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