Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stephen King: Firestarter (1980)

As Stephen King was writing the first draft of Firestarter, he feared that he was repeating himself, reworking ideas and even scenes that he had used in Carrie.
I had this depressing feeling that I was a thirty-year-old man who had already lapsed into self-imitation. And once that begins, self-parody cannot be far away. The only way that I could return to Firestarter was upon rereading what I had written, and realizing that, not only was it less like Carrie than I thought – it was also better than Carrie. And I realized that it should be possible for a writer to revisit themes if it betters his work. I thought that critics might claim that Steve King had started to eat himself; but I recognized that they would do no such thing if I were a "serious" novelist – they would say . . . King is attempting to amplify themes that are intrinsic to his work. And, with that in mind, I made my peace with Firestarter.
Firestarter (published September 1980) does amplify themes that are intrinsic to King's work: issues of morality and free will and choice. It is not a horror novel, per se, but more in the mold of the supernatural, and slightly science fictionish, genre of The Stand and The Dead Zone. (I suppose it could also be placed in the espionage genre.) And like those two previous books, Firestarter revisits the theme of unchecked government power and government's excessive intrusion into our personal lives.

Charlene "Charlie" McGee is the seven-year-old daughter of Andy McGee and Victoria Tomlinson. Andy and Vicky met in college in the late 60s when they both volunteered for a scientific experiment of a supposedly low-grade hallucinogen. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, the experiment was being run by the government's Department of Scientific Intelligence (a CIA-type organization know as "The Shop") and the drug – Lot Six – was a serious hallucinogen. All of the participants in the experiment developed psychic abilities of some kind because of exposure to the drug. Most of the volunteers either went insane or killed themselves; only three of the 12 subjects are still alive a dozen years after the experiment.

While Vicky has slight telekinesis powers and Andy has the ability to influence people by suggestion, "pushing" them mentally with his mind, Charlie is born with powers far beyond that of either of her parents. Chief among them is her ability to start fires simply by thinking about them. As a young girl, the ability is in a raw state, and she cannot cannot control it very well. It is believed that the ability to harness and specifically direct the fires will come as she gets older. The Shop knows she has some powers, but not the full extent of what they are. They want to kidnap her and study her – and possibly use her as a military weapon.

The novel begins with Andy and Charlie on the run from two agents in New York City. Andy convinces a cab driver into taking them from Manhattan to Albany (by pushing him into believing a dollar bill is really $500). Hitchhiking in upstate New York, they are picked up by Irv Manders, a farmer who invites them to his house.

When government agents track the McGees to the farm and try to apprehend Andy, Charlie unleashes an inferno that not only kills some of agents, but destroys their cars and sets the Manders' house on fire. However, Irv Manders is far more furious at the police state behaviour of the agents.
If I had to do it over again, I'd do it just the same way. Gosh-damn people coming on my land with guns. Gosh-damn bastards and fucking bunch of government whoremasters . . . Those men came with no warrants or blueback paper of any kind and tried to take them off our land. People I'd invited in like it's done in a civilized country with decent laws. . . . What do you want me to do, Norma? Sit here and turn them over to the secret police if they get their peckers up enough to come back? Be a good German?
Andy and Charlie use one of Irv's trucks to head to Andy's grandfather's cabin on the Vermont/New Hampshire border, where they spent the winter. Unbeknowst to them, the Shop has been watching them the entire time and when spring arrives, they move in and capture both of them. (Manders refers to Charlie affectionately as "button", hinting at the phrase "finger on the button" re nuclear bombs.)

For all of the Shop's illegal and criminal activities, it is agent and assassin John Rainbird who is the book's ultimate evil. Standing nearly seven feet tall, Rainbird – a half-Cherokee Native American – was disfigured by a land mine in the Vietnam war. His left eye is gone and his face is "a horrorshow of scar tissue and runnelled flesh". He is ferociously bright, and speaks four languages in a voice that is low and musical.

Charlie has refused to cooperate with the Shop, so Rainbird poses as a low-level cleaning person, coming in to tidy her "apartment" every day, trying to get her to open up. A fortuitous summer storm knocks out the power in the building, leaving Rainbird and Charlie in total darkness for several hours. He fabricates a story about his past and his wounds, and about his extreme terror at being in the total dark*. Feeling a tremendous amount of compassion, Charlie tells him her story, including her fear that she will be tricked into using her powers for the Shop.

* Attentive readers will note King making fun of a "tried-and-true" adventure story cliche like calling the pitch black "the living dark", and then using the phrase himself a mere 26 pages later!

As the weeks go on, their friendship grows, and Charlie begins to think of Rainbird as a surrogate father. "Instead of more questions and cross-examination and mistrust, there had been only acceptance and calm sympathy". As for Rainbird, he tells her, "I guess I love you a little. You're like the daughter I never had."

There is a subtle sexual undercurrent between Rainbird and Charlie, who is now eight years old. When Rainbird tells his superiors that he wants to know Charlie intimately, he is quick to add that he does not mean in that way. And while he makes no sexual overtures, King repeatedly describes Rainbird's feelings of affection: "might be falling love", "he loved her more than ever", "She was his now" and "With a lover's eye ..."

Rainbird's true obsession is with death (including his own). He always stares into his victims' eyes at the precise moment of death, hoping to see some evidence of "the actual exhalation of the soul". In Rainbird's experience, the "eyes seem to lose their fear and fill instead with a great puzzlement – not wonder, not dawning comprehension, or realization or awe, just puzzlement". He wonders "what it would be like to kill a child" and looks forward to finding out when the Shop finally decides Charlie is expendable.

The power outage is the moment that sends the book careening to its climax. It is the event that leads to Charlie's trust of Rainbird and, more importantly, it leads to Andy's re-emergence from his drugged fog of lethargy. During the storm, truly terrified at being alone in the darkness, Andy seems to "push" himself to get past his dependence on the drugs he has been fed. Thinking clearly for the first time in weeks – "at home in his own head" – he begins to formulate an escape plan.

There are a number of superb set pieces late in the book, including (a) when Andy meets with Cap Hollister, the head of the Shop, and pushes him to reveal the complete truth about the Shop's plans for himself and Charlie, (b) when Charlie reads her father's secret note telling her not to trust Rainbird, and (c) the lead-in to the book's climactic fiery inferno.

Having survived the massive conflagration that destroys the Shop compound, Charlie must then decide where to go and what to do with what she knows, how to fulfill her father's dying words: "Don't let them cover it up. Don't let them say . . . just a fire." While the ending is anti-climactic, it is optimistic, unlike the endings of both The Stand and The Dead Zone.


Firestarter raises disturbing questions about the extent to which the government has, in the name of national security, used its own citizens as unwitting human guinea pigs. The opening paragraphs of the Wikipedia entry on Human Experimentation in the United States:
There have been numerous experiments performed on human test subjects in the United States that have been considered unethical, and were often performed illegally, without the knowledge, consent, or informed consent of the test subjects.

The experiments include: the deliberate infection of people with deadly or debilitating diseases, exposure of people to biological and chemical weapons, human radiation experiments, injection of people with toxic and radioactive chemicals, surgical experiments, interrogation/torture experiments, tests involving mind-altering substances, and a wide variety of others. Many of these tests were performed on children, the sick, and mentally disabled individuals, often under the guise of "medical treatment". In many of the studies, a large portion of the subjects were poor, racial minorities or prisoners.

Funding for many of the experiments was provided by United States government, especially the Central Intelligence Agency, United States military and federal or military corporations. The human research programs were usually highly secretive, and in many cases information about them was not released until many years after the studies had been performed.
Information about these tests (such as MK ULTRA) has been released over the last four decades, beginning with the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (more commonly known as the Church Committee) in 1975 – only a few years before King began work on the novel.

King, from the afterward to the paperback edition of Firestarter:
There's a lot of evidence that both the American and Soviet governments take the subject [extrasensory perception and psychic phenomena] a damn sight more seriously than they let on in public and are conducting top-priority studies to understand and isolate a whole range of esoteric phenomena, from levitation and Kirlian photography – a film process that reveals the human aura – to telepathy and teleportation and psychokinesis.

Sadly, and maybe ominously, neither side is pursuing the subject out of some objective search for scientific truth. What they're really interested in is its espionage and military potential, as in scrambling the brains of missile-silo operators or influencing the decisions of national leaders in a crisis. It's a shame, because what you're talking about here is unlocking the secrets of the human mind and exploring the inner frontier. That's the last thing that should be left in the hands of the CIA or the KGB. . . .

On this whole subject of wild talents, it was fascinating to discover when researching Firestarter that there is a well-documented if totally baffling phenomenon called pyrokinesis, or spontaneous human combustion, in which a man or woman burns to a crisp in a fire that generates almost inconceivable temperatures – a fire that seems to come from inside the victim. There have been medically documented cases from all over the world in which a corpse has been found burned beyond recognition while the chair or the bed on which it was found wasn't even charred. Sometimes, the victims are actually reduced to ash, and I know from researching burial customs for a forthcoming book that the heat required to do that is tremendous. You can't even manage it in a crematorium . . .

I remember a case reported in the press in the mid-sixties in which a kid was just lying on a beach when suddenly he burst into flames. His father dragged him into the water and dunked him, but he continued to burn underwater, as if he'd been hit by a white-phosphorus bomb. The kid died, and the father had to go into the hospital with third-degree burns on his arms.

There's a lot of mystery in the world, a lot of dark, shadowy corners we haven't explored yet. We shouldn't be too smug about dismissing out of hand everything we can't understand. The dark can have teeth, man!
Douglas E. Winter, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness:
Many of Stephen King's early novels feature principal characters who are societal aberrations, typically because of their psychic abilities. King's genius as a prose stylists is his portrayal of these characters in strikingly real, human terms. His works repeatedly dramatize the compelling human consequences of the possession of strange talents, by developing a sympathetic reader identification with the protagonist and then producing an intense conflict on both physical and emotional levels that culminates in a confrontation with the person who has evoked their talents. In both The Dead Zone and Firestarter, this confrontation plays a climatic role, but it is secondary to a moral choice that precedes it – a choice that offers an interesting reflection on the nature of good and evil in King's fiction. . . .

[M]en and women are moral beings capable of right or wrong, good or evil, and the existence of that choice is both the source and the solution of the night journey. Yet King also embraces the notion of an inherent predisposition for good or for evil, most obviously depicted in The Stand . . .
I have always felt a real dichotomy between the way that I know I am supposed to act, and the way that I really feel. It's shameful of me even to admit that, because you are not supposed to say that . . . I have always had tremendous feelings of aggression that it seemed necessary to cover up, to hide. And my writing was a clear channel for that – I think that is why there is so much destruction in my early books, because it was a way of ridding myself of a lot of that energy . . . In Firestarter, there is justified destruction – I have never been interested in destruction simply for the sake of destruction – but there is also a great, outward-turning catharsis.
King has often said that fairy tales are the scariest horror stories – and if you have read some of the classic tales in their original form, King's work often pales by comparison – and he alludes to The Beauty and the Beast with Rainbird's and Charlie's relationship.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro notes that like many demi-gods of mythology, Charlie is tested and escapes danger and trouble through the use of her inborn abilities.
As is often the case, the single biggest threat that this wonder-child faces comes from the king, or in Charlie's case, the government, the modern equivalent. The minister of the king, or the men of the Shop who attempt to use and subvert Charlie, have their parallels in fairy tales and myths, in the sinister figures of plotting viziers and zealous lieutenants, in treacherous dukes and malignant guardians. That one of them is basically well-intentioned but misled is a device often found in Greek myths . . . Charlie, in remaining true to her father, also remains true to herself, for in myths and fairy tales the denial of family and heritage is one of the most reprehensible and damning of actions. . . . [T]he wonder-child must never deny his or her humanity, for that leads to destruction and the utmost rejection. . . .

Firestarter, in the grand tradition of heroic fairy tales, starts with an ordeal and persecution, and ends with implied revenge of a sort that every demi-god from Brunhilde to Samson to Loon Brother understands: justice will triumph or the world will end.
Firestarter has the hallmarks of a transitional work; King's revisiting of concepts and themes explored in Carrie, The Stand, and The Dead Zone suggests a typing up of loose ends. Perhaps most striking is . . . the clear optimism of [Firestarter's] conclusion. . . . In the wake of these novels, King would produce more insular, less explicitly sociopolitical books – Cujo, Christine, and Pet Sematary – structured primarily around the family unit.
Firestarter was great fun to read. I'd put it up with The Long Walk and Salem's Lot in terms of my own enjoyment of what I have read so far. One of King's most admirable qualities as a writer is treating children as full-fledged humans and in Charlie McGee he created one of the deepest, most intriguing characters of his early fiction.

King's next publication of serious length was "The Mist", a novella he wrote in the summer of 1976. It was published in Dark Forces, a 1980 horror anthology. A slightly-edited version of the novella was included in Skeleton Crew (a 1985 collection of short stories), so I will read it then.

Next: Roadwork (as Richard Bachman).

1 comment:

Zenslinger said...

I had the interesting experience of reading this book with a fever 'flu as a teenager. I fell asleep, the events of the book seeming to meld into the events of my dream, which led underground, dropped the main characters of the book, and climaxed with me denouncing a totalitarian group who had been oppressing everyone for some time. I woke from the catharsis of the dream bathed in sweat, the very moment my fever broke.