people who were experiencing these things in the moment. It was a life-changing time for many – even the young people living on a small, removed college campus in the most northeastern part of the Northeast.
“Hearts in Suspension” might seem at first glance to be of interest primarily to King completists, but it is far more than that. Students of history or literature or Maine or Vietnam will all find something to fascinate them in these pages. This book tells the story of a unique time in a unique place that gave birth to a number of passionate, brilliant, extraordinary minds – one of whom just happened to become one of the most popular authors of all time.