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.
Good book. A notch below his previous ones revisited to date. Sure would like to know what Charlie is up today. A Daniel Torrance hookup seems remore now. Maybe she and Mark Petrie crossed paths…. She would make an excellent vampire slayer!!!
er remote now
Like everyone, I’m a bit leery of sequels. But somehow, a King sequel doesn’t seem like a sequel. He’s not repeating stories but amplifying themes (as Bev points out in his latest essay) by allowing his characters to evolve like real people. What an amazing treat it is for Constant Readers to not only be able to revisit our favorite characters from new perspectives as we grow and change, but also to see how those characters have grown and changed in the author’s mind. I hope we do hear more about Charlie McGee. I can’t imagine how she managed to survive her teenage years…. I bet it’s a hell of a story.
I think poor, grown-up Charlene will be on the run again…and who better than Jude Andrews to pick up where Rainbird left off? The Shop is alive and well, I guarantee it…though it may be called something else.
I’m slightly ahead of the curve in this re-reading project, as I’d read The Shining not long before this started, as well as Christine and Pet Sematary. So it’s a couple of months now since I re-read Firestarter. King’s such a prolific author that few of his books are head and shoulders above the rest. Most have good and bad points. I agree with Mr Chizmar’s comment about the story being grim. I think if King’s books fall into 4 divisions (Indispensible, Good, Pedestrian and Read Once Only) Firestarter would fall into the Pedestrian division. Still better than a lot of pap out there, but nothing to write home about.
Richard, the where-are-they-now books to me are no-brainers. Doctor Sleep was another novel, rich in storytelling that both extends the narrative from The Shining and brings you back for a nostalgic glimpse into the place where you were happiest reading. Charlie McGee is about the right age, but I would also like to check in on Richie Tozier and Bev. Maybe even Frannie and Stu in post-apocalyptic Colorado. You hold the keys, you talk to SK at Orioles-Red Sox games. Float it out there man.
Firestarter took me forever to finish. I tried to read it at least 5 times before I finally got around to finishing it. But when I finally did I absolutely loved it. Something about the sinister looming Government really struck a nerve with me and it still does every time I read this. As far as a where-are-they-now book. Man I need to know if Bev and Ben are still together. Did they forget the rest of the Losers but somehow keep each other? How would that sort of memory jumbling work? I gotta know!
Great job, Richard. And yes, I have also wondered about that one myself. Where did Charlie McGee go? What happened to her? My fingers are crossed too, that she is all grown up and happy now.
FIRESTARTER has never been one of my favorite King novels. In fact, I honestly don’t remember much about it . . . except for one scene. The part where Charlie’s parents-to-be are involved in that whole drug-experiment thing . . . ? King nailed it. What a nightmarish sequence. While I’ve never had a bad trip, I imagine from my limited experience with drugs (back in my younger, dumber days) that this was EXACTLY what it would be like. To date, even though FIRESTARTER doesn’t rank among my Top Ten, this particular scene does. It’s several pages of the master’s best stuff, IMO.
I need to read this one again.
I read Firestarter at a very young age – 12ish? And the scene that has always stuck with me is when the guy commits suicide by shoving his hand into a garbage disposal. I’m now quite a bit older than 12, and not generally given to irrational fears, but somehow, I am still a little nervous every time I use my garbage disposal.
Again, a riveting review of a book. Richard, you’re good at this! Funny, I’d never thought of the similarities between Injun Joe and John Rainbird but thanks Richard, you nailed it. They both scare the hell outta me! For me, this story is similar to Johnny’s in The Dead Zone in that, all the way though the story, I kept thinking, “Can’t Andy & Charlie just get a break?” Well, it’s SK and no, they can’t. Like Richard, there wasn’t much I could find positive about the story but I did like the way the Manders’ came around…to a degree, anyway. And I think my favorite scene is where Charlie melts John Rainbird, the cold hearted SOB. I think he is one of King’s more notorious villains just because he’s so cold and calculating…and completely nuts. I also kinda’ enjoyed the echo set off in “Cap” and how that ended up. He was a real bastard, too. Last thought…if anyone watched the TV series Heroes from a few years ago, well, Charlie could have been in that show. In fact, that show has a very similar storyline to Firestarter. I think the concept person for Heroes is a Stephen King fan. Not a feel good story (until Charlie walks into Rolling Stone!) but a great read. Now, on to Roadwork, which I’ve already finished. Richard Bachman was a very sick man!! LOL!
Unlike the other Stephen King books that I’ve read up to this point, this book was not a revisiting, but rather one of the handful of King books that I hadn’t read up to this point and I was reading it for the very first time. This book has a long history with me. And by long, I mean it took me a really long time to even pick it up, and a long time to finish it.
When I was first discovering Stephen King back in 1998 at our local public library, I glanced at this book and was captured by the title. Firestarter. Hmmmm….sounds interesting. I picked it up and read the brief synopsis on the back of the book to see if the story might interest me. It did not. A story about a girl with pyrokinetic powers just somehow did not interest me. I had heard a lot about Stephen King at the time as being a guy who wrote scary horror novels, and since that is the kind of book I wanted to read by him, and because this did not sound like that at all, I put it down….never to even read one sentence of it, which is something I had done with all of his other books. Firestarter was the lone wolf that I never even wanted to taste….not even a little. I don’t even know why.
Fast forward 16 years later in late 2014, right before I started this epic journey called Stephen King Revisited, I finally decided to give the book a chance, and I dug out the paperback copy I had gotten as a Christmas present from my parents several years before as it was one of the only King books that I didn’t own and I figured why not just put it on my Christmas list.
I was right. The book just did not grab me. I struggled through the first half of it for months. It just did not seem to have the Stephen King voice that I had grown to love for nearly two decades. I read passages of this book througout the entire holiday season of 2014 in between sessions of re-reading other earlier Stephen King books for Stephen King Revisited. I just struggled getting through it. I can remember reading it while in Wichita back in December of 2014 when I took my friend Kevin to a hospital to get his heart looked at. I remember reading it in late May of 2015 on a trip to Dallas with my friend Nick to Dallas Comic Con. I read it on the airplanes going there and going back, I read it while waiting in airports, I read it while relaxing in our hotel room, I read it while riding their train system that was called DART, desperately trying to find a means of escape from all of the strange and creepy people that rode that train, I also read it at the stations waiting for a DART train to arrive, and finally I read it while waiting in panel rooms for guest speakers to talk at Dallas Comic Con. My whole Dallas trip was surrounded by this book. I just desperately wanted to finish it because it’s one of the handful of King books that I’ve never read, and I’m such a fan of his that I want to say that I’ve read every single one of his books. I made it about half way through the book and finally just put it down in June of 2015 because I was wrapping up re-reading The Dead Zone and Firestarter was next on the list and I told myself that I was just going to restart the whole book after The Dead Zone because at this point I was lost on the story from all of the stops and starts I had on the book for the last 8 months and I thought that was taking away any enjoyment of the book.
I’ll be honest, I really did not want to start this book over. The first half of the book was just so tough for me to get through. I wasn’t looking forward to slogging through those pages again, but since I was just so lost with the plot, and because I wanted to be able to give the book a fair chance, I physically and mentally forced myself to start it over and just sit down and read the book and this time around I was able to finish the book in just a little over two weeks time.
Upon starting it over, I wasn’t surprised at all when I found out that the first half of the book was still really difficult for me to get through. I just felt that it dragged a lot. Sure it had a few shining moments, though. One of them being a confrontation between Shop agents and Andy and Charlie at the Manders farm.
One of the savings graces of this book was that it had a great villain with John Rainbird. The book starts to heat up (no pun intended) when the agents take them back to a Shop facility. John Rainbird poses as an orderly and befriends Charlie and attempts to talk her into using and experimenting with her powers because The Shop wants to run tests on her and want to use her as a weapon. Quite frankly, the second half of the book is so much better than the first half. I was very intrigued by John Rainbird manipulating Charlie in order to use her for Shop purposes. The book builds and races in the final 60-70 pages to a thrilling, heartbreaking, yet satisfying conclusion.
My overall thoughts on this book are still mixed. The plot was a lot easier to follow without all of the stops and starts and actually a pretty quick read when read straight through. Charlie McGee is now one of the top King characters that I would really like to know what happened to because the end of the book ends with quite the little cliffhanger. King used to joke at book signings that Charlie went out to marry Danny Torrence from The Shining and the couple had super babies, but after the sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, was released in 2013, we all found out that that was not what actually happened. So yeah, I would like to know whatever happened to Charlie.
As is the case with most King books that I reread I did remember the main story line but I kinda forget the depth that King puts into the story. And that’s what makes me care about Charlie and all the other charactors. Rainbird is one of my favorite King bad guys.
Favorite scene is the one at the Manders farm.
Richard, Andy said the change Lot 6 did to his and Vicky’s chromosomes might cause Charlie to become sterile or she could pass the changes onto her own children. I think her children might be able to light fires the way their mother did, push people like their grandfather did or become telepathic like their grandmother.