DeathGroundWriter Spotlight: Firestarter by Stephen King

This is one of Stephen King’s lesser known books, lost behind the massive shadows cast by books like The Stand, It, and his magnus opus The Dark Tower.

The plot is simple and engaging: a man and woman participate in a top-secret government experiment that produces psychic abilities within them. They get married, have a child, and their daughter, Charlie, inherits her own psychic ability: she can start fires with her mind, and she struggles to control this force. Matters get worse when Charlie and her father are on the run from a government agency called The Shop, who want Charlie back for their own destructive means.

Lean and mean at 426 pages, the narrative moves along at a breakneck, paranoid pace. I enjoyed the dynamic between the adult and the child. You really feel the suspense of Andy’s paranoia as he must not only be responsible for himself, but he must keep Charlie calm while impending danger is constantly breathing down their necks.

The novel plays a lot on the theme of cost; Andy must weigh the cost of every choice he makes along the way. This especially plays to importance when he uses his own psychic ability, something he calls the “push,” which allows him to manipulate minds. For instance, he convinces a cab driver early on in the novel that a one dollar bill is a five hundred dollar bill for a fare to Albany. What’s the cost for using this ability? Headaches, nosebleeds, and potentially a brain hemorrhage. Oh, and he can accidentally cause severe psychological side effects to those he pushes, haunting hallucinations, something he calls a ricochet. Later in the novel you get some creepy demonstrations of this, one of them involving a sink disposal unit and someone’s arm. Another man is disturbed by the hallucination of snakes lurking in every corner of his life. King has fun knocking around in these peoples’ heads, and I had fun going along for the ride.

Charlie McGee’s struggle controlling the force within her was fascinating not only for its effects on the other characters and the course of the plot but also for its thematic significance: Charlie’s ability to start fires can be interpreted as a young adolescent’s stirring sexual awakening, the realization of her powers of feminity, and her difficulty learning to control them. Throughout the novel Charlie’s father tries to help her control it, especially when she is emotionally charged, for emotions such as fear and anger can escalate the forces within her. Andy even refers to Charlie’s ability as the Bad Thing, a similar connotation to a parent referring to sex as the bad thing. Perhaps the novel is suggesting that we should learn to embrace the powers born of our masculine or feminine traits, but we must strive to do so with a bridled, temperate approach. Otherwise, we just end up stirring chaos, destroying the good order of things. I think I’ll end this segment here before I start writing an English midterm paper on the nature of feminity in Stephen King’s Firestarter, but I hope you get the point of my brief hobbyhorse.

I want to share a paragraph from the novel, because I found the writing fascinating. It almost feels like beat poetry. The scene it paints is tragic and really escalates the feeling of paranoia throughout the novel. The paragraph is found on page eight of my signet paperback edition:

“Andy McGee and his wife, pretty Vicky. They had pulled her fingernails out, one by one. They had pulled out four of them and then she had talked. That, at least, was his deduction. Thumb, index, second, ring. Then: Stop. I’ll talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Just stop the hurting. Please. So she had told. And then… perhaps it had been an accident…then his wife had died. Well, some things are bigger than both of us, and other things are bigger than all of us.

“Things like the Shop, for instance.

Thud, thud, thud, riderless black horse coming on, coming on, coming on: behold, a black horse.

“Andy slept.

“And remembered.”

Stephen King’s novel Firestarter is a hidden gem. I suggest you read it.

Why Do I Choose The Haunted Path?

In a previous post I discussed what attracted other horror writers to the haunted pathway. Today, I’m going to try to understand why I write horror.

It’s hard to explain why, exactly. I don’t remember a moment in my life when I stood at a crossroads, one path designating a sunnier atmosphere of flower blossoms and butterflies fluttering over green grasses–the non-horror path. Whilst the other path designated withered flowers and dead grass, most of it eerily shrouded in mist–the path of horror. It’s kind of always been with me, lingering like a shadow companion.

I remember the first story I ever wrote. This was twenty-eight years ago, when I was seven years of age. I scrawled it out on folded sheets of blank paper, even supplying crude stick-figure illustrations to aid my storytelling. The story was about my little sister and I battling a strange monster. The monster gobbles us up and traps us in its belly like Jonah in the whale. No worries, though. We discover the power of transformation and change into fire, burning our way free of the monster and destroying it in the process.

As you can see, the first story I ever wrote was a horror tale, a battle with a fierce beast from the unknown wastes clashing with my ordinary world. The horror tale has always called out to me.

But why? I get asked this question fairly often, most often by relatives who are worried about me, believing us horror writers go into maniacal fugue states in the middle of the night or something. Sometimes a joke is the best answer the horror writer can provide, as the late and great Robert Bloch did, stating that “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a little boy. I keep it in a jar on his desk.”

I’ve referenced Stephen King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre on this subject before, and dammit, here I go again, but King supplies another answer to the “why I write horror?” question that’s frequently crossed my mind. Back in 1979 Stephen King attended a panel discussing horror with other authors of the genre. One of the questioners asked, “Can you recall anything from your childhood that was particularly terrible?” (another concern some of my fretting friends and relatives express to me). None of the other authors on the panel supplied an answer to this, but Mr. King didn’t want them to be totally disappointed. He told a story of a time in his youth when he witnessed one of his friends being run over by a train. King was so traumatized by the event he didn’t retain any memory of it. All he knows is what his mother told him. She even supplied the grisly detail that they picked up the deceased boy’s pieces in a wicker basket. After telling this story, Janet Jeppson, a fellow author on the panel who was also a psychiatrist, responded with, “But you’ve been writing about it ever since.”

When I was only months old, my mother suffered a stroke and died. Of course, I have no memory of the incident, only the fragments of memories some of my siblings have been able to supply. I was told she was holding me at the time she suffered the stroke and set me on the counter before she collapsed. One of my older brothers attempted to give her CPR. My grandma said at one point after the funeral that, “I was the saddest baby she’d ever seen.”

Have my stories about monstrous possession and transformation been disguised dreams of this traumatic moment from my youth?

King’s response to Janet Jeppson’s statement: “There was an approving murmur from the audience. Here was a pigeonhole where I could be filed…here was a by-God motive. I wrote ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and destroyed the world by plague in The Stand because I saw this kid run over by a slow freight in the days of my impressionable youth. I believe this is a totally specious idea–such shoot-from-the-hip psychological judgments are little more than jumped-up astrology. Not that the past doesn’t supply grist for the writer’s mill; of course it does. (Danse Macabre, 84).

Specious indeed. I think we’re attracted to this idea because it exhibits a clear logic: writer writes x (horror) because y (trauma) occurred. However, logic does not mean truth. One can carefully craft logical lies. I agree that past events can serve as an indirect influence to a writer’s imagination. My short story “Lights Out” is about a boy who kills his parents inadvertently by a power inside him he doesn’t know how to control. My mother’s stroke was caused by a blood clot resulting from the pangs of my birth. I was an indirect cause to her death. Could my short story be an expression of grief and culpability through the character of Tommy? Maybe. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. One thing I do know–I certainly didn’t consciously plan or realize this expression when I wrote the story. The realization came later, revisiting the story.

Trauma is part of the human experience. We can’t escape it. We live in a fallen world, susceptible to failure, disease, betrayal, and all kinds of suffering. The stories we tell reflect this reality, and the horror tale is a useful vehicle for it. I guess there’s a part of me that’s either more susceptible to noticing these hardships–relating to Richard Laymon’s explanation that the horror writer is a “worst case scenario specialist”–or I cope with the suffering of life more effectively when I confront it through symbolic form in the horror story.

Before I close, another experience comes to mind from my impressionable youth. This might have been around Halloween, because my sisters and I were enjoying the fun play of building spook alleys. We dressed up in spooky costumes, creating eerie scenarios for them, acting out horror tales, in other words. At the end of our fun, we sat down in the dark and by the dim glow of a flashlight took turns telling scary stories to one another. Who could create the scariest tale? It was a contest. I can’t remember any of our stories ( vaguely I remember my older sister telling one about a possessed doll), but I do remember ending our session feeling frustrated. My story was the unscariest of them all. My sisters laughed at it; they told me it was boring. So badly I wanted to scare them. Talk about the past haunting us. Perhaps all this time I’ve been writing horror tales in reaction to that evening with my sisters. Each horror tale I write today is my symbolic attempt to win that contest and scare the living daylights out of them. Considering the fact that none of my sisters dare read any of my horror tales, I must have finally won.

“… horror stories aren’t so much about making the world a better place as they’re about trying to get out alive, with as many shreds of your soul as you can steal back from the darkness.”

Stephen Graham Jones

Horror…Why Did It Have To Be Horror?

Don’t be fooled by the title. I’m a big horror fan. In fact, it’s my mainstay. When a work in progress of mine gains fruition, and I see a horror story emerging, I tend to say to myself, “Horror…why would I have imagined it to be anything else but horror?”

It’s a question horror authors are often asked. What attracts us to pondering those hidden dark corners of the universe? What drives us to explore the baser parts of human nature? Horror writers come up with all kinds of answers to this question.

Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, answered this question with some irreverent humor. He said, “People hear that I’m a horror writer and they think I must be a monster, but actually I have the heart of a small child. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Enough said. The ghoulish connotation causes the questioner to hesitate about pursuing the question further. Yet the tongue in cheek sarcasm allows for good-natured conversation to continue. Nice deflection. The truth is, writers of horror don’t completely know why they’re attracted to that which goes bump in the night. Does it give us a thrill? Sure. Does it help us understand the darker workings of the human condition and the universe? Maybe, although I wouldn’t say we understand beyond a mere conjectural, academic point, despite all the research we might do on some horrific topic. For many of us, we’ve been courting it since childhood. Horror almost seems to be a built-in part of the original package.

Some authors have tried to to give a more meaningful answer to the questioners. Stephen King even wrote a near 500-page book on the subject called Danse Macabre. One of the book’s overarching themes seems to say that “imaginary horrors help us deal with the real horrors.” There’s some truth to this. If we understand a fictional story to be a vehicle for exercising our emotions, the horror story allows readers to overcome their anxiety along with the characters they’re reading about. We feel the same relief a main character feels when they escape or destroy the monster. It also allows the reader to confront that which they’re afraid of, allowing for the possibility to learn to cope with said fear. As a child, I was terrified of sharks after seeing the film Jaws. However, a gripping fascination accompanied this fear. I became compulsively driven to learn all I could about sharks. H.P. Lovecraft stated that “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” You could say my terror of the ferocious beast in the Steven Spielberg movie compelled me to learn if real sharks were just as seemingly malevolent. The more I learned they were not, the more fascination replaced the feeling of terror. I guess you could say that which was “unknown,” in Lovecraft’s terms, updated to “known,” allowing me a greater control over my fear. A useful emotional exercise. However, not all the fear is gone. A healthy amount of it remains. You won’t ever find me swimming in the ocean. Sometimes real sharks show flashes of the mythic Leviathan’s ferocity.

Richard Laymon, author of The Woods Are Dark, claimed that, “Horror writers are specialists in the worst case scenario.” This is true. The horror writer envisions a situation and asks the question, “How bad can it get?” Then the horror writer puts a set of characters in the bad situation and watches whether they make prudent decisions to overcome the worst case scenario, or bad decisions that cause them to sink deeper into the unfortunate muck. More often than not, we see the latter. The characters in a horror story are commonly more frightening than the monsters. The unworldly monsters serve to reveal the monstrous in the human characters, consider stories like Stephen King’s The Mist.

I personally prefer Robert Bloch’s tongue in cheek boyish irreverence. His answer admits that he doesn’t have an exact answer to why he writes horror, and he doesn’t care. Nothing in Robert Bloch’s answer feels like a stretch. Nothing about it seems to be trying too hard. Nothing about it emanates the pretension of self-importance. He’s comfortable in his own horror writer skin. All of us horror writers should be.

Danse Macabre by Stephen King- Available on Amazon.