“Burn out the day, burn out the night,
I can’t see no reason to put up a fight,
I’m living for giving the devil his due,
And I’m burning, I’m burning, I’m burning for you.”
– Blue Oyster Cult

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

This is one of those books I first knew as a sub-par movie that I watched as a kid. You might remember, it’s the one with Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott. As a kid I thought that, despite its poor quality, it was a unique and haunting concept. This memory is what recently led me to take my copy of Firestarter off the shelf and finally read it. Because, really, there are a lot of early Stephen King works that I still need to devour.

At the outset of Firestarter, King throws us into the middle of a battle of survival. On one side we are introduced to seven-year old Charlie McGee and her father Andy, both victims of a heartless government conspiracy. On the other side are the ones who are chasing them: The Shop, a shadow agency that’s very existence depends on capturing Charlie and Andy by any means. Years ago, The Shop tested an experimental serum called Lot Six on several people looking to earn some quick money. Two of them happened to be Andy and his future wife Vicky, who ended up with psychic abilities. Their daughter Charlie is a more fragile case: she can create fires with her mind, through her emotions. This is exactly the sort of find The Shop has been hoping for, and we discover just how far they will go to claim her and use her for their own devices. Likewise, we discover what someone as young and powerful as Charlie will do to defend those she loves.

So the book was considerably better than the movie, which I have often found to be the case. King is a talented writer, capable of getting to the raw nerve with his characters, exercising awareness and care in his plotting. I’m starting to notice that throughout a lot of his books he will frequently acknowledge the fact that the story is building to something dreadful that’s going to happen, without explicitly detailing what that could be. Though to be honest, you start to get the idea the first few times Charlie starts fires. Nevertheless, the tension and suspense is always hanging over the story like a shade.

Another thing King is well-known for is his uncanny ability to terrorize his readers in endlessly creative ways. The fact that the villains of Firestarter aren’t supernatural monsters, but humans acting on their own selfish desires makes the book’s content all the more horrifying. While the perspective of John Rainbird, a scarred and crazed Native American assassin, is its own kind of twisted delight, the truly unsettling bad guys are the ones who use their power and authority to justify their increasingly vicious actions every step of the way. It’s characters and scenarios like these that make for truly disgusting villains and truly oppressive drama. What’s sad is that it’s very possible that this is what would actually happen, even today. There’s a heavy sense of paranoia that’s backed up by portraying The Shop as being as painfully dogged in their pursuit of the walking weapons of mass destruction as you’d imagine any organization like the CIA or NSA would be. That said, as despicable as the bad guys are, they never come close to being as scary as the story’s heroine, Charlie. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

Of course, King doesn’t neglect the light completely in favor of the dark. Another strength of his is family dynamics, something that was powerfully displayed in The Shining. It is just as strong an element here. The relationship between Charlie and Andy, and the question as to whether or not they will survive this book, is the emotional crux of the story. How they interact with each other is written in a very genuine way. Which makes sense, seeing as King himself is a known family man. The way he has father try to manage daughter while barely able to manage himself, as well as the way he portrays the child’s pure yet terribly confused point of view.

Firestarter, all in all, is a very engaging and thrilling book. It seems just the right length in pages too. A lesser writer might have taken Charlie’s abilities to an extreme, but King is less concerned with milking his story’s particular gimmick than he is about building an atmosphere that compliments that gimmick and his characters. It hits the right emotional tones and explodes at just the right moments. I highly recommend giving it a read.

Reviewed by:

Logan Cox

Added 8th March 2015

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