Author: Stephen King
What would you do for $200? Andy McGee, a young college student, participates in a school science experiment, the dosage of experimental psychological drugs which leads him to find the love of his life and develop latent and minor psychic powers. Andy now has the push – a slight ability to enforce mind control which he uses in self-esteem classes. His wife, another survivor of the psychedelic and bad-trip-like experiment can move things with her mind sometimes. Mostly, lot six is a failure and while the couple remembers horrible deaths, mutilations, and revelations during the experiment, they cannot quite believe that it was all true – until their daughter is born. Charlie McGee can light fires with her mind and she cannot control them. Eventually, the elusive organization behind the Lot Six experiment, a CIA offshoot called The Shop, learns that its subjects have bred. Now, it’s a race against time as Andy and Charlie barely stay one foot ahead of the government agency that wants to study them and the one man who wants nothing but to look into their sparking eyes as they die.
With King’s usual explosive style, Firestarter derives horror from the inside – from the very nature of the circumstances that haunt us most, the people we have unintentionally hurt, and the people we could all too easily become. Tying together psychic phenomenon, specifically pyrokinesis, with the emotional enormity of one little girl torn between what is right and what is necessary, Firestarter is about a war between morals and the choices we are forced to make.
Storylines morph and overlap to create a conspiracy scenario and the innocents overwhelmed by governmental pressures, delivering a world that feels terrifyingly real. This is further supported by King’s own addendum to the novel, which notes that the story, while fictional, was inspired by real events, specifically governmental testing on unknowing citizens which has been sussed out and published after the fact. Likewise, instances of real-life pyrokinesis, mostly spontaneous combustion, are attributed to the inspiration of Charlie, a seven year old child derived by King’s own daughter of that age (at the time) who provides us with an insight into unfathomable possibilities. There are events in our own world which we simply will never understand. What happens if you are born into one of those events, and who do you run to for help when you are on-the-run and dangerous?
Listening to the audiobook read by Dennis Boutsikaris on a dark and stormy late night drive home, I was both chilled and drawn into the atmosphere and verve of this world where backstabbing conspiracies pile up on one side and maneuvers from outlying characters enclose the protagonists on another. The real energy of Firestarter, however, is the character driven plot. Charlie and Andy, specifically, touch our hearts, and we feel as though we are going through this with them, each feeling and reaction on their part further building a complicated picture of multifaceted, yet good people, under duress.
Not only the protagonists, but the villains shine with a radiance born of innovation and greed, specifically Rainbird, who is the most chilling King antagonist to date. A man flirting with death, he likes to kill in hopes of seeing what lies on the other side through his victim’s dimming eyes. When he meets Charlie, the apparent innocence of a child is more pull than he can resist, and the stakes are raised as Charlie herself floats between the desire to survive and the simplicity of death.
A 12 disc novel (approximately 400 paperback pages), I found myself sneaking it into work for lunch breaks and praying for traffic jams, finishing the entire CD in a record one week. The plot builds on itself and as the tension increases, so does the pacing and the eerie element of foreshadowing. The implementation of psychic abilities is breathtaking, but not rule breaking – the McGee’s world functions by its own rules and never breaks believability by defying those rules. Rainbird proves far more terrifying than the inept Shop, and soon everything is spiraling down to a blazing confrontation that, typical King, leaves us thinking about the people more than the circumstances. It’s lyrical. It’s frankly literary. King deserves a place on the classics’ shelf.
As for the audiobook itself – treat yourself! You won’t be sorry! Dennis Boutsikaris has won numerous awards for his evocative voice acting skills. Those who listened to From a Buick 8 will be pleased to note that he was an actor in that drama and has returned in Firestarter. Boutsikaris provides believable voices, even subtle shifts in tone for each character. It’s almost as though multiple characters were reading and his emotive tones bring us into a world that we cannot (and do not want to) escape. Highly recommended.
- Frances Carden