BANGOR, Maine — A half century ago, a talented group of writers and artists arrived at the University of Maine at Orono at the beginning of one of the nation’s most turbulent eras. One of them — Stephen King — has become a household name, a synonym for the term “best-selling horror author.”
On Tuesday, the latest Stephen King book will be released, but it’s not of the macabre nature King is best known for. The nonfiction book focuses on the shared experience of that corps of young writers, activists and ideologues on a campus then known as “UMO.”
Edited by Jim Bishop, a former UMaine English instructor who first taught the Master of the Macabre when the author was just 18, “Hearts in Suspension,” published by the University of Maine Press, reflects the era it describes: It’s a communal writing effort of King and his classmates and friends of the time, all of whom seek to illuminate those years when a landslide of societal change took center stage. An unpopular, undeclared war raged in Vietnam. Civil rights marches and demonstrations were staged in the South. On campuses, student activism grew, as did drug use, and a much more liberal mindset began to take hold.
“Coming to the University of Maine after [growing up in a small town] was like all at once you discover a brand new world. I know that I was shocked the first time that I heard people challenge my beliefs, because I wasn’t used to that,” King said during an interview on Friday. “Little by little, my eyes were opened. Everybody’s were after a while, if you were in school, and if you were paying attention and using your intellect and listening to teachers and everything.”
The book includes a lengthy nonfiction essay by King describing his collegiate years, and the fictionalized version of some of those same events, “Hearts in Atlantis,” a novella that was featured in the 1999 King book by the same name.
The essayists, including former roommates, fellow activists and the writers King worked with, add depth to the tapestry with their own memories of the time, and their impressions of the future author. Along with their commitment to the issues of the time, all share another trait with the author: They’re gifted writers.
Bishop and Michael Alpert, now the director of the University of Maine Press, shared the idea for the project that would become “Hearts in Suspension” with King back in 2011 and worked together to develop the book. Bishop, Alpert and King eventually decided to focus their attention on the 50th anniversary of King’s arrival on campus.
Then, with help from the UMaine Alumni Association and King’s assistants, Bishop began reaching out to prospective essayists from that circle of students.
“Some of these folks I had not seen since that time,” Bishop said during an interview on Thursday. “There were some cold calls, you might say. I have to say, I didn’t know if there would be a response, or what the response might be. Can you imagine getting a call like that, 45 or 50 years later?”
King said he was a bit worried about the proposal at first — those worries were allayed when he saw the finished product — and said he’s rooting for it to sell well for one important reason.
“You know, it turned out to be a very good book. I had my doubts, but it was good. It’s also a hell of a look at the way college used to be 50 years ago. It’s changed a lot,” King said. “The book is a University of Maine Press book, and I want them to sell as many copies as they can because then they can fund other projects.”
The writing prompt provided to the essayists proved to be a tough assignment, Bishop said.
“I tentatively suggested, after our first meeting [with King] that we invite some of his fellow refugees from the ’60s to try to recapture what it was like for them, coming of age smack in the middle of that turbulent time,” Bishop wrote in his introduction to the book.
The writers agreed to take part, but admitted they sometimes struggled with the assignment.
“Those folks are tasked with trying to dredge up all of those actual memories from that period, and to then somehow put them into words,” Bishop said. “That’s just a difficult task. We were fortunate. They responded to the call.”
Even King said recapturing the times in his essay was challenging.
“[My college years] were such a blur of classes, homework, events, card games, drinking at Pat’s [Pizza], that I thought to myself, ‘I can’t really recapture it,’” King said. “But as a writer, I know that there’s a kind of hypnosis that kicks in. And if you can find a place to start, a lot of times the act of writing itself will open things up. And that’s what happened with me. The more I wrote, the more I remembered.”
Even a half-century removed from their college days, the essays resonate, and reflect an era during which King and his peers thought they were going to change the world.
Anti-war and civil rights protests were a common bond for many of the essayists, as the Vietnam War raged, student protests were held nationwide, and the rural Orono campus struggled with this emerging new reality.`
Among the most powerful essays: Diane McPherson’s “Impressions,” during which she intersperses poignant and often hilarious memories of her time at UMO. In addition to talking about King, she introduces us to one down-on-his-luck student, painting a verbal picture of a … unique individual.
“One resident of the cabins was a scrawny, gentle, long-haired ascetic named Clifford C., who subsisted on cat food sandwiches,” McPherson wrote in her essay. Before graduation, Clifford married a woman — her name was Kat, believe it or not — and the wedding provided for equally stunning imagery plucked deftly from the era: “The wedding festivities seemed to take most of a day, probably because (rumor had it) the punch was spiked with LSD.”
Another highlight: Jim H. Smith’s “How Young Jimmy Met the Old Necromancer in a Hall and Got a Ringside Seat to the Graveyard Shift.”
Smith seems to have stepped back in time seamlessly, reflecting on Orono, the place, during that stage of his life.
“It was the place where, little more than a month after [Jack Kerouac’s] demise, I learned that my number in the first Vietnam War draft lottery was 224, sufficiently high, as things played out, to save me from getting my ass shot off in the jungles of Southeast Asia,” Smith wrote. “And, it was the place where I met Stephen King.”
King’s original roommate, Harold Crosby, and his Maine Campus editor David Bright are part of the talented panel of essayists, which also includes Bishop, Alpert, McPherson, Smith, Philip Thompson, Keith Carreiro, Sherry Dec, Bruce Holsapple, Larry Moscowitz and Frank Kadi in “Hearts in Suspension.”
Also included: A couple pages from Moscowitz’s FBI file, and a few “King’s Garbage Truck” columns, which he wrote for the campus newspaper.
In all likelihood, most readers won’t have heard of these writers, several of them published poets, journalists or novelists; each adds a distinctive voice, and illustrates a different sign of the times … or side of King.
“They were a very talented group, and they were part of a communal energy of the time as well. You can’t overstress the kind of energy that was happening then, for better or worse,” Bishop said. “There were dark sides to that energy, and there were really brilliant light sides to that energy … you take their natural talent, plus that kind of communal energy, and it was really powerful stuff.”
Bishop, who read two of King’s as-yet-unpublished novels when the author was still a student at UMO, said one trait stood out even then.
“Steve was just a very, very dedicated writer. He was probably a dedicated writer at 8 years old and I picked him up at 18,” Bishop said. “How many students do you see that are that dedicated? You just don’t. There are lots of talented kids and lots of good writers. I’ve had quite a few in the time I’ve taught. But I don’t think I ever had anyone who was that dedicated to their craft.”
In “Hearts in Suspension,” King shines, delivering the reader to a place many have never been — on a college campus in the ’60s — but describing it so well that you feel like you’re watching a documentary. Known as a fiction writer, the author again proves (as he did in “On Writing”) that his nonfiction work is also top-notch. His autobiographical essay, “Five to One, One in Five,” reads just like a King novel … without the rabid St. Bernards, vampires and assorted boogeymen.
King, as the old saying about good writing advises, “shows.” He doesn’t “tell.” And his warts-and-all approach to his own foibles as a young man means his drug use, drunken binges and assorted missteps are all fair game. As are the revelations that came during his four years on campus: King arrived in Orono as a Goldwater Republican, and left as a left-leaning activist with an entirely new view on society, and the life he wanted to lead.
On Monday, nine of those 12 — Moscowitz, McPherson and Holsapple are unable to attend — will join King on the Collins Center for the Arts stage at UMaine for a conversation that will serve as a book launch event. King will also read from the book and have a discussion about his college days in Orono.
Bishop said the essayists share a common emotion as the event approaches.
“Everybody has said how nervous they are,” Bishop said. “Just meeting these people [again], it’s like time-lapse photography. Suddenly, all of these people that you have a picture of when they were close to 20 are approaching 70. It’s a little freaky, but we are looking forward to it.”
“I’m scared. I’m scared. And it isn’t like I think something’s going to go wrong. I don’t think anything’s going to go wrong,” King said. “But I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little bit scared to see how my old college running buddies look now, and I’m a little bit scared for how they’re gonna look at me, and see the way that I look now.”
King will join nine of the essayists featured in “Hearts in Suspension” at a book launch event at UMaine’s Collins Center for the Arts on Monday at 7 p.m. There are no more tickets available for the event.