A Pleasure To Burn by Bev Vincent

FirestarterFirestarter arose from research Stephen King had been doing into psychic phenomena, specifically, pyrokinesis[1]. He read about spontaneous human combustion and other bizarre incidents. In one case that he has mentioned on several occasions, a boy started to burn while the family was at the beach. His father dunked him in the water, but he kept on burning and died from his injuries, with his father sustaining serious burns on his arms. King has admitted to a fascination with fire, referring back to one of his favorite characters, Trashcan Man from The Stand, who loves to start fires, the bigger the better. King wanted to explore what might happen to a person who had the ability to start fires with his or her mind and could control it.

Then he thought about people taking part in psychology experiments who unwittingly received drugs like LSD. He envisioned such a drug turning people telepathic and causing a genetic mutation that allowed the test subjects to pass this talent on like “the Wyeth people hand down artistic talent.”

King also wanted to write about the uncontrolled power held by government agencies to do things whether or not they are advisable. In an afterword included only with the first paperback edition of the novel, he talks about the “undeniable fact” that the government and its agencies had administered potentially dangerous drugs to unwitting subjects, and that both the US and the USSR (this was during the Cold War, remember) had programs for isolating and studying people with “wild talents,” a phrase he attributes to Jack Vance. He writes, “One of the things that Firestarter tried to say is it’s gotten to the point where people are saying, ‘Don’t think about it, just do it. If it works let’s use it and let’s never mind what causes it or anything else.’ Which is a military and scientific philosophy this country has always pursued.”

King patterned Charlie McGee on his daughter, Naomi. “I know how she looks, I know how she walks, I know what makes her mad. I was able to use that, but only to a certain degree. Beyond that, if you tie yourself to your own children, you limit your range. So I took Naomi, used her as the frame, and then went where I wanted.”

When he reached the shootout scene at Manders’ farm, he gave up on the book because he was afraid he was simply writing Carrie all over again. He recognized the recurring theme of the tension between emerging psychic abilities and nascent sexual awareness in both novels and wondered if he might be lapsing into self-imitation, or even self-parody.

When he returned to the manuscript after finishing The Dead Zone and the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” however, he was gratified to discover that his fears weren’t justified. Not only was Firestarter better than he remembered, it was better than Carrie. He realized he was amplifying themes that were intrinsic to his work, which is something more acceptable in literary fiction than in popular fiction.

He finished the final draft in the fall of 1978, after the family moved to Orrington, working during the evening while teaching creative writing at the University of Maine, his first experience teaching at the university level[2].

The book ended as it did because King didn’t know what happened next. However, he said over the years that he had wild moments where he imagined Charlie McGee meeting Danny Torrance and they get married and move to ‘Salem’s Lot. As we now know, that didn’t happen.

Maybe there are some “historical context” details that delve too deeply into King’s life, but since he has talked about this himself, I guess it’s okay to mention here. While he was working on Firestarter, he and his wife decided that three children were enough, so he had a vasectomy. The next day, he went back to work on the book, but started bleeding from his incision. His wife discovered him at the keyboard, sitting in a pool of blood, determined to finish the current paragraph before he would let her drive him to the hospital.

Firestarter[3] was published in September, 1980 with a first printing of 100,000 copies. King was afraid the reviews were going to be terrible, but in general they were very positive, including the one in the NY Times. He does remember, though, the headline from The Washington Post review: “Stricken a la King.”

The reviews—and two excerpts published in Omni magazine in advance of publication—translated into sales: nearly 300,000 hardcover copies in the first year alone, a significant increase compared to The Dead Zone. This was also the first King book to be published in limited edition, a 725-copy numbered edition from Phantasia Press with a striking Michael Whelan wraparound cover, and a 26-copy lettered edition bound in asbestos, which remains one of the most sought-after and valuable King limited editions.

The scariest book signing King ever did was during his Firestarter tour, the first autograph party where a lot of people showed up. There was no crowd control, nor any limit on the number of books people could get signed at one time. The circle around his table grew smaller and smaller. King says he started to feel like a character from Poe, buried alive. “Only I was buried in people, instead of earth. I thought, ‘You’ve got to write your way out of this.’”


[1] I can’t confirm or refute the popularly held belief that King coined the word “pyrokinesis” in this novel. He also talks about auto-pyrokinesis or self-immolation in interviews.

[2] Two books arose from his year in Orrington: Danse Macabre was created from his fiction course preparation and Pet Sematary was inspired by incidents that occurred during his time there, as we will see in future installments.

[3] This is apropos of absolutely nothing, but it was an interesting factoid I discovered while researching this essay. The movie rights to Firestarter were sold, pre-publication, for $1 million to “an Egyptian producer named Dotie Fyad,”—that’s how the name was rendered an the interview with David Chute. Dodi Fayed was, of course, the man who died in the car accident that claimed the life of Princess Diana.

10 comments

  • King bleeding for his work seems very apropos.

    Firestarter is an enjoyable book. Not at the same level of his previous efforts.

    Great to get the background and historical context Bev. Thanks!

  • PS – I really do wonder what Charlie is up to these days?

  • Glen

    love the essay! is Dodi Fayed the person that bought the rights? just confused a wee bit.

  • Aaron

    Nice essay. King’s fascination with fire is evident, especially in his early work in which a cataclysmic blaze figures prominently into each narrative. (Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Firestarter, The Running Man, Pet Sematary etc.) Incidentally, I can only imagine what kind of offspring Charlie McGee and Danny Torrance would have produced . . . or maybe I don’t want to.

  • Randy

    First King book I ever read…loaned to me by a VERY cute fitness instructor on whom I had an unbearable crush! Good memories.

  • John C. Carter

    Excellent article. Firestarter is one of my all-time favorite King works. Anytime I meet someone who has never read SK, I always recommend Firestarter as the book to start with. Hooks ’em like a charm. It’s a can’t-put-the-book-down honest-to-goodness thriller!

  • Glen

    Your Historical Essays are awesome. I really learn a lot! Keep up the good work! Looking forward to IT, 11/22/63, Mr. Mercedes …. Maybe you can skip around a bit! Just read Blaze and loved that story, dont know why he locked that one up either….

  • Wayne C. Rogers

    As Johnny Smith would say, “Your house is on fire. You still have time to save your daughter, but you have to hurry!” Of course, you have to say that like Christopher Walken, too.

  • Wanda Maynard

    Loved Christopher Walken in that movie. Wonderful Historical Essay, Bev. I always look forward to these, because I learn so much from them. Thank you.

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