Back in the ’80s, my local library had a special section filled with materials for teenage readers. Not only did it have spinner racks full of books, but there were also magazines targeted at developing minds like Starlog and Mad Magazine.
I was aware of Stephen King, though I hadn’t yet dipped my toes into that horror master’s body of work just yet. So, when Firestarter appeared in the spinner rack one day, I decided that it might be time to put aside my worries of being scared to the edge of my seat and give Stephen King a try. And while I wouldn’t say Firestarter is exactly a top-ten classic from King, it made enough of an impression that I picked up another King novel, then another, and now, over thirty years later, I’ve read pretty much everything that King has written.
Now with a new version of Firestarter headed to our screens, I decided it was time to revisit my first King novel, though this time I did so on audio.
Eight-year-old Charlie McGee has a gift — she can start fires with her mind. She got this ability from her parents, who participated in a college experiment sponsored by the mysterious governmental entity known as The Shop. While Andy, her father, has low-level powers that allow him to impose his will upon subjects, Charlie is the focus of the Shop and its leader, Cap. Her power could be a decided advantage to whatever government gets control of her — assuming that Charlie can control them, that is.
Andy and Charlie are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of the Shop agents. As the net closes in on them, the two are pushed to their breaking point and it could lead to disastrous consequences for all concerned.
I’d forgotten large chunks of Firestarter, so it felt like (at times) I was reading it for the first time. What struck me most this time around was the bond between Andy and Charlie and seeing how far Andy will go to protect his daughter. As a father to a little girl, Andy’s motives and actions come to make complete sense, up to and including the sacrifices and risks he’s willing to take to keep Charlie out of the Shop’s hands. There are some great passages in her that demonstrate this, especially in the first half when Andy and Charlie are on the run.
The novel loses a bit of momentum in the middle third when the Shop finally catches up to them and takes them into custody. King tries to establish their main adversary in John Rainbird, a disfigured man who wants to understand death, but I never quite found myself connecting with Rainbird in quite the way I’d hoped. I can see that King is trying to create a villain who believes he’s the hero of this particular tale, but I’m not entirely sure it succeeds.
The middle third is all about moving pieces into place for the final explosive showdown. We get a preview of it in an early battle between Charlie and the Shop, but it’s the final battle where everything goes for broke.
King’s use of flashbacks to fill in details is an interesting one — especially since a lot of the flashbacks come from Andy’s point of view. The initial experiments and the day that the Shop tortured and killed Andy’s wife, Vicky, are particularly chilling and well done.
And yet, I still can’t help but come away from this one thinking it could have been a bit tighter. It feels like we spend a lot of time between battle one and battle two — and that time feels like it’s treading water a bit.
I still say this is a good entry point to the world of Stephen King, though it’s not necessarily a favorite.