Sometime around 1983 I finally secured a copy of Stephen King’s Firestarter in the form of a dog-eared paperback barely held together by the binding. Upon opening the book for the first time, some of the pages at the front fell out of the book, and I thought about calling the library to explain what happened. After discovering some of the other pages held inside with tape, I secured the pages back in place and never worried about it again. Fortunately, the book was an incredibly fast paced story, so it was returned to the library rather quickly with minimal damage. There were times where the story zipped along so swiftly, I feared the pages would catch fire in my hands. Read only once, I returned to it somewhat soured by my memories of the lackluster film adaptation, and its wasteful sequel taking place with Charlie McGee as an adult. Thirty years is a long time, but once I read those first pages again, I remembered why I liked it so much in the first place.
The last of King’s ‘psychic’ stories, at least for a year or so, it is in Firestarter when we see the master perfecting his thriller genre abilities. While The Dead Zone was by definition a ‘thriller’, it was not written in the tried and tested ‘suspense’ format we’re so familiar with now. With Cujo, we see Stephen King, writing as himself, step away from the supernatural in a strange homage to Watership Down by trapping a woman and her son against a rabid dog. Nothing supernatural to see there, folks, and it would be two more years before he returned to that subgenre again with The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger and Christine. By ‘thriller’ format, what I mean here is how the story folds in on itself, starting in the middle of things, and with skillful use of flashback and a little narrative liberty, getting the reader up to speed while keeping the action moving. Firestarter is not a scary book, nor is it a real horror book. It is straight-up suspense, but the result of that suspense is fear, and the implications of the events of the story and how the character’s deal with those implications are indeed horrifying, which puts Firestarter right at the top of the list of the best Stephen King has to offer.
We first meet the main characters on the run. The action here is swift with high tension. We don’t know why this man and little girl are running, and it seems important that we should continue reading to find out. Life and death are on the line here, and it’s so easy to get caught in King’s trap. Years of reading the pulps taught him to hook ‘em early and hook ‘em hard. Keeping the back-story in bite-sized morsels, we slowly (precisely is more like it…the story runs like clockwork) discover exactly what is going on. Fiction 101 advises against using flashbacks, especially at the beginning of the story, but if you’re going to break a ‘rule’, then you must break it good. King shatters that advice and drops us into the scenes that started this whole mess with skillful grace and expertise.
The catalyst of the story is the stuff of science-fiction legend. Andy McGee and Vicky Tomlinson meet at college, both signing up for an experimental drug program run by the Psych Department that pays $200 flat. The drug, called Lot 6, is explained away as a mild hallucinogenic, though we know there’s a lot more at play than just some Alice in Wonderland “White Rabbit” hokey pokey. Brainchild of one Dr. Wanless, the drug is part of a government program studying the long-term effects of glandular growth. Lot 6 causes all kinds of weird things to happen to the pituitary gland, which in turn opens up a particular can of worms in humans called psychic phenomenon. We pick up with Andy and Charlie years after the experiment, and find the father and daughter on the run from the same government entity that now wants to capture Charlie and study her, all in the name of national security.
King hits on many popular tropes here: Shady government; convert conspiracies involving the CIA, NSA, and a lot of other acronyms too numerous to name; psychic abilities; fugitives on the run; the list goes on. There have been plenty of books before and after Firestarter that dive into these very subjects, but none of them actually focus on the players orchestrating those moves so well. To say King created this particular type of thriller is insulting to many other shining examples in the thriller genre, but it is safe to say perhaps that his approach solidified how such a book should be written. The pacing, characterization, plotting, all of it really, is top-notch and is a testament to the man and his craft.
My first read of Firestarter planted some images in my head that have never left me, especially the imagery associated with Andy McGee and his ‘push’ ability. His mild psychic gift, when applied subtly and timed perfectly, allows Andy and Charlie to escape some tense situations. King expertly illustrates Andy’s ability by getting us close to those he ‘pushes’, though never close enough to actually get in their heads. We see the full thrust of his powers through Andy’s eyes, even the times when he’s perhaps applied his ability a little too hard, which can have serious repercussions for everyone. Push too hard, and then the subject gets caught in a vicious cycle of obsessive focus, often debilitating, even fatal. King shows us what happens when Andy pushes someone too hard, how those planted thoughts reverberate and recoil in unlikely and startling ways. Of course, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for Andy, this means tiny stress hemorrhages in his brain. The film showed this by giving David Keith a nosebleed every time he pushed someone too hard, but the book goes into much greater detail, showing us Andy’s bloodshot eye with the permanently contracted pupil, and even manages to touch on the tactile sense in with several spots on Andy’s face unable to feel any sensation. Every ‘push’ is another step into the danger zone for Andy, but sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps the guys from The Shop at bay.
King spends a lot of time at the beginning of the story with Andy and Charlie before shifting gears to the The Shop. By the time we finally get to Captain Hollister and the boys, we know their intentions, and bristle with fear at what they are able to cover up for the sake of national defense. Dr. Wanless is still around for a little while, though now a stroke victim and driven crazy with his obsession of Charlie McGee. Wanless is convinced the child should be destroyed, that her power is untamable and uncontainable, likely to grow in intensity as she grows older. Hollister has other, more sinister plans for little Charlie. Yes, there are some things worse than death, such as being held captive while people in white lab coats poked and prodded you all day long to find out what made you tick. Combine that with the knowledge that The Shop aims to eventually sanction Andy McGee, and little Charlie is a firecracker set to explode.
Enter John Rainbird. Horribly disfigured in combat, Rainbird lives to kill. He works for The Shop, and takes his job extremely seriously. One could say he is an expert in the art of death. And of course, he is utterly obsessed with Charlie McGee. As much as The Shop wants to keep their small investment alive, Rainbird is determined to kill her, but only on his terms. He plans to befriend Charlie and then kill her in a twisted sense of duty. It is this sense of righteousness, this sense of knowing your enemy intimately, that makes Rainbird one of King’s most compelling villains. If The Shop is the over arcing villain of the story in the general sense, Rainbird is the main villain of the story in a personal sense, and there is nothing more dangerous than a villain who believes he is the hero of his own story. When reading the book this second time, I found it impossible to separate the image of George C. Scott, who portrayed Rainbird in the film adaptation, from the much more nuanced and fleshed out character in the novel. Now, as a life-long Malcolm McDowell fan, I can easily dismiss his portrayal of Rainbird from the sequel. Sometimes, you just need that paycheck. Regardless, along with King’s Greg Stillson character from The Dead Zone, John Rainbird ranks high among the dastardliest villains to ever grace the pages of a Stephen King story. His character is extremely methodological, meticulous, and downright dangerous.
Inevitably, Andy and Charlie are captured. The story picks up later, with Andy overweight and drugged up at The Shop, and Charlie refusing to cooperate with the guys in the white lab coats. Rainbird gets sneaky and plays janitor after hours to make friends with Charlie, setting his plan into action. Believing Andy’s powers to completely depleted, his doctor drops his guard long enough for King to reveal Andy has been ‘pushing’ pretty much the whole time. Using time and knowledge to his advantage, Andy gets a message out to Charlie about his plan for them to escape. Charlie shuts out her new friend, the night janitor, and this makes him very nervous. Rainbird starts doing a little more snooping and figures everything out and he decides that maybe he should be there when Andy arrives to take Charlie away.
The story is a ticking firebomb, a stick of dynamite with a short-fuse, sparking the wick down, set to explode at any second. King creates this tension by allowing us to know his characters. They are compelling, and we must know what happens next. The fear comes in the form of anticipation. Dramatic irony casts the final stone and ultimately, we the readers know where this story is heading, we just don’t know how it’s all going to play out. We’re invested with these characters, and that’s what keeps the pages turning. The ‘monster’ of the story, the aberration of nature, is nothing more than a sweet little girl who loves her father, while the scientists who want to keep her alive, and the driven man set to kill her to save us from her wrath, are the villains of the story.
King not only thrills us with anticipation, he gets us to cheer for the monster for the whole story.
But then, who is the real monster here?
Firestarter was one of those Stephen King stories I dismissed a few years after reading it as inferior to his earlier work, especially The Shining. This was after reading Christine and It, which is next in my Tattered Tome column. Our tastes change over time, and after several novels that started to feel like the same old story, I walked away from reading King for a few years, only to return later, and again as I have now, rediscovering his power as a writer. Time has shown me that dismissing Firestarter was a hasty and unfair judgment. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy and revisit it, or read it for the first time. Here I am, more than thirty years later, rereading this book and finding it just as refreshing and alive as I did when I first read it.
The book hasn’t changed at all. I have.
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