My Year of King, #7-Firestarter

Monday, May 14, 2018

Chances are pretty good that when you think about Firestarter, what you see in your mind is a very young Drew Barrymore, hair blown back from her tiny face, setting, well, just about everything in her path on fire. That movie, along with E.T., helped propel her to early stardom and created one of the many iconic images of the 1980s. So iconic, in fact, that the Netflix series "Stranger Things" references it, not literally, but through the character of Eleven and the shadowy government agency with nefarious purposes known as Hawkins National Laboratory. As movies made from Stephen King books go, I don't remember Firestarter being too awful, nor do I remember it straying too far from the events of the book, though I will admit it's probably been 20 years since I've seen it.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the basic plot, Firestarter revolves around Andy and Charlie McGee, a father and daughter who are on the run from a secret government agency called The Shop. When he was in college, Andy and his future wife Vicky participated in trials of an experimental hallucinogenic drug that left them with weak psychic and telekinetic powers. Those powers were magnified by a power of a lot in their young daughter, Charlie, who showed signs from a very early age of being able to move things with her mind, and, more frighteningly, set things on fire. This happened most often when she was angry or upset, giving new meaning to the phrase "terrible twos". Andy and Vicky did everything they could to keep her powers, and their own, a secret, but The Shop maintained covert surveillance on all of their past subjects, and when they saw what Charlie could do, they tried to capture her so they could study her with the ultimate goal of creating a super-weapon. Andy, obviously, wasn't really down with this plan, so he took his daughter and ran.

This is not the first time that King has explored the idea of telekinesis, nor the first time he has used a young person as his powerful hero (hello, Carrie!). Charlie is another in a string of children that King uses as protagonists. One of the recurring themes in his work seems to be that the more innocent you are, the more likely you are to have the imagination and bravery to confront evil. In this case, while Charlie is the one that can set things on fire with her mind, the evil is the government, another recurring theme in King's works, first appearing in The Stand. It is not always the main theme, but in many of King's books the least sympathetic characters have something to do with the power structure of the location of the story, whether they be a politician, clergy member, or wealthy citizen.

One of the things I liked about this story, both when I first read it and now, is the relationship between Charlie and her father. He is smart, a teacher (another recurring element in King stories), kind and gentle, and pretty evolved for a man who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite their dire situation, he tries to teach Charlie the difference between right and wrong, even as he sometimes has to tell her to do horrible things to help them evade The Shop. It felt more unusual when I first read it, but even now portraying the father as the primary caregiver of a small child feels is not that common. Unlike Jack Torrance, Andy McGee is able to be truly selfless, doing everything he can to ensure his daughter's safety despite what it means to his own.

The story does feel a bit unbalanced, with long periods of waiting in between action scenes, but oh what action scenes they are! The other characters in the novel; agents from The Shop, mostly; are written with just enough depth for you to understand their motivation, but without any real substance. They could be any shadowy government official from just about any book or movie that contains shadowy government officials. They are fairly shallow, that is, except for John Rainbird, the Native American Viet Nam vet turned assassin, who is tasked with getting Charlie to use her powers. His character is cunning and violent and sociopathic, but with an impressive, if scary, intellect. His main motivation for being an assassin isn't money or revenge or patriotism-his long string of murders are essentially his own twisted research into what you can see of a person's soul if you look in their eyes as they die. He is a truly chilling character, and one of the more subtly written King villains. He definitely adds a quality of menace to an already suspensful story.

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