It’s been a long time since I’ve written a Literary Sins post. I think the last time I wrote about my experiences reading classic books that I probably should have read ages ago, I was railing against On the Road.
Well, this time, I’ve rectified a Literary Sin that many will probably shake their heads and scoff at. “Firestarter by Stephen King is not a literary classic,” they’ll say, “and therefore it’s not a sin that you had not read it.”
I beg to differ.
As a self-proclaimed Stephen King fan, it is an egregious oversight on my part to have not read one of his earlier works. As a matter of fact, I’m making it a personal mission to read through his entire bibliography, so expect to see a few more Stephen King titles in future Literary Sins posts.
Stephen King’s early pieces are some of my favorites. They capture a grisly kind of horror that has become more nuanced in his more recent novels. Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and Rage cover not only horrific themes and monstrous people, but they do so in a very raw fashion. So while I do appreciate the mastery of King’s later works like Under the Dome and 11/22/63, my inner horror fanatic much prefers the slasher qualities of young King.
However, Firestarter is not a terrifying tale such as you would expect from Stephen King. It tells the story of a young girl named Charlie who possesses the ability to start fires with her mind. Her parents were both subjects of MK Ultra-esque experiments, and their child’s latent gifts are a result of those experiences.
Most of the fear in Firestarter comes from two main sources: the unpredictability of a child having access to such destructive power and the widespread reach an immoral branch of government can have on a person’s life.
Charlie and her father spend most of the novel on the run, and you really feel for the dad as he tries to instruct his daughter about when it is okay and not okay for her to use her powers. And those government agents dog them relentlessly.
As you can probably see, those monstrous horror elements that King usually includes in his stories are missing here, and Firestarter suffered a drop in my esteem as a result.
That’s not to say I disliked it. I adore Stephen King’s writing style more than any other author’s, and that was still apparent in Firestarter. But I was expecting something different from what I got.
Before I dive into the negatives, let me focus on the positives.
As always, King excels at describing a person’s inner thoughts. He could cover a whole page with one person’s ruminations, and I would not be bored. Plus, since Charlie’s father possesses some low-key telepathy powers, that makes King’s style of writing from a person’s mind ten times more exciting.
This is doubly obvious when he writes about men who are just plain evil. There is a character named Rainbird who could accurately be called the villain of the novel, and reading from his perspective always induces a shudder. King takes the time to set up Rainbird’s character and motivations, and that is a large driving force behind the plot.
Now, on to the negatives.
The plot meanders.
That’s perhaps the biggest flaw. (Be wary of spoilers ahead, by the way.)
If you want to know the broad strokes of the plot, it is as follows:
a) Charlie and her dad are on the run.
b) Charlie and her dad hide out on a farm.
c) Charlie and her dad get caught and taken to a government facility.
d) Charlie and her dad try to escape.
While handy flashbacks provide context for how Charlie got her powers and fill space between these plot points, they can’t hide how bare bones the story feels. Though Charlie and her father are the protagonists of the narrative, the people we root for, they are often not given much agency when it comes to charting their own course. Granted, when you’re on the run from a shady government organization, you don’t always have a lot of options. However, there never seems to be a big plan or future that they are heading toward.
When compared to some of King’s other stories, Firestarter falls short of a gripping narrative.
In addition to that, none of the characters are as magnetic as some of King’s other infamous characters. Any Stephen King fan worth their salt can name the most memorable characters from The Stand, but a lot of the characters in Firestarter are forgettable.
In conclusion, I would not say that Firestarter is a must-read, even for Stephen King fans, not like Carrie. However, it’s not an altogether bad book. It’s enjoyable. I’d even rate it above the majority of Dean Koontz’s stuff, i.e. all of it.
I rate Firestarter a flaming-good-read-that-won’t-set-fire-to-your-world-but-can-serve-as-a-warm-outing-into-the-world-of-Stephen-King.