Stephen King started the 1980s off with a bang with Firestarter, the tale of a pyrokinetic eight-year-old girl and her father on the run from a branch of the government, The Shop (King's fictitious version of the CIA, essentially), that wants to use them for their own malicious means. Their travels while on the run from The Shop's special agents make up about the first third of the novel, and the rest is concerned with them being held prisoner and their eventual escape. It's a thrilling novel, one that constantly keeps the pedal to the medal in a way that so few King novels do -- at least this much. It ranks up there with Cell, Mr. Mercedes, and The Long Walk as far as sheer readability goes.
And, yet, for the longest time I didn't like this novel. In fact, I almost hated it. I numbered it among my bottom five King books and took any chance I got to talk smack about it. With something as subjective as books, every reader's opinion is going to be different, and about Firestarter mine differed quite a bit from the general consensus. This book came out when King was going nowhere but up and his readership thought he could do no wrong (and, usually, that's an accurate assessment). He was a very wealthy man who had just seen his first hardcover bestseller -- The Dead Zone -- bring in even more name recognition, and he would only get richer throughout the '80s. As well, this story had a (pretty bad, mind you) movie adaptation starring Drew Berrymore release a few years later. Needless to say, Firestarter was very much in the public conscious at the time and is usually considered "classic King" . . . maybe not on the level of his previous five novels, but it's always up there.
Still, I didn't like it. And I suppose the biggest reason for that is the circumstances in which I read it the first time. Funny how what's going on in our lives when reading a book can negatively -- or positively -- impact our general impression of that book, isn't it? I suppose it's a little silly to sometimes let what's going on in life impact what I think of novels, but hey, we all do it. It is human nature. I read this book for the first time in early 2012, and I was almost to the halfway mark on the day I and my sister stayed with my grandfather so my grandmother could go to church. He was dying of cancer. That was the only day I stayed with him simply because I couldn't take it emotionally -- seeing him withering away like he did was too much, if you can dig it. To kill time while I was there I read a few chapters of Firestarter, and from then on that novel was closely associated with that Sunday morning.
As well, I just never thought it really worked as a novel. The plot -- Charlie and Andy McGee on the run from government agents; Charlie accidentally sets some fires; the two hole up in a cabin; the two are eventually caught; they're held in the bowels of The Shop's headquarters for testing with no hope of seeing each other again; Andy dies and Charlie escapes by blowing the place sky-high. And . . . that's it. I always thought this would make a great short story or novella, but at 400 pages it just seemed too thin to justify its length.
This reread, however, opened my eyes to something I had missed -- some of King's best character development is within those 400 pages. And, sure, there are occasional lulls and the plot isn't very complex, but that ain't the point. The point is a young girl and her father on the run because of something they have no control over (Andy underwent a scientific experiment in college for two hundred bucks, and that experiment gave him and his future wife -- whom he met in the experiment -- special psi powers of their own, though they do not compare at all to the power the girl they conceived has), and that's the crux of the novel. How much can a young girl -- even a girl with the magnificent power of starting fires with her mind -- stand up to before crumbling, and how far will our government go to get what they want . . . or "fix" (i.e. worsen instead of improving) the problems they create?
Like The Stand and The Dead Zone before it, Firestarter is about characters who are very distrustful of the American government, and with good reason. Written against the backdrop of Watergate, this is probably King's most paranoid novel this side of The Tommyknockers. The fear here isn't vampires scratching at your window or a murderous clown entity laughing in your shower drain but is, instead, an all-knowing government with connections in high and low places willing to stop at nothing to fulfill their sadistic desires. It isn't supernatural, and that's what makes Firestarter -- in some ways, at least -- one of King's most unnerving works to date. The monsters here are totally human and can't be stopped with a crucifix or "white magic" alone. The human monsters theme is something that continues through King's next few novels -- Roadwork, Cujo, The Running Man, the four stories in Different Seasons.
Something else that makes Firestarter new, uncharted territory for King is the way he handles sex here. Sure, sex was mentioned here and there in his previous novels, but it was never really dealt with. Firestarter is the story of a young girl on the edge of sexual development, and many times the sexual cues are almost overt in the text -- Rainbird being described more than once as viewing Charlie with "the eyes of a lover" and Charlie's dreams of riding her horse bareback, naked, and feeling empowered by being in a naked state -- the feeling is described as being "almost erotic". Like Carrie White, Charlie McGee's psi power becomes more powerful as she gets older and develops physically and mentally. Since this novel is, in large part, from the point of view of a father with his young daughter, sexuality is almost always right below the surface. He sees her turning into a young woman and doesn't quite know how to react. And what's scarier to a dad than realizing his little girl is growing up?
In conclusion: Firestarter is one of King's most involving and exhilarating novels. Filled with nervous, paranoid energy, this is a book that is almost impossible to put down and deserves to be ranked with the best of 'em. It features some of his strongest character work and all the main players -- Charlie, Andy, and villain Rainbird chief among them -- won't soon leave the reader's mind. It's a sweet, powerful, and, most of all, frightening novel that almost seems like real life. Highly recommended for King fans and/or fans of horror and sci-fi in general.
Definitely not as many this time around as there were in The Dead Zone, but there are a couple worth mentioning:
- Charlie is described at one point as using her psi power like a "gunslinger", meaning she is skilled and very powerful.
- A character by the name of Patrick Hockstetter is very important in this novel, and while I don't think he is the same person who hung out with Henry Bowers in IT, there are very few coincidences in the King universe. The Patrick Hockstetter in Firestarter is a bad dude, too, so I'm thinking it's the same guy . . . but maybe on a different level of the Tower.
- The Shop appears or is referenced in later works "The Mist," The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition, and The Tommyknockers
"Either way, the hurt, the cost, was enormous. Was this what being grownup was about? Dealing with that hurt? That cost? If it was, she hoped she would die young."
We're keeping the government off our land (I think? I've never read this one) -- it's Roadwork!