Saturday, September 22, 2012

Firestarter by Stephen King

By Stephen King
Copyright 1980.

With the publication of Firestarter in 1980, Stephen King entered his first writing “phase” which was the child in peril phase. Prior to that, the young author genre hopped from exploring the vampire motif before moving on to post apocalyptic visions. He authored two books about people with extraordinary powers and a superb haunted house novel. After exploring various territory, he settled into what would become a comfortable and productive groove.

Firestarter is atypical of most King novels in its beginning because the action is moving from the first sentence. Andy McGee and his daughter Charlie, are on the run on the streets New York City. Chasing them are government agents very interested in taking them alive.

Andy has a special mental power – a byproduct of a scientific experiment he participated in while attending college. His wife, who participated in the same experiment had her own brand of telepathy. Their offspring, Charlene – or Charlie – was born with a special and powerful talent.

Andy uses his mental ability he calls “The Push” to convince a cab driver that a one dollar bill is in fact a $500 bill. He has the ability to make people see, hear, and believe what he wants them to. But the expenditure of that ability comes at a price – terrible headaches. He fears that those headaches may be an indication of long term, permanent brain damage.

Woven into the chase scene that sees Andy and Charlie escape from New York to Albany are flashback scenes that give us Andy’s backstory. He and the woman that would become his wife are paid to take part in an experiment in college. For $200, they will be injected with a mild hallucinogen and their reaction recorded.

Andy and Vicky start tripping and are enjoying it. They notice that they can communicate telepathically. While Andy is enjoying his buzz, however, he sees disturbing images. He sees one of the test subjects pull out his eyes while orderlies (who replaced the kindly psych students after the test commenced) try to restrain him. He sees another test subject go nuts as well. It harshes his buzz a little, but continues to float before falling asleep.

He awakens undamaged from the whole experience. He also finds that he’s in love with Vicki. After a courtship through college, they marry. He takes a job as a professor in Ohio and they settle into suburbia. Not long after comes baby Charlie.

Both realize that there are lingering effects from that experiment. She can move objects telepathically. He has the Push. They apply these abilities to their lives in a casual and positive manner. She uses her ability to carry out mundane housekeeping tasks such as moving clothes from washer to dryer. He uses his to “push” unmotivated students.

Baby Charlie has a power too, and it’s not so benign. Charlie can use her mind to start fires. This becomes a problem when an unchanged diaper leads to curtains set ablaze or falling down the steps leads to mom’s dress being set on fire by a toddler who does not understand her power or its consequences. To address the problem, they disabuse Charlie of using the power, convincing her to do so is tantamount to wetting her pants. To use the power when she is older brings her great shame.

Andy, Vicki, and Charlie lead this idealistic life for a few years. But they’ve been under surveillance by a covert government agency known as “The Shop” who is very interested in the long term effects of the drug they call Lot Six and what might come if two Lot Six lab rats had offspring. They see Andy and Vicki as benign and useless. When they realize Charlie’s power, they decide they have to have her and make their move.

Vicki is tortured and killed in her own home by Shop agents. Charlie is staying at a friend’s house. While all this is going on, Andy is at a faculty meeting. He gets a feeling something is wrong at home and abruptly heads there. He finds Vicki and calls Charlie’s friend. It seems Shop agents, posing as Andy’s colleagues, have picked her up.

Andy uses his cognitive abilities to trail the agents along the Ohio Turnpike and finds them and Charlie at a rest area. The agents get ready to shoot, but Andy crushes their brains. The causes one to go blind and scrambles the others brains. He takes Charlie and flees. From that point on, they are on the run. They use aliases and Andy uses his abilities to coach executives and help women lose weight to make money.

Now, they’ve been discovered and must flee. The cabbie takes them to the Albany airport. Andy is able to rest his weary head for a little while before he senses the Shop agents closing in. They flee from the airport and hitch a ride to a small town in upstate New York where they spend the night in a cheap motel.

The next morning, they start hitchhiking and are picked up by a local farmer name Irv Manders who takes them home for lunch. He’s suspicious of Andy and Charlie’s canned story about being on the way to visit an aunt. Over beers, Andy spills the truth to a skeptical Irv Manders.

Manders and his wife become believers, however, when Shop agents show up on their farm. Irv, offended the government is trying to abduct innocent people from his property is determined to make a stand. Shop agents urge him to get out of the way before they open fire. Eventually an agent shoots Manders in the shoulder. That’s when Charlie’s patience breaks and she unleashes Hell itself. She starts burning.

She sets agents on fire. She sets cars on fire. She sets the chickens running around the yard on fire. And she sets the Manders’ home on fire before she can reign in her power. Those shop agents not yet burning flee into the woods.

Irv Manders is really torqued off at his government now. He gives Andy and Charlie and old Jeep and tells them to flee over some old logging roads to a country highway that will take them to Vermont. From there, Andy will make for his grandfather’s cabin in the remote woods.

Andy and Charlie make it to Vermont and Andy’s grandfather’s cabin. There, they spend the winter. He is hoping against hope that the Shop doesn’t know that his grandfather owned the cabin and that they don’t know he is there. While there, Charlie tries to come to terms with what she has done. She swears that she will never use her powers again. Andy assumes that it is because she abhors killing. That is part of it. What is more disturbing to eight year old Charlie is that she enjoys unleashing the power and using it again will make it easier to use over and over.

Except the Shop knows exactly where they are and the Shop’s man in charge, Captain James “Cap” Hollister is content to let them ride out the winter there until he figures out how to bring them in without getting more agents killed.

Finally, one of the Shop’s more formidable and bizarre agents, John Rainbird, says he can take them with tranquilizer darts. Cap agrees to the plan. Rainbird and his men travel to Vermont and take Andy and Charlie just as they are departing Vermont for a new locale.

Rainbird is one of King’s more interesting villains. He is an American Indian, horribly disfigured by an accident in Vietnam. His face is a mass of scar tissue and one of his eyes is gone. He is a spiritualist and loves killing. He gets no thrill from the act. He is fascinated by the passage of the soul from the body. The highpoint of any assassination for him is watching the eyes fade as the body dies. He wants to see Charlie’s soul depart.

Andy and Charlie are taken to the Shop’s headquarters in Virginia and placed in separate quarters. They are drugged so they don’t unleash their powers prematurely while the Shop scientists determine how to test them.

Andy soon falls victim to addiction to his sedative and lapses into a mental and physical fugue. He fills the day with television and snacks. Charlie lapses into depression. Adjusting her medication does not adjust her attitude. She refuses to participate in tests and is uncommunicative.

John Rainbird has a solution to get Charlie to open up. He poses as a janitor who comes in daily to clean Charlie’s living quarters. Slowly, he works his way into her good favor by pretending to be a shell shocked veteran who’s afraid of the dark. They are pals and Rainbird even agrees to smuggle an occasional note to Charlie’s dad whom she so desperately hopes to see. Rainbird finally convinces Charlie to perform a few simple tests. He tells her that if she gives them a taste of what she can do, she can excite them, then call a halt to the proceedings until she is allowed to see her father.

While the Shop is hard at work testing Charlie, they have given up on Andy whose abilities have dwindled with his use of sedatives. They plan to eventually ship him to an installation in Hawaii where he will eventually be eliminated.

One night, a harsh storm hits the Shop headquarters and knocks out power. All doors within the facility are locked. Andy doesn’t get his medication and soon its effects wear off. He realizes that he’s become a mental midget and has failed his daughter. He resolves to get off the drugs and formulate a plan to get himself and Charlie out of the Shop’s grasp.

Andy eventually makes his move. He uses his Push, now fully restored, to get one of his doctors to reveal the Shop’s plans for him and Charlie. That Push unleashes latent phobias in the doctor’s mind. He commits suicide by forcing his arm into a garbage disposal.

Thinking that Andy is a benign drug addict, Cap doesn’t suspect a thing. When Cap summons Andy to his office to tell him his doctor has died and that he is going to be transferred to Hawaii, Andy pushes him. He tells Cap to take him to the doctor’s funeral. Cap readily agrees and then reveals all that has happened with Charlie and with Rainbird. Andy has bought some time to put together the final stages of his plan.

Charlie is putting on quite a show for the Shop’s scientists, burning wood, metal, and concrete. In exchange for her cooperation, they allow her to go outside and ride horses on the grounds. Her pal Rainbird is allowed to accompany her. As much as she likes this, just as the Shop scientists are getting ready for the next round of tests, she calls a halt and demands to see her father.

Rainbird meets with Cap and notices his distracted, odd demeanor and suspects that Andy has Pushed him. He’s not going to be cheated out of his prize – killing Charlie in what he deems an act of love. He decides to let events unfold and to be ready.

With Cap’s help, Andy gets out of the Shop’s prison and to the horse barn. They reunite for the first time in six months. Rainbird is waiting in the barn’s loft, prepared to shoot Andy and to take Charlie to kill in a more personal manner. Just as Rainbird is drawing a bead, Cap comes apart mentally and strikes out at a hose, believing it to be a snake. The momentary distraction is enough to allow Andy to lash out at Rainbird with the Push, making him jump to the floor where he breaks both legs. Rainbird shoots Andy.

Seeing her father shot, Charlie says a tearful goodbye to him, then starts to burn. She burns the horse barn. She burns the Shop’s headquarters and the outlying buildings. She burns a hole in the electric fence surrounding the place and walks out forever.

Meanwhile, Irv Manders and his wife have rebuilt their lives with money from the government and have stayed silence because of threats of reprisal from the government. Irv is working in his yard one afternoon when the disheveled, sickly, malnourished Charlie walks up to him. He takes Charlie into his home and the Manders nurse her back to health.

Charlie has a lot of time to ponder her next move. She decides she wants to tell her story. She goes to the library and asks the librarian to name a national publication that has no ties to the government. The librarian tells her she should look at Rolling Stone.

The book ends with a nine year old girl walking into the New York offices of Rolling Stone magazine.

In Charlie McGee, Stephen King creates what is perhaps his most sympathetic hero. Other King child characters in other books were in greater peril, but Charlie was forced to make moral judgments and decisions far beyond the ability of a child’s mind.

Kids see morality as right and wrong. Most are taught at a young age to always do right and never do wrong. As they grow older, those lines of black and white blur and they begin making selective judgments. This is an underlying conflict between Charlie and her Dad which is emotionally gripping for the reader.

Charlie keeps saying, “Never again!” She believe using the power is wrong. Further bedeviling her is the fact that she likes using it and liking something that is bad is toxic for a kid’s psyche. Meanwhile, Dad is saying, “You might have to, Charlie.” Andy is worried about survival. He’s defending himself and his daughter. That is the greater right and sometimes, the ends do justify the means. King builds this conflict and the conflicting emotions within Charlie while she’s alone in the Shop’s cell brilliantly.

Having said that, I found this to be one of King’s weaker plots. It is actually the exact opposite of what we usually get with a Stephen King novel. Most King novels start slowly, with character development and setting the stage for events. In Firestarter, King jumps right into the action and keeps it going for several chapters, ebbing and flowing. The novel starts out great.

Once they are captured and get to the Shop, it really slows down and gets tedious. Andy’s planning and scheming, Rainbird is planning and scheming. Cap is planning and scheming. The action dies for more than 100 pages before it really gets going in the climax.

The denouement is entirely overlong. King takes way too long to get to the end. Having Charlie return to the Manders’ farm was great. Irv Manders was a sympathetic, well developed character and the reader wants to know how it all turns out for him. The reader also wants to see the Shop get theirs from a nine year old girl they tried to destroy. The reader is made to wait as we wade through ruminations by the Manders and their doctor who is caring for Charlie. This could have been tightened up a lot.

Firestarter was Stephen King’s sixth novel and his weakest to that point. In his body of work, I’d rate it slightly below average. I loved the characters and loved the opening scenes, but I found reading the middle of the book too tedious to have called the novel good.

Firestarter was made into a movie starring Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott and released in 1984. It suffered from the same shortcomings as the book.


  1. I also think Firestarter is King in a minor key. Other titles that qualify in this category are Cujo (though the movie is better) and Christine.

    It's also god to know there are King fans out there who aren't confident about the upcoming so called Shining sequel Doctor Sleep. Most of the comments about it I've read have been too much of the gushing fan variety. I think the best compliment to a genuine artist is the benefit of constructive criticism, however, most people aren't interested in lit. crit.

    If I had to give my reasons for why I think Sleep is the wrong move, the most important is that it's out of character for the kid from Shining. He just seemed more smart and well held together than...a burnout drunk hospice worker. This does not strike my as a bit of inspiration on King's part so much as a kind sad artistic desperation.

    If you were to ask me what inspiration is, I'd point to Jung's theory of Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious (which is really just an attempt to scientifically explain the imagination). If you were to ask what an archetype was, I'd point to The Shining and say study it. If asked what the difference is between artistic inspiration at least and mere uninspired invention, I'd point to Christine, Firestarter and at the worst, Doctor Sleep.

    Bob Ledrew over at King Cast seems to feel the same way, he's even going to be putting out a podcast on it soon and over at his sight it says he's looking for input. I've you've a mind, you might share your two cents on why King seems to be making a big career move of a mistake. Just thought I'd give a shout out.

  2. I agree with you on Cujo and said so in my review of that book. Firestarter and Cujo were King on autopilot. Not bad, but nothing great.

    I love Stephen King's work and have read it all, but I'm no fanboy. Frankly, some of his stuff is just awful. I don't have a problem saying so. King is great, but he's not perfect.

    As for Dr. Sleep, I hope you and I are wrong. I hope it's great. I hope it gives me a whole new appreciation for The Shining. But I doubt that is going to happen. The Shining is damn near horror perfection and near-perfection is hard to improve upon.

  3. Well, it's nice to see someone who takes literary criticism seriously, and who is willing to look beyond the brand name at human being who has to put his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us.

    You said something earlier at Talk Stephen King blog.

    "Characters can be wrecked. Danny Torrance was a great character in a great story. Once he's placed someplace else, in some other time, he ceases to be just the Danny Torrance we knew in The Shining and becomes something different. Maybe it's good. I don't know. We'll have to wait a year to find out. But you can't unread a book. Whatever my perceptions of Danny Torrance, they will be changed forever in what is in Doctor Sleep."

    I'm sort of curious what you mean by that. If it's not too much trouble, if you care to tell what the above quote means in more detail, I think, I'm not sure, though I may be able to help so that the character doesn't really have to change at all.

    Let me know what you think when and if.

    Be seeing you.

  4. The character Jack Sawyer was destroyed by the Black House. The Talisman was not among King's great novels, but Jack Sawyer was a great character. Make him an adult and that little boy who was so sympathetic is altered forever in the reader's mind.

    The Shining was plot driven -- not character driven. Yet Danny Torrance as a little boy struggling with supernatural powers was a powerful character. Make him an adult and it again destroys that character forever. Danny Torrance is fixed in the reader's mind (or the viewer's mind for those who prefer the movie). Seeing him as an adult is going to alter that perception.

    Could it be an improvement? Maybe. But highly doubtful. Nothing good is going to come from writing a sequel to one of the finest horror novels of the 20th century.

    King is 65. I understand he may want to revisit some of those great moments from his youth. But for the sake of his legacy, he ought to leave the Shining alone.

  5. Thanks for the reply. Here's why I think there's not need to worry, at least too much, about the characters or story of The Shining being changed.

    A scientific theory I've read up on might help. It's the theory of the Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.

    The idea was theorized by psychologist C.G. Jung, and al it amounts to is the scientific attempt to map out the imagination and the artistic impulse.

    In layman's terms, Jung saw imagination and therefore creativity as an instinct, along the same lines as the fight or flight response. Since imagination is an instinct, it operates autonomously below consciousness according to Natural Laws.

    What this means is that imagination is fundamentally outside the control and intentions of the artist.

    Any real product of imagination is what we call inspiration, examples include Mona Lisa, Guernica, Grimm's Tales, The Shining, It, etc. These are all artistic representation of inspiration.

    Now Jung didn't deny invention in art, though it wasn't the same as inspiration, it was not a product of imagination (Collective Unconscious) or it's contents (Archetypes). Cujo and Christine are good examples of King inventing, rather than writing while inspired (i.e. It). The good new, according to Jung, is that archetypes are out of the author's control, and can only be what they are and nothing else.

    They're like images set in stone, you can't change them because you can't change instincts. Therefore, Danny Torrance and the Shining will always be set in the pattern or form they originated from and will never be able to be anything else. There's more to say so I'm splitting this response into two posts. hold on, I'll be right back.

    To be continued.

  6. Okay, I'm back, it's up to you to read all this and see if it makes sense.

    In the following post I outlined the idea of Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, as a scientific outline of imagination as instinct, and why character's like Danny Torrance were set in imaginative stone. Here's the final clinical reason why.

    Here's where psychoanalysis comes into place. Since instincts pretty much help form and shape the mind, they're also in large part responsible for its protection. In other words it's possible for someone to be crazy (say King during his drug abuse/alcoholism) and yet his instincts are beyond reach and remain ordered and essentially sane for all intents and purposes. After all, it's the ordered instincts out of which both consciousness and sanity emerge, insanity would seem to involve in some way cutting off most of those instincts.

    Still, it's possible for instincts, obeying the Natural Law of self-preservation to come to the rescue of an unstable mind in various ways, one of them is to autonomously utilize the imagination and send up images reflecting the conscious unstable situation a patient or artist might find themselves in and sometimes help point the way back to sanity.

    It's a case of unconscious instinctive self protection by the mind calling up inner reserves of will power to help control any and all mental instability a patient (or artist) might be confronted with.

    I think the Shining was just such an imaginative product, King's instincts trying to pull him back to sanity by throwing up symbolical images which reflected his personal situation yet also reflecting in some way a bigger picture at the same time. I believe such occurrences are possible in art.

    Before I say any more, I'd like you're opinion on the two posts I've written. Do they help makes sense of things? Is there some more detail that needs going into? My basic idea is you can't change the Shining because it's basic character was meant to help King's alcohol/drug abuse by imaginative, instinctive appeal to Natural Law.

    On this psychoanalytic reading, Danny is, in essence, a symbol for instinct or sanity combating insanity and triumphing, and that's all the character can be. Is any of this helpful in any way? Let me know and i'll try and clarify.

    Be seeming you.