Finally, I have read more Stephen King! Enough to finally have some consistency with this series! Turns out being stuck indoors is incredibly helpful when you need to get through 700 pages of killer cars (we’ll get to that) or 1,000 pages of a shape shifting clown (oh boy will we get to that), but for now, let’s look at what I’ve gathered is a relative deep cut in the King canon, which is odd considering it established a popular sci-fi trope. Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before-
A shady government organisation decides to run experiments on adult volunteers, resulting in their child being a superpowered kid with the power to read minds and cause unprecedented levels of destruction with the power of their mind. The child escapes and goes on the run, forcing the organisation to track her down and cover up their mistake.
I could be talking about Eleven from Stranger Things. Or X-23 from Logan. Or River Tam from Firefly (slight variation but still the same archetype). Actually, this plot line is quite a popular one, and I believe Firestarter, published in 1980 decades before any of those, was the first storyline to really explore it. Firestarter? More like Trendstarter.
OK, enough waffle, let’s get to the nitty gritty- is it any good? Well, it’s certainly not a horror novel (the third book in a row to not be horror related… why is Stephen King pigeonholed as a horror writer again?) but it is a compelling thriller novel that captures King’s ability to tap into a child’s mind. We saw it before with Danny in The Shining but here he really shines with the inner workings of a child. Charlie McGee is for all intensive purposes a normal six year old girl, and the novel does a fantastic job of capturing that voice- a lot of the more intense, violent and dark aspects of the narrative are not really tapped into when Charlie’s point of view kicks in and that’s because kids as young as her don’t really comprehend what is going on around them, no matter how bad things are. Her father is on the run with her and she doesn’t know much, only that they’re in danger. Which makes perfect sense, seeing how her father would want to shield her, both from the true nature of what’s happening and also from her pyrokinetic powers that give the book its title.
But alternately, is Andy actually a good father? His intentions are absolutely justified, but is trying to hide Charlie from her true nature a good or bad thing? Much like Johnny Smith in the previous book allowed King to explore the morality of crime and punishment, here, we’re left with some very complex moral issues regarding parenting and the responsibilities of adults and how they treat children. Whilst “The Shop”, the shadowy organisation hunting the McGees down, are clearly malicious people, much of Andy’s actions actually exasperate the situation. For example, a key part of the book sees Andy gain the trust of an elderly couple and hide out with Charlie on their farm, at first not telling them anything then refusing further help as he believes they’re off the grid. The ensuing chaos is partly his fault. And when The Shop do catch them, they are actually quite reasonable people, well characterised and yes, not pleasant, but many of them are quite endearing and willing to compromise. But it’s Andy that refuses to listen. The Shop killed his wife, so it’s understandable, but still, he’s not exactly parent of the year.
It’s this moral ambiguity that makes the book work in my opinion. It helps that unlike most King books, which start slowly and build towards massive climaxes, Firestarter starts off in action, with Andy and Charlie running to the airport and giving the audience a sense of their powers right away and instantly posing questions to the audience. The titular fire powers are obviously a metaphor for puberty and the literal loss of childhood innocence through the lens of a destructive force, which Charlie can’t even begin to control properly. The fires are started due to her heightened emotional state, exacerbated by her young age, and this makes her incredibly dangerous. Despite this, the novel makes it clear that Charlie should remain an object of sympathy throughout, and the story is just as much of a coming of age narrative of a child rejecting her adult superiors than it is about the failings of adults.
The structure of Firestarter is absolutely fantastic, and it’s probably one of the easiest Stephen King books to read. It’s just as epic and large in scale as something as The Stand or Salem’s Lot but because of the focus on two people the narrative can be more refined and action oriented than others before and after it. The novel also does a fantastic job keeping the mysteries and reveals a secret and for establishing the threat perfectly- as I’ve previously stated, The Shop is such a powerful and dominating presence in the narrative that the portions of the book focused on the exploits of the various factions of villains prove to be amongst the most compelling. You can always trust Stephen King to give you fantastic villains.
If you want some (relatively) light hearted and fast paced Stephen King that still gives you the same levels of satisfaction as his horror work, I highly recommend Firestarter, as it functions on many levels as a commentary on nature vs nurture, the horrors of the real world through the eyes of the child and a compelling coming of age drama on top of just being an entertaining, novel length chase across America. And now, the regular sections-
I promise to get better on the adaptation front, but once again I haven’t seen the Firestarter film. You would think a book like this would work well on film but from everything I’ve read about it this is hardly one of the better adaptations. A remake would actually be a good idea, mainly so I can make that Trendstarter joke again but also because I think this book would be a fantastic summer blockbuster with today’s technology.
More telepathy, the sixth book in a row! And, much like books past, we get to see the eyes of the world through an adolescence.
The King multiverse
The Shop were last reference in The Stand, trying and failing to contain Captain Trips. Obviously in the prime universe the virus never hit so here they’re focused on hunting down the McGees. A missed opportunity was to not connect this to Carrie, as the ending of that book has a government committed formed to hunt down other telepathic individuals and the background of this book could’ve very well been connected to that.
Next time, we explore why I’m more of a cat person with… Cujo.