(My last belated review from November reading! I’m so close to being caught up again!)
I picked up Stephen King’s Firestarter in preparation for reading King’s newest release, The Institute. I heard somewhere along the line that the two novels share a key element or two, and I love a good comparison. I’m also just very interested in the fact that King can find such success in using “recycled” content. But this post will be a single, focused review since I’ve only just started The Institute– any comparisons between the two will appear there.
In the novel, a man and his daughter are on the run from a top secret government branch known as “the Shop.” Several years previously, Andy met his wife in a paid study where they were both given experimental drugs. Neither can quite be sure whether they hallucinated the events that followed, or actually tapped into a range of psychic abilities as part of the test- some residual power to manipulate the minds of others and close doors without touching them suggests the latter. Even so, they’re both surprised when their daughter Charlie, is born with the ability to start fires with her mind, and only grows stronger with time. The Shop wants to study her badly enough that they’d kill to get their hands on her; they’re not above kidnapping either. But no one understands the pyrokinetic power they’re up against- not even Charlie.
“You sit here and make your plans for controlling a force beyond your comprehension. A force that belongs only to the gods themselves…and to this one little girl.”
Three things to be aware of right off the bat:
- This book was published in 1980, and feels very much like a product of its time. Between the mad scientist, the psychedelic drugs, the ease of hitchhiking, the slow spread of information (predating the smart phone era), and the secret government agents destined to stay ahead of the Russians, it’s definitely a throwback.
- This book was published during Stephen King’s addiction years. In his own On Writing (and probably elsewhere), he admits that he doesn’t have clear memories of his writing projects from this time, including the entire novel of Cujo, if I remember correctly. I haven’t read Cujo yet, but I have read quite a handful of King’s works, and this is the first one that felt genuinely sloppy to me. It is coherent, but gave me the strong impression that King was riding on his fame and churning out ideas without polishing them.
- This book is very obviously one of the main sources of inspiration for the Stranger Things TV show. Charlie is clearly an earlier rendition of Eleven (though with a different power), and the Shop paves the way for the Hawkins Lab. The set-up for the drug experiment is very similar to the set-up of the experiment in Suspicious Minds, the first official Stranger Things novel, which stands as a prequel to the TV series. Many small details match up as well, character traits and motivations, etc. I feel confident in saying that Stranger Things would not exist- or at least, not as it does today- without this novel.
In a nutshell, if you’re interested in science fiction stories from the 80’s, in King’s writing in general, or in Stranger Things, you’re more likely to find this a worthwhile read. Because I was very interested in 2 of those categories and indifferent about the 3rd (80’s sci-fi), I did enjoy the underlying concept and quite a few of the details. That said, I did have some larger issues that are more likely to bother readers who aren’t interested in this book for one of the above reasons.
“Of course, an eighth-grade science book teaches that anything will burn if it gets hot enough. But it is one thing to read such information and quite another to see cinderblocks blazing with blue and yellow flame.”
The first issue I had was with characterization; most of the characters in Firestarter feel like archetypes rather than nuanced people. The assassin was probably the most interesting, though even he turned out to be predictably evil rather than morally gray. Andy, the father, is a typical wrong-place-wrong-time hero who just wants to do the right thing so badly that he’s boring, and Charlie just feels entirely inauthentic as a 9 year old girl: her dialogue is corny and cringe-worthy, her reactions strangely detached, and she’s given no personality- no favorite toys or pastimes, no best friends she misses, no self-expression in her clothes or behavior. It’s like when she’s not in the current scene, she doesn’t exist, and even when she is in scene she’s so transparent that it’s hard to invest in her plight. It’s the situation they’re in rather than the characters themselves that drives the story forward.
And on the topic of momentum, the second main issue I found with this book is that the pacing lags right in the middle. The story starts with Andy and Charlie on the run, which is interesting enough, but there’s a sort of stalemate in the middle of the story between the end of the chase and the big climax. In this pause, King spends hundreds of pages (out of the total 500) just moving his characters into place for the final act. It’s a slow, largely plotless section full of helplessness and prophetic dreams and no one quite sure where they’re going anymore or how they’re going to get there. The concept has lost its novelty by this point, the characters have proven themselves uninteresting, and literally nothing is happening. Even though I knew King was going to end this one with a bang, it was such a struggle getting through that middle section.
Which isn’t to say the book’s all bad. Even though I would not have liked this story if I wasn’t interested in reading for reasons that extended beyond the plot, there are certainly some fun elements. Andy’s power, for one: he can “push” people into believing things- convincing a cab driver that the one-dollar bill in his hand is actually a hundred, for example. The drug experiment he participates in and the Shop itself is fascinating, if you’re into government conspiracies. The increasingly large fires Charlie can set without breaking a sweat add an extra layer of intrigue. And there’s an interesting afterward in which King notes that while he’s not trying to persuade anyone that psychic powers are real, there was actually a time when the government spent time and money trying to discover whether such powers might be harnessed for use.
“Do not fear, you are wrapped snuggly in the arms of Modern Science.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It was so fun to see what was clearly a source of inspiration for other creators, and to weigh this early story against some of its notable recent counterparts (Stranger Things and Suspicious Minds). Though the story itself did not quite satisfy me, I did appreciate its premise, and I’m so intrigued to see where King goes with the psychic powers in The Institute. I hope the latter will be a more polished and entertaining work in its own right, but Firestarter has not discouraged me or lowered my expectations. I’ll definitely be reading more from King, and I’m now very much in the mood to rewatch Stranger Things!
The Literary Elephant