Revisiting Firestarter by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
I first read FIRESTARTER the summer after I graduated from high school. I still have my old paperback edition sitting on the bookshelf. Here is what I remember:
* I read the novel over a two day period, sitting alone on the 4th Street beach in Ocean City, Maryland. I took occasional breaks to swim and eat and probably nodded off a couple times — the warmth of the sun and the sound of the surf have that effect on me — but other than that, the book never left my hands.
* At some point on the second day, I remember looking off to the side and noticing an older woman reading a shiny hardcover edition of THE DEAD ZONE. She was glistening with sunscreen and a trio of hyper little kids were running circles around her, hooting and throwing sand at each other. I remember thinking she was crazy to read a hardcover on the beach. During the many beach summers to come, I saw dozens of other readers with Stephen King books in their hands, and it always made me smile. Still does.
* As I got deeper into FIRESTARTER, I grew to love Charlie McGee like a little sister. I was maybe ten years older than her, and it was her character I most closely identified with. I wanted to hide and protect her. I wanted to save her. I wanted to make her smile. Of course, I was powerless to do anything of the sort; all I could do was keep flipping the pages.
* I have always been a big fan of Mark Twain and particularly THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (in fact, my oldest son’s middle name came very close to being “Sawyer”). When I was younger, I suffered through many troubled nights because of nightmares featuring Twain’s larger-than-life villain, Injun Joe. The guy terrified me, and the moment I met FIRESTARTER’S John Rainbird, all those feelings came back to me and I still remember sitting there with my toes in the sand and seagulls calling overhead, thinking: It’s Injun Joe! It’s Injun Joe!
Rainbird stood two inches shy of seven feet tall, and he wore his glossy hair drawn back and tied in a curt ponytail. Ten years before, a Claymore had blown up in his face during his second tour of Vietnam, and now his countenance was a horrorshow of scar tissue with runneled flesh. His left eye was gone.
Didn’t I tell you?!? It’s Injun Joe! Injun Joe!
* One final note: I liked FIRESTARTER when I first read it, but I didn’t love it. It was wonderfully written and entertaining as hell, but it was also relentlessly and uncompromisingly dark, and there were very few breaks from Charlie and Andy’s pain and suffering and worry. It wore on me.
I recognized and very much appreciated the underlying theme of the novel (our post-Vietnam distrust of our Government and what they were capable of doing to our youth or anyone else who got in their way), but this was one of those rare instances where I needed just a glimmer of hope and sunshine to sneak through to warm my soul.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That old chestnut of a cliché pretty much sums up my overall feelings regarding my re-read of FIRESTARTER — with one big exception.
It’s been three decades (gasp!) since my initial reading, and after all those years, one major thing hasn’t stayed the same. My primary role in life. I am now a father of two young boys, a sixteen- and twelve-year-old, and that has become my most important job (and joy).
So, when I sat down and read FIRESTARTER this time around, it wasn’t Charlie I most closely identified with; it was Andy, her devoted father. And, because of that, the novel hit me even harder than it did the first time.
Ain’t that a sonofabitch?
To put a finer point on it, I not only felt Andy’s utter exhaustion and crippling headaches and moral dilemma in asking Charlie to use her powers against other human beings; I also felt his sense of hopelessness and responsibility. I knew now that as a father it was his (and my) job to keep Charlie safe, his (and my) job to find a way out of this mess. I also knew none of that was going to happen.
The book still felt suffocatingly dark and grim to me, but I appreciated the story in a way that I couldn’t before as an eighteen year old with a full life ahead of him relaxing on the beach.
I was older and wiser now. I understood that what our Government had done in this book (in the name of National Security) had probably occurred — in different ways — thousands of times over in real life. We no longer merely feared that Big Brother was watching us — we knew it. We were living it.
It’s been thirty years, but I still love Charlie McGee, and in my dreams, she is finally happy and safe and living the life she deserved.
I still think John Rainbird is the second coming of Injun Joe, and I am still afraid of him.
I still have nightmares.
About Injun Joe, and many other things.
* * *
It’s not by accident that “The Incident at the Manders Farm” comes at exactly the 20% mark of the novel. If the book were a script, it would be referred to as Plot Point One and its timing would be spot-on perfect. We spend the first fifth of the book getting to know Charlie in a completely sympathetic manner. We learn that she is a sweet little girl with a loving father and a world of trouble following them. By page 80, we already care deeply about her and can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about — she’s just a little girl after all.
But once the story reaches the Manders Farm, we see firsthand what all the fuss is about; we see what sweet Charlie McGee is capable of — and it’s terrifying.
Charlie was looking down at Al Steinowitz, and suddenly the cold, confident look was gone from Al’s face and he was in terror. His yellow complexion grew positively cheesy.
“No, don’t,” he said in an almost conversational tone of voice. “Don’t–“
It was impossible to tell where the flames began. Suddenly his pants and his sportcoat were blazing. His hair was a burning bush. He backed up, screaming, bounced off the side of his car, and half-turned to Norville Bates, his arms stretched out.
Andy felt that soft rush of heat again, a displacement of air, as if a hot slug thrown at rocket-speed had just passed his nose.
Al Steinowitz’s face caught on fire.
“Get out,” Andy said hoarsely. “Get out quickly. She’s never done anything like this before and I don’t know if she can stop.”
“I’m all right, Daddy,” Charlie said. Her voice was calm, collected, and strangely indifferent. “Everything’s okay.”
And that was when the cars began to explode.
A gun boomed, deafeningly loud, and a splinter of wood perhaps eight inches long jumped from one of the porch’s support posts. Norma Manders screamed, and Andy flinched. But Charlie seemed not to notice. Her face was dreamy and thoughtful. A small Mona Lisa smile had touches the corners of her mouth.
She’s enjoying this, Andy thought with something like horror. Is that why she’s so afraid of it? Because she likes it?
Al’s light-green Plymouth went first, exploding with a muffled whrrr-rump! sound. A ball of flame rose from the back of the Plymouth, too bright to look at. The rear window blew in. The Ford John and Ray had come in went next, barely two seconds later. Hooks of metal whickered through the air and pattered on the roof.
“Charlie!” Andy shouted. “Charlie, stop it!”
She said in that same calm voice. “I can’t.”
The third car went up.
These are just four snippets of a much lengthier and horrific scene, but I have never forgotten them.
This is a tough one for me. As I mentioned before, FIRESTARTER is a dark and uncompromising book. Not a whole lotta laughs or smiles for this reader.
But if I had to pick just one scene that did put a smile on my face, it would be the final scene of the book when Charlie walks into the offices of ROLLING STONE magazine:
“I need to see someone who writes for your magazine,” Charlie said. Her voice was low, but it was clear and firm. “I have a story I want to tell. And something to show.”
“Just like show-and-tell in school, huh?” the receptionist asked.
Charlie smiled. It was the smile that had so dazzled the librarian. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for a long time.”
It’s not my favorite line in the book, but what a perfect sentence to end Charlie’s story with: I’ve been waiting for a long time.
God loves to make a man break a vow.
This line comes at about the halfway point of the novel when Andy is remembering Granther’s reply to him on that long ago day Andy shot the squirrel and swore to never kill anything again: Never say that, Andy. God loves to make a man break a vow. It keeps him properly humble about his place in the world and his sense of self-control.
Andy is thinking about Charlie and her own promise to never start another fire. He’s thinking God loves to make a man break a vow…and praying it isn’t true.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
Most of the scenes between Charlie and John Rainbird make me cringe — but there is one scene that comes earlier in the book that still hurts to read, even after all these years.
It’s a quiet — but emotionally powerful — moment that occurs in the aftermath of the grisly fight at the Manders Farm. Irv and Norma Manders have just witnessed Charlie’s powers for the first time and this is Norma’s response:
Andy took a step toward them and Norma Manders flinched backward, at the same time placing her body over her husband’s. She looked up at Andy with shiny, hard eyes.
“Get away,” she hissed. “Take your monster and get away.”
Once things calm down a bit, Norma apologizes to both Charlie and Andy, but for this reader, the damage is already done. Beautiful, eight-year-old Charlie McGee…a monster.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
This one’s easy: Charlie McGee, of course.
I like to imagine that she is a happy, healthy and well adjusted wife living in the suburbs. Mother of three completely normal (well, mostly) kids.
And I’m not the only one who would like to know what happened to Charlie, as evidenced by Stephen King’s recent Twitter message from May 16:
“Yes, I’ve thought about picking up the FIRESTARTER story for years. Charlie McGee would be all grown up now.”
This reader’s fingers are crossed.
START DATE – April 10, 2015
FINISH DATE – April 23, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.