by Jay Wilburn
The plan is to reread all of Stephen King’s novels and collections and assorted other publications in their order of publication. Richard Chizmar of Cemetery Dance set out the challenge for himself and invited others to join in. It is an idea which indulges my obsession with King’s writing. I’m doing it because I am a writer and I want to improve my long fiction and storytelling. I think there are secrets to be discovered or rediscovered in it too. As Chizmar posts his after read posts and Bev Vincent posts his accompanying history, I will add links to those in my corresponding posts.
Bev Vincent’s historic essay on Firestarter.
Richard Chivmar’s thoughts on the book.
A guest essay by Ian Rogers.
You can also go back to the beginning and read Before Carrie and follow all the blog posts through each book.
Much of what I write in these posts will really be notes for me. I will do my best to make them into coherent observations for you. I will also style my comments to be as spoiler free as possible for those who haven’t read the book, but in a way which will also work for those who have read the books. Be warned though that I am discussing the content of the book and the writing.
So, let’s unleash the power of Firestarter.
I don’t think this is King’s greatest book, but it may be his most underrated. I think this largely because it is not on as many top ten lists for people. It is lesser known and lesser read, but it stands out ahead of others which are better known, I think. I expressed this idea to a fellow writer and he said he liked it too, but the narrative was confusing at times. I think maybe the use of flashbacks gave the story some trouble. The flashback and the doctor’s visit later in the novel was particularly confusing, I thought. I still think it is a stronger novel than its level of notoriety bears out.
The book opens with a man, a girl, and a fast walk through New York with a car following. The car is the same color as her shirt. We are cutting to the chase right from the start.
“how little of the push he had left” An intriguing line to pull us into the mystery.
He has pain from using power. This echoes King’s earlier works and bears a striking resemblance to the Dead Zone which he was writing at the same time, I understand. Hints of Carrie as well. Psychic powers played a bigger roll in his earlier work than I remembered. Like Carrie, a character’s powers are stronger during her period.
Another English teacher character. So many supernatural problems with that lot and profession it seems.
4 fingernails and “The Shop” That is some great foreboding prose there.
References to Sonny Bono and Buddy Hackett on Johnny Carson. Mention of West Berlin. Pay toilets. Airline tickets bought without ID or names recorded. Laugh-In mentioned. The “end-ROTC” marches. Phil Donahue on TV.
Little bad and big bad. Lesser and greater evil. Heartbreaking to teach kids the world is an ugly grey place when it comes to morality with dark choices all around. My grandfather taught my dad that life was black and white on the edges with a wide space of grey in between. He conducted himself in business under this philosophy, my grandfather. My father tried to teach me the same thing. The lesson didn’t take as well with me. I always let myself believe there were wrong choices and I allowed myself permission to take them at times without excusing them as being lighter shades than what they really were. I’m not sure my approach was any more noble than the generations which came before me. My father believed less in that wide field of grey later in his life and regretted some of the choices he made as a result of those beliefs. Still breaks my heart. “Let them know they were at war.” Very dark and realistically troubling stuff.
Likewise, scaring a child from the things they could do which could hurt or kill them, is a heartbreaking part of parenting. Things which could burn them. Teaching them that things in the world pose grave danger.
“When you had bad thoughts, you had to pay for them.” Confession and Cold Showers.
“She had broken the worst of the ten commandments.” Heartbreaking insight into a troubled young character’s mindset.
King gives his characters dark secrets and very deep, evil moments. They are played out to great effect in this novel.
Homophobia from an authority figure and then a dark secret comes to destroy someone later.
“Carnival of dreams” This wording comes up for King in other works and other titles.
“He left hand was a drawn up claw” HIS left hand? “… not too bed yet. Not yet.” too BAD? I’m wondering if some of these typos are from the reprints and not in the original texts.
The doctor’s analysis of the girl’s power and potential ran a little long. Lots of exposition in some places. Characters within the novel from different places come to too similar of conclusions far too often. The Shop tracks down one hiding place very easily from records they possess and yet they do a very poor job later in the novel of backtracking a trail of a particular character. No one on either side of conflicts ever seems to develop a counter hypothesis on data sets.
“Hot enough for you” Great use of curios to underscore the story.
“That will teach you to pick up hitchhikers.” Great line.
A life told in keys. A good bit of business here. It circles back later in the novel in a nice, subtle way too. Stu Redman from The Stand has a similar moment with his keys too.
Polish jokes. A regional thing.
The characters’ window to escape was to mail their letters the week before they arrived at the lake. After that, the mode of escape had slipped away.
King talks about the girl’s Adam’s apple. You don’t see many authors reference this on girls and many readers might think that is a mistake on King’s part as the spot is less pronounced on females. Some people think incorrectly that females lack them altogether. Interesting choice for the story.
“As suddenly as a gunslinger’s draw …” This may have been on King’s mind at this point as the Dark Tower story bubbled in King’s thoughts.
The run in one part of the novel compared to the captivity in another creates an interesting double image of not truly being free at all.
King laces the danger to the child from the threats around her with language of a predator. The threat, the real threat, has nothing to do with that sort of thing, but it builds the dread of the real violence planned for the main character.
A horse named Necromancer and the black horse of the father’s headaches and the danger of fire in the real stables is a great use of theme in the story.
“The Echo” and “The Ricochet” are well done and shows the danger in the father’s power possibly as great as the danger from the daughter, but in a different way.
The Popeye cartoon on TV before a big confrontation is a subtle, but powerful reference. It is not over-explained which makes it a great piece in the story.
What people mean when they say they want the news … tell me a story. This is a powerful, timeless line. It would fit just as well today as it did when this novel was first published.
The way secrets spread in a small town was a good piece of business.
The book closes with a sort of open ending. There is an oddly toned afterword too. Not sure why King felt the need to push those particular ideas in the way he did. It was almost like he was trying to justify the novel in a way which didn’t need to be done and in a way I’m not sure worked anyway.
I hope you found any of the above post interesting or useful. I still think it is a better novel than many people realize or know. Worth picking up for the first time for sure.
Next up will be Roadwork, another Bachman novel. My next post will be Before Roadwork.
Here’s to the power to split the world and the wisdom to control it.
— Jay Wilburn, writer, minor firestarter