In his new introduction to “Hearts in Atlantis,” included in Hearts in Suspension from the University of Maine Press, Stephen King says that the sixties were probably the most crucial and formative period of his life. This collection of essays (and the one piece of fiction) focuses primarily on a four-year period starting in the fall of 1966 and ending in 1970, shortly after the shootings at Kent State. These were turbulent times in America, and influential years for the students attending the University of Maine in Orono (UMO).
Hearts in Suspension was originally conceived as a collection of King’s non-fiction, but the people behind the project, Michael Alpert (whose name is probably familiar to those aware of Philtrum Press projects like The Plant and The Eyes of the Dragon) and Jim Bishop (editor of this book) discovered that most of the work they were interested in collecting was already spoken for. They then realized that 2016 was the 50th anniversary of King’s freshman year at the university, so they changed direction and pitched a collection of reminiscences to King, who agreed to write an essay for the book. “Five to One, One in Five” (the title drawn from a song by Jim Morrison of The Doors) is a 50-plus page trip down memory lane (as opposed to a memoir) to a time of transition for King.
He entered UMO as a staunch Republican who supported the war in Vietnam, but after exposure to differing viewpoints and subsequent events, his politics and opinion about the conflict shifted. Students were shaken up by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy within a couple of months of each other. The turmoil at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was another pivotal moment. Some of their high school friends returned from Vietnam and struggled to re-integrate into civilian life.
King adopted some of the conventions of the anti-establishment (long hair, shaggy beard) and became involved with socially active organizations on campus. They picketed, staged sit-ins, participated in marches, boycotts and blockades, and found ways to rile up the staid administration—most notably in an “event” known as the Great Chicken Crisis (mentioned by several contributors and immortalized in a photograph). He remembers being angry most of the time—although that view is not echoed by the people who knew him during that period. He channeled most of his fury into his writing. He observes that his works from that period have no sense of play in them.
King warns readers that his essay may contain “half-truths, screwy chronology and maybe a few outright lies.” He started working on it, he says, expecting to undergo a sort of auto-hypnosis similar to what he experienced when writing about his childhood in It. However, that was not to be. King wrote about the late 1950s during the early 1980s, so the span of years was not nearly as great. Also, the 1960s was a heady time of transition from adolescence to adulthood, a confusing period fueled by alcohol and drugs, experiences with which King describes in detail.
Some of the stories he relates will be familiar to Constant Readers. He takes us back to the day when the photograph used in the infamous “Study, Dammit!” poster was taken, and we later hear from the photographer himself. He recounts the evening he was arrested for stealing traffic cones (which ties into the story of his sale of an early version of “The Raft”). He puts into context the writing of stories like “Graveyard Shift” and the novels The Long Walk and Rage. He mentions a Faulkner-inspired, unpublished short story (“Queen of Spades”) for which he received an A+, and talks about working on the unpublished novel Sword in the Darkness, which he thought at the time would be his magnum opus.
Some images from those years will also be familiar from his novels—the footnote mention of a hydrocephalic woman being pulled around in a red wagon, for example. He remembers the day he wrote the poem “The Dark Man,” which would inspire him to create Randall Flagg for The Stand. There’s even a picture of a young man named Zoltan whose namesake turns up in The Gunslinger, which he started writing during that period.
King describes the four-year period as Atlantis—the island continent that rose from the bottom of the sea, existed for a brief moment and then sank out of sight again. Underlying all the nostalgia, there is a sense of regret. An opportunity missed. He tells of the first time he saw one of their group “cop out” and wonders if they all did the same.
Good fiction is the truth inside the lie, King writes, so the inclusion of “Hearts in Atlantis” provides an interesting counterpoint to the essay. The novella was his attempt to write something meaningful about the sixties, a moderately fictionalized version of his time at UMO. “This is the one that came from the heart,” he says at the end of his introduction.
Then the other twelve contributors reflect on the same period. All of them knew King to some degree—UMO wasn’t all that big and most of the essayists were either roommates or classmates of King’s. Even then, King was sort of famous, in large part because of his “King’s Garbage Truck” column in the Maine Campus student newspaper, several entries from which are reprinted in Hearts in Suspension.
They take vastly different approaches. Some have a slightly irreverent tone. Others are wistful. One writer admits that this is the first time he’s thought about that period in a long time, and that it was difficult to do so. Some focus on their interactions with King, with playful references to tropes from his fiction, whereas others barely mention King at all, concentrating on their personal experiences during those years.
There is something of a Rashomon effect in hearing about the same incidents from different perspectives. Did David Bright, editor of the Maine Campus—whose name King used for a reporter in The Dead Zone and The Tommyknockers—invite King to write a column for the paper (King’s version), or did King walk into the newspaper offices and say, “I want to write a column” (Bright’s version)?
Despite some small differences like this, there is an astonishing consistency in the contributors’ recollections. They all remember King as someone who read all the time and who was determined to be a writer. One author reveals that King adopted the persona of a country/western singer, performing at a coffee house a couple of times. Many shared workshops with him, where they critiqued each other’s work. One of King’s roommates remembers hearing King read “Graveyard Shift” at the Student Union, complete with atmospheric lighting. Some read his other stories in draft and wish now that they had kept copies and gotten King to sign them.
One of the most common areas of agreement among the contributors was the importance of the workshop created by Jim Bishop and Burton Hatlen. Participating in that small group of serious writers—mostly poets—seems like seminal experience for everyone involved. They drank wine or beer, had rap sessions about their work and writing, and created poems that were ultimately collected in the anthology Moth.
This 370-plus page collection features a number of photographs and documents from the era. Readers may come to Hearts in Suspension because it contains a new, long piece of King non-fiction, but they should enjoy equally the second half of the book for its insight into the author as a young man and into an important period in his life.