Firestarter gets comparatively little attention among Stephen King novels. It doesn't make many readers' list of favorites, it's sometimes falsely dubbed a recycled version of Carrie, and the film adaptation of it didn't do the novel any favors. I first read Firestarter some twenty years ago, and frankly I remembered it in somewhat fuzzy terms. Having reread it again now, a quarter century after its original publication, that ambivalence I felt has been turned into - well, something. I don't think anyone would consider this King's best novel. It is very much a localized story, built mainly upon emotion; certain questions can be asked about the story's progression, and we never really come to "know" the bad guys as intimately as we do in so many other King classics - Rainbird is for me a problematic character in this story; like the young protagonist, I just never feel as if I can truly read him. There is no real adrenaline rush for me in these pages, either, and that is probably the main reason I had such hazy memories of the story after all these years. Having said all that, though, I have to point to some real strengths of Firestarter. It is one of King's most poignant novels, sad and depressing rather than horrifying. The relationship between Andy McGee and his daughter Charlie is by turns heartwarming and heart wrenching; seeing this seven-year-old girl suffer so much can be hard at times, and those moments when Charley screams for her Daddy, her only source of comfort and safety in her unimaginably horrible world, definitely affect you as the reader. It makes Firestarter a somewhat sobering read, one you may want to put out of your mind rather than revisit - that is this novel's power.
Charlie McGee is just a cute little girl, yet she is denied anything resembling a normal life. Her parents participated in a psychological study back in college that earned them two hundred dollars and strange new powers. They had unwittingly served as guinea pigs for an experimental-drug called Lot Six - courtesy of The Shop, a covert part of the federal government. Andy has the ability to "push" people into thinking and doing what he wants, while his wife Vicki is able to move things with her mind. Their abilities are comparatively weak, but such is not the case with their daughter: Charlie can start fires with her mind. Charlie's unprecedented powers make her a subject of great interest for The Shop - and eventually they come for her. Andy is forced to flee with his daughter after his wife is killed and Charlie herself temporarily abducted by government agents, but his limited power can only take them so far because the "push" exerts a painful physical toll on him. Charlie has to grow up in a hurry, as she seeks to understand who and what she is and to distinguish right from wrong in a crazy world that blurs the lines of good and evil. Her parents taught her that she should never use her power, yet she is put into positions in which that frightening ability borne from something inside her is the only thing that can keep her and her father safe and free. She is scared of the power, partly because she has trouble controlling it, but even more because a part of her enjoys using it. King's development of Charlie's feelings in this regard is masterfully done.
The novel makes little secret that the eventual ending will be a tragic one. The climactic events, however, don't take place on an elaborate scope; in fact, the majority of the action goes down in only two distinct locations. The fulcrum exists in the form of a grotesque human being named Rainbird. He's really the only interesting antagonist in the entire story, but I just don't know that his actions are justified by the things we learn about him - principally, his fascination with death. In my mind, he's one of King's weakest villains.
This is starting to sound like a negative review, but in actuality I regard Firestarter as a fascinating novel that shows how King is equally proficient at evoking love as he is terror. There's a strong sociological component to the novel. After all, the villain here is not a werewolf, ghost, or monster of any kind; it is nothing less than the government of the United States itself. In the 1970s, we began to learn about some of the heinous experiments our own government had perpetrated upon us (among the least of which was the injection of psychotic drugs to unknown participants) and the equally awful manner in which they covered such things up. If anything makes Firestarter scary, it is the fact that the novel was inspired by actual government-sponsored crimes of the most despicable kind. I'm sure the impact of Firestarter resonated much more deeply in 1980 than it does now, but this is only because we now know how untrustworthy the government can be. Still, Charlie's story is a most compelling one, and it shows us another side of Stephen King during the most productive phase of his unparalleled career.