Firestarter, by Stephen King

Firestarter conjures memories of sitting at my first-period Geometry class desk, poring over my third Stephen King book ever. Like the first two books before it, I stumbled across the poster or trailer for their respective movie adaptations and being so fascinated by the summary that I had to read the book for the full story.

The story had a bit of a resurgence when the 2022 film remake was released, and while I never saw it because I heard it was not very good and I simply could not see Zac Efron as Andy McGee, it did make me want to re-read a book I had not read in almost thirteen years. So I dug up my 1980 first-edition book (whose cover you’ll see below) with fiery anticipation.

Andy McGee and his seven-year-old daughter Charlie are on the run from a government organization called the Shop. Several years back, Andy and his now-deceased wife Vicky partook in a Shop experiment to study the effects of a chemical called Lot Six, which inadvertently gave Andy and Vicky, and consequently, their daughter, psychic powers. Andy has a form of mind control called “the push,” while Charlie got something much stronger and far more dangerous. She can control heat and start fires with her mind, a power that the Shop is desperate to study and, more importantly, to control.

Stephen King has never called Firestarter his favorite work, but it’s still a pretty great book. It throws us right into the action, with Charlie and Andy desperately running away with only their powers to protect them. Despite how powerful they both are, though, Andy’s powers take such a physical toll on his brain that he kills nerves and suffers from minor hemorrhaging after each push. And Charlie, who’s been taught since day one not to use her power at all, is scared to even light a match.

The story itself is a simple battle of good versus evil, so we get to focus on the characters’ suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse. Andy and Charlie run themselves absolutely ragged to escape the Shop, while the Shop takes drastic measures to capture them. It’s easy to feel sorry for Andy, who is dealing not only with the trauma of the Shop killing Vicky but also the Shop nearly kidnapping Charlie and sending them on the run. He is terrified for both himself and his daughter, all while knowing one more really tough mental push could actually kill him and leave his daughter helpless. The stakes could not be higher for them both.

What I love most about this story is the sheer potential of Charlie’s powers and how (rightfully) scared the Shop is of her. There’s a harrowing scene where the leader of the Shop, Captain Hollister, and the doctor who ran the Lot Six experiments talk about how Charlie’s powers could one day grow to nuclear proportions. One descriptive line stuck with me through the years about how Charlie could one day “crack the very planet in two like a china plate in a shooting gallery.” For just a split second, you do wonder whether Charlie, a kind and sweet young girl, would be able to rein in such explosive power even as she grew up.

Although, as powerful as Charlie proves to be, she is still vulnerable. One of the shop’s orderlies and hitmen, John Rainbird, forms a perverted attachment to Charlie and wants to kill her so he can understand what happens to a little girl when she dies. He puts on an act to grow close to Charlie while Andy is kept isolated from her, and you want to grab Charlie and run from him, even though she is capable of turning Rainbird promptly to soot.

I don’t know where Rainbird ranks among Stephen King villains, but yikes, he is a creep. He is obsessed with death, specifically what happens to a person’s eyes when they die, and he becomes obsessed with observing a child’s death when Charlie is taken to the Shop. His fatherly figure act would be completely convincing if we were not privy to his secret perverted thoughts about Charlie.

Of course, Charlie is the most iconic part of this story, being the titular firestarter. I doubt I’d call her the most developed fictional heroine since we don’t know much about her beyond her powers and her bond with her father. Perhaps if we got to see her playing with a friend or talking about something she really liked. However, she does feel like a child you might know, even if her dialogue is a little precocious sometimes, and her bond with Andy is effectively sweet.

Charlie’s powers feel reminiscent of Carrie White’s from Carrie, in that she has the ability to wreak profound destruction and almost goes into a trance when her powers reach their height. There’s even a moment when Charlie looks above the Shop and wonders if she could make the very sun explode with her ability. Put Charlie and Carrie together, and we might all have to run for our lives.

I’m not sure I like Firestarter as much as Carrie, but it was still a pleasure revisiting it after so much time has passed. It’s iconic for a reason and hopefully will receive a more faithful and better-made adaptation later.

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