Firestarter (1980)

I should probably start off with an apology for the length of time it's taken me to publish this review. I finished reading Firestarter several weeks ago, and found that I had a problem: I couldn't write a review that I was happy with. And while I struggled to get started (over and over again), various work commitments were slowly building in the background, culminating in a punishing couple of weeks of proofreading a wretched historical novel. But that's all behind me now, and I think I've probably said everything that I wanted to below. However, there's still something bothering me: I can't really categorise it. This is not to suggest that I necessarily need to categorise every book I read (but woe betide you if you put horror on my general fiction shelves*). But I finished it and realised that I didn't quite know what to make of it. The novel isn't outright horror, although there are certainly horrific things in it; it's not quite sci-fi, but the whole thing is built on a sci-fi concept. Firestarter is a hybrid of both, mixed in with a page-turning chase thriller. I think this slightly sidetracked my write-up for a while - but it made no difference to the speed with which I devoured the novel, or my enjoyment of it.

King's sixth novel develops some of the themes which the author first visited in Carrie. At the end of his debut, King hinted at a possible future scenario where psychic powers might be harnessed by the government - the point being that if the government doesn't have control of these things, someone else might. What if Carrie hadn't burned herself out, but had kept on destroying and burning and killing? Where would it all end? In Firestarter, King explores the idea of a government actively creating psychic abilities and then having to deal with the consequences. As you might guess, they do a pretty poor job of it.

The novel begins with Andy McGee and his young daughter Charlie on the run in New York. King swiftly fills in bits and pieces of their backstory, weaving explanations into their flight from the city. As a student, Andy signs up for a medical experiment being run on his college campus; he will receive $200 for taking a mild hallucinogen and being monitored for a day or so.** But what he and his fellow volunteers (including his future wife, Vicky) don't know is that the LSD they're being given - known as Lot Six - will bring them mild psychic abilities. Or madness. King handles the experiment with his usual confidence: Andy and Vicky bond instantly through a sudden telepathic connection, patients display signs of telekinesis and mind-reading, and a student in one bed claws his eyes out, shrieking. What they don't realise is that these tests are being run by a shadowy CIA/NSA-style outfit called The Shop, which has a long-term vested interest in the participants. Andy's hazy memories of the chilling eye-gouging episode lead him back to Room 70, where he discovers two things: the scientific team is long gone, and he has developed the ability to 'push' people with his mind - a kind of psychic hypnosis which leaves him with a thudding headache.

Spoilers ahead! In the following years, Andy and Vicky get married and have a daughter. The Shop has determined that the couple are dead-ends in terms of their new skills (Vicky has a very mild telekinetic ability), but their daughter holds great potential and bears close scrutiny. After a horrendous mix-up, The Shop's agents torture and kill Vicky and snatch Charlie. King gives these agents their comeuppance, however, in a brilliantly tense sequence in which we realise the full power of Andy's 'push': the first agent, told that he is blind, is left insane; the second, told to go to sleep, remains in a coma for months. King also shows us the flipside to this kind of power - after overusing his ability, Andy is left physically crippled by head pain.

This might seem like rather a lot of backstory to wade through (at least in my retelling, and I'm only mentioning key moments), but it serves several purposes. The scientific reasons for Charlie's pyrokinesis (of which more later) and Andy's 'push' are described in terms which are explicit enough to be believable and vague enough to leave many aspects of the experiment a blank. We don't necessarily need to understand exactly how these powers are created; more important is the suggestion, planted fairly early on, that Charlie is effectively unquantifiable - a genetic loose cannon which The Shop is determined to possess and control.

While our sympathies are obviously with the McGees in their desperate flight from shadowy authorities, King also allows us to follow The Shop's attempts to capture our heroes. The Shop's top man, Captain 'Cap' Hollister - nearing retirement and increasingly resolved to see this thing through to the bitter end - sends out a team to capture Andy and Charlie, who by this time are enjoying the hospitality of an elderly couple at a remote farm. As agents surround them, King hits us with the first of Charlie's set pieces. Seeing that her father has now become expendable, she unleashes fire in a panicked, uncontrolled burst. Faces melt off, cars explode and the whole Shop operation descends into chaos. Perhaps more chillingly, Charlie becomes a cold, emotionless killing machine - she enjoys using her power, and it gets away from her; she can't stop.*** The repercussions of this episode are serious for everyone involved, as will be seen.

Skipping forward past various near misses and the McGees' eventual capture, the second half of the book sees The Shop in control. Sequestered for testing, Andy becomes bloated and muddled, addicted to the pills used to repress his 'push'. Charlie, meanwhile, has vowed never to use her ability again. Her fear of her own enjoyment is credible and completely understandable. As Dr Wanless, the originator of the Lot Six tests, explains, the McGees taught their daughter to control and direct her power by instilling in her a mental complex, similar to the sort of training parents all over the world use every day with young children. The analogy King gives is toilet training - a societal conditioning so powerful that the majority of adults will do almost anything rather than soil themselves. The farm siege is the first time (beyond a few early accidents, as any child might experience) that this complex is actively challenged, and Charlie is truly disturbed by the results. Her refusal to co-operate presents a major problem for The Shop, and King uses this to establish the framework of the rest of the book.

Cap is compromised into allowing one of his assassins, a disfigured native American Vietnam veteran named John Rainbird - a psychopath with an obsession with death - to work on Charlie. He poses as a humble cleaner and gradually wins her trust. Rainbird is the true villain of Firestarter - while The Shop as an organisation is ultimately responsible, Rainbird is the architect of the final destructive climax. He wants to cajole and coerce Charlie into using her talents before snuffing her out for his own purposes. His manipulation of the young girl is slow, careful and awful - King gradually develops this insidious, false friendship in such a way that the reader is left in a contradictory position: we want Charlie to use her powers again, and we want The Shop to get its comeuppance, but we also want her to resist for as long as possible - to not be taken in by Rainbird's lies. King suggests at one point that Charlie may have nuclear potential post-puberty, and this tinges everything that follows with that potential: when she finally goes off, will anyone be left standing?

The last section of the book builds to an explosive climax, taking in several terrific set pieces along the way: Andy's rediscovery of his 'push' (and the hypnotic 'ricochet' that this sometimes sets up in the victim's mind) leads to an outrageously visceral end for the doctor he uses it on - there is something truly horrific about the idea of blankly feeding your whole arm into a kitchen waste disposal unit. The 'push' is self-destructive, though - in much the same way as Johnny Smith's gift/curse in The Dead Zone, Andy's power is causing neurological damage. And the finale, once Charlie's complex has been completely removed, is excellent; gripping and satisfying.

Throughout Firestarter, King keeps a firm grasp on the various characters and points of view, so that while the plot may jump back and forth between The Shop and the McGees - and the past and present - we are never overwhelmed or confused by the order of events. And, as I mentioned at the start of this review, I tore through the book and really enjoyed it. I think my initial hang-up about genre is actually irrelevant: it simply reflects the fact that Firestarter shows King stretching his wings, trying out a new direction in his already very successful style. The novel opens with a quote from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (which I cannot recommend highly enough): "It was a pleasure to burn." Regardless of my earlier struggle to actually complete this post, the book itself was a pleasure to read.

* I'm serious about this. Horror goes in a separate bookcase with sci-fi and comics, and Stephen King gets a triple-stacked shelf of his own.

** I had a friend at university who almost went in for something similar. Except he was going to have his little toes cut off and then reattached by a microsurgery student. In the end, he got a student loan instead. I was always a little bit disappointed.

*** Early on, Charlie's firestarting ability is referred to as 'the Bad Thing', a term used in The Shining for Jack's alcoholism. While a link between the two is never explicitly stated in Firestarter, I found it interesting that in both cases there are strong elements of attraction and compulsion associated with the term for the character who does 'the Bad Thing'. Looked at in this light (and assuming the reader's familiarity with The Shining), it nicely foreshadows Charlie's growing enjoyment of her abilities a long time before she actually uses them. Apologies for the continuing footnotes. I'll try to make this the last one.

Next: Roadwork.

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