I’m sure I’ve talked about this before, but my Stephen King arc has always been a rather interesting one. I didn’t start with his noted classics, like The Shining or The Stand. I started with his (at the time) newer works, like Cell and Under the Dome. Those are the books that got me into King’s work! And then I made my way back toward the classics. So, it continues with his 1980 novel, Firestarter, about a father-daughter team running from nefarious government agents.
Andy and his daughter, Charlie, have special powers after Andy and his now-deceased wife, thanks to the nefarious government agents under the umbrella of The Shop, Vicky, participated in a college experiment. Vicky’s powers were minimal, but Andy had the ability of the “push.” That is, to mentally bend people to his will to varying degrees. And when they had Charlie, they learned she has pyrokinesis, which gives her the ability to set anything on fire with her mind. Even at eight-years-old, her power is immense and there’s fear that as she gets older, she’s a walking nuclear bomb, or even more grandiose, she could crack the planet open.
The first half of the book largely is a classic “on the road” story where Andy and Charlie are on the run from The Shop, interspersed with flashbacks to how Charlie and Vicky met, Charlie’s early years, how Vicky was killed by The Shop and then meeting Shop members, like Cap, who runs the organization, OJ and Rainbird. Rainbird ends up becoming the predominant villain in the series. He’s depicted as a scarred-face, quasi-rogue from the Shop Native American, who is singularly focused on Charlie and her talent. Like a true sociopath, when he kills people, he likes to watch their dying eyes and see if there’s some sort of spiritual truth within those dying eyes. He thinks with Charlie’s special talent that when he kills her, he will finally see that spiritual truth.
In the year 2021, the idea of the government doing secret experiments on people and then going to any lengths to keep those people quiet doesn’t seem like much of an original story. However, I have to imagine, that when this book was written at the end of the 1970s, it was not only a rather original idea, but a salient one given murmurings about the CIA and L.S.D. (Project MKUltra). In that context, I can’t knock King too much for what seems like in 2021 eyes, an almost generic villain setup for our heroes.
With the second half of the book, the Shop has caught Andy and Charlie and imprisoned them and is drugging them to explore their talents. Andy is thought to have expired his “push” ability and is a drugged up fatty now (that’s how he’s described, basically) and Charlie won’t use the fire because she think it’s wrong. However, Rainbird, who disguises himself as an ordinary orderly, eventually persuades Charlie to use it in order to see her father again.
I actually thought that part of the second half of the book, while creepy as all heck, was quite captivating in a this-is-so-frustrating way. Because we as the reader know he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but Charlie, who again is only eight-years-old, does not. Rainbird in that way is an interesting villain compared to some of King’s other villains. Other villains that come to mind, such as Pennywise, Annie, Jack, Randall Flagg and so on, use psychological techniques to get under the skin of their victim to be sure, but their villainy is out in the open, whereas Rainbird was rather subtle in his undoing of Charlie. I did think King made Rainbird almost too smart in the way he was outthinking everyone else at the Shop, but also, that makes sense! The Shop is nefarious, but also inept and that’s shown throughout the novel, mostly in the fact that they can’t seem to catch Andy and Charlie. The idea of the government being inept, even while doing bad things, is pretty much on point with reality.
And I have to reiterate how creepy Rainbird’s “undoing” of Charlie is. I don’t know if King intended it this way or not — and there’s even a moment where Rainbird pushes back against Cap insinuating as much — but Rainbird’s fascination with Charlie comes across as almost a sexual desire. That, he not only wants to kill her, but he also wants to have “sex” with her. But I suppose there’s not much daylight between those who are sociopaths fascinated with killing in the way Rainbird is and “getting off” in a sexual sense. It’s sort of one-in-the-same, huh?
Charlie was an interesting character, mostly because I was intrigued by her potential. That she could be a walking nuclear bomb or even crack open the planet with her power. There’s also a fusion between the idea of fire being scary because it’s unpredictable and the idea of something like that being inside an eight-year-old with emotions and heightened trauma, although Charlie does control it all quite well. But I have to say, Andy was far more interesting! Mostly because his power, the “push”, had the most intriguing idea in the book: the ricochet or the echo. So, in certain situations, when Andy uses the push on someone, it creates a ricochet or echo within their psyche, where the person becomes fixated on a subdued fear or desire.
For example, Andy uses the push on Pynchot, who is the lead Shop “scientist” experimenting on Andy, and the echo unleashes Pynchot’s desire to be a cross-dresser again, but he becomes so ashamed of returning to it, that he kills himself in a brutal way by having the garbage disposal eat his arm. Which makes when Andy uses the push on Cap to escape the compound, and his echo of deathly fear of snakes, being a bit underwhelming by comparison.
I would love to see the ricochet idea explored more because it’s terrifying and fascinating.
While I did like (again, in a creepily fascinated way) Rainbird’s undoing of Charlie, the second half of the book suffers because we lose the father-daughter connection we had in the first half of the book. I’ve noticed King does this at times in his books, where characters we like get separated for a long period of time. Then, when they do get back together, as Andy and Charlie do here, Andy dies shortly thereafter sadly. However, I do think his death made sense: Andy’s entire drive throughout the book was to get Charlie beyond the reach of the Shop and to save her, whether it killed him or not. He did succeed largely in that endeavor, although the Shop still comes after her in the end because government programs, no matter how inept, are like a game of whack-a-mole.
I did find it amusing that, of course, when Stephen King thinks of a magazine or a newspaper for Charlie to tell her story to at the end of the book, it’s Rolling Stone magazine. Again, at the time this was written, that actually makes sense. In 2021 eyes, the magazine has lost a lot of credibility points after a few infamous articles as of late.
Overall, I would say Firestarter is a middle-of-the-road Stephen King book, somewhere between the best of his work and his merely good books. King’s “merely good books” are still fun to read, so what I’m saying is, even Firestarter was a book I devoured largely in two chunks. I’m a weird reader that way. I tend to read in giant chunks, perhaps with big time intervals in between. I devoured the second half of this book in one sitting.
If you’re looking for a shorter King book compared to his others and something not as much in the horror realm, although there are some creepy moments peppered throughout, then you will enjoy this one.