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Firestarter by Stephen King

Between 1974 and 1984 Stephen King published an astounding 18 books (counting the four novellas published under the name Richard Bachman, later packaged together as The Bachman Books). The sheer output is not the only extraordinary thing. Among those titles are the books most would consider among King’s most iconic: Carrie, ‘salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Talisman, Pet Sematary, The Gunslinger, Christine. Next to those iconic works, there are others that are no less great but seem to have been somewhat forgotten in the years since their publication. One of those is Firestarter.

When I saw that a new movie adaptation of Firestarter (starring Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong [AHS: Double Feature], and Gloria Reuben) was coming out this year (trailer below), I realized I hadn’t thought of that particular book in years. I am a big King fan, a Constant Reader in the fandom parlance. As I write this review I am looking at my bookshelves and the nearly 3 full shelves dedicated to King. For a time I pushed myself to get all of his books in first edition when possible, although due to lack of shelf space I’ve since stopped that pursuit on his newer releases. However, it made me wonder why have these books if I’m not going to re-read them. So after some searching, I pulled Firestarter from the shelf.

The story starts in 1978 with six-year-old Charlie McGee and her father Andy on the run from shadowy government forces called The Shop. A decade before, Andy and his future wife Vicky participated in an experiment on their college campus to test a new serum. This serum, called Lot Six, caused Andy and Vicky to exhibit powers of telekinesis, precognition, and mind control. After they married and had their first child, they passed on their extraordinary powers to their daughter, Charlie. Her “gift” is the ability to raise temperature through the force of her mind which usually leads to fires. If it theoretically can burn, Charlie can burn it. After the campus experiments, The Shop monitored the McGees and one day decided to bring them to The Shop for study. Using mind control, which Andy calls “pushing”, Andy was able to get him and Charlie away, but Vicky was killed by Shop agents. But pushing for Andy comes with a price: debilitating migraines that take him out of commission for hours or days. With the Shop steps behind them, Andy and Charlie will need help if they are going to survive their flight and Charlie’s growing power.

What follows is one of King’s more straightforward stories. Andy and Charlie run, Charlie unleashes her power on their pursuers, the pair hideout, and eventually, they are caught and the last act begins. It’s a simple structure, for what is ultimately a Frankenstein story: the creation will always destroy the creators. None of this is a spoiler and King foreshadows that it is going to end in death and fire early on. The question is what will Charlie do with the power and will she and Andy survive. In typical King fashion, the villains are just as fleshed out and well-rounded as our heroes. In this case, there is Cap; the head of The Shop, and John Rainbird, a government assassin. Rainbird is one of King’s most interesting, and twisted, creations. Rainbird is a Native American Vietnam War vet who was horribly disfigured when a mine exploded in his face. Now he is obsessed with death and in his own twisted mind believes that killing someone as powerful as Charlie may finally allow him to see death itself.

Firestarter is a character-driven thriller that only occasionally dips into horror. It has several twists and turns to get to the fiery climax and keeps Charlie at the center of the narrative. This would be the third time during that 10 year run that King wrote a story about psychically powerful children: Carrie and The Shining being the first two. With Firestarter, King explores what raising a child like Charlie was like for her parents. A tantrum when her bottle was late resulted in her crib being set ablaze. Nightmares that raised the temperature in her room at night. An argument that ends with Vicky’s arms on fire. The McGee house has fire extinguishers in every room, and standing water on hand so Charlie could cast her power into it to literally cool it off. How Charlie’s power works is never really explored and the why is largely irrelevant. What is important is the force of her power, which is extraordinary and terrifying to anyone who witnesses it in action.

Where Carrie was more or less a metaphor for losing control of your body during puberty, Firestarter is about learning to take control of your own power and impulses and control them, rather than letting them control you. By the end of the book, Charlie has control of her power and has enough moral guidance to know she cannot let it get out of hand. Re-visiting Firestarter as an adult was interesting for me. The book hits different as a parent, especially as a parent that has already raised their kids and they are out of the house. But I can still recall the struggle, tribulations, and fear that we were messing up and were going to screw up our children irrevocably. Firestarter taps into that universal fear but ends on a note of hope that maybe the kids will be alright after all.

Coming to theaters and Peacock Premium on May 13.

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