The Stephen King Project – Firestarter (1980)
About the project
I will be reading all of Stephen King’s books in order of publication (with the exception of The Dark Tower series which I will read together, at the end of this adventure) and writing a review of each. I’ll be looking at the recurring themes, the tricks he likes to use, the way he develops character and the way that his craft has evolved in the 44 years since Carrie was first published.
Of all the books that I have read so far for this project, Firestarter is the most unrelentingly bleak. Consider yourself warned.
Andy Magee is on the run from a shady government agency named The Shop. They want Andy, but more importantly, they want his daughter, Charlie. They want her enough that they’ll kill to get her. You see, while he was in college, Andy took part in an experiment run by the psychology department. He, and a group of other students, were given a drug that induced psychic powers.
Andy shrugs off the experience and uses his power (mental dominance) only rarely and usually only in the other person’s best interests. Perhaps Andy could have gone on with his life, left in relative peace if that had been all. But Andy married Vicky Tomlinson, one of the other participants in the experiment, and together they had a daughter, Charlie. The experiment has caused a mutation in their genes which they passed on to Charlie. She is a Firestarter – she has the power of pyrokinesis.
Nowadays, we all know that the US government, amongst others, has been known to allow morally dubious experiments to go on and for me, that’s one of the things that makes this story truly frightening. Not that there may be people like Charlie Magee, but the lengths those in power would go to in finding and using such people.
I first read this book years ago and at that time, I identified most with Charlie. Now, as a parent, I really felt Andy’s fear and pain and sense of hopelessness. I have to admit though, in the later part of the book, I got increasingly annoyed with Andy and with the choices he makes.
There are obvious echoes of Carrie in Firestarter. Both books feature a female character with the power of pyrokinesis. Both of them feature a certain loss of innocence and an apocalyptic ending. That’s where the similarities end, though.
Charlie Magee is a much more sympathetic character than Carrie White. Where Carrie longs for revenge for all of the wrongs done to her (and there are many), Charlie is afraid of her power and does not want to use it at all. She is frightened of hurting people and a little frightened of herself. Where Carrie suffers under an abusive relationship with her mother, Charlie is loved and protected by her parents, especially her father.
It seemed to me that Carrie’s story was about the damage done to a person when those they should be able to trust let them down. It’s about always being on the outside, the one that nobody wants around. Charlie’s story is about government and the shady things they are willing to do when no-one is looking, and all the ways they justify that to themselves.
Firestarter is well-paced and engaging throughout. Charlie is a believable character, and as always, King draws the characters so well that everything else becomes believable.
I found myself amused to note that one of the doctors who work for The Shop is called Dr Patrick Hockstetter – a name we will see repeated in IT. King has some favourite names, I’ve noticed. I’ve come across a number of Ralphs and Eddies as well as more than one Andy – my favourite is Andy Dufresne. I guess when you’ve written as many books and stories as King has, it’s inevitable that names will repeat, much as they do in real life.
Next up is Roadworks, which is another of the books published under the Richard Bachman pseudonym. King says that Bachman is a little funnier than him, as well as a little darker. After reading Firestarter, I’m not so sure about that. King is plenty dark himself.