Firestarter and Standing Up to “The Man”

It’s easy to see why Stephen King’s Firestarter was nearly the novel we never read.

Abandoning his manuscript on several occasions, King felt the book was too much like Carrie and feared he would be copying himself. While Carrie White had telekinesis (the ability to move objects with her mind), Charlie McGee’s gift (or curse) in Firestarter is pyrokinesis — the ability to start fires with her mind. Both Carrie and Charlie are adolescents. Both have unnaturally co-dependent relationships with a parental figure. And, both are going through a painful process of learning how to control their extraordinary powers.

There are, of course, big differences between Carrie and Firestarter. In Carrie, the concealed antagonist could be seen as religious zealotry, played out through Carrie White’s mother, Margaret. In Firestarter, it’s our own government, for the second time in a row in fact, echoing King’s prior book, The Dead Zone. (Which at the very least says a lot about where the collective American mind was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.)

Firestarter introduces us to a new chess piece in the Stephen King Universe known as The Shop, which would rear its ugly head again in several later King novels. A combination of the FBI and the CIA, The Shop (long-form name: The Department of Scientific Intelligence) conducts experiments with chemical Lot Six in the late 1960s, having horrific results on some participants while others experience superhuman capabilities. For Victoria Tomlinson, it unlocks access to mild telekinetic powers, while Andy McGee gets full-fledged mind control. Their eventual offspring, Charlie McGee, is setting fire to her teddy bears from nearly the moment she makes it into the crib.

The Shop, having kept a watchful eye on Victoria and Andy since the experiments, are particularly interested in newborn Charlie’s power. If left unchecked, it could have disastrous affects for them. But if they can control Charlie and learn to harness her power, they can use her as a military weapon.

It’s a wild tale. Unlike King’s other novels that are typically slow to boil, Firestarter burns bright and spreads fast right from the start. The novel takes off at a fast pace with Charlie and her father on the run, chased by representatives of The Shop within the very first pages.

In the novel’s Afterword, King writes:

While Firestarter is just a novel, a made-up tale with which I hope you, reader, have passed a pleasant evening or two, most of the novel’s components are based on actual happenings, either unpleasant or inexplicable or simply fascinating. Among the unpleasant ones is the undeniable fact that the US government or agencies thereof has indeed administered potentially dangerous drugs to unwitting subjects on more than one occasion. Among those which are simply fascinating — if a little ominous — is the fact that both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have programs for isolating the so-called “wild talents” (a term for psionic abilities coined by science-fiction writer Jack Vance) … and perhaps putting them to use. Government-funded experiments in this country have centered on influencing the Kirilian aura and proving the existence of telekinesis. Soviet experiments have centered largely on psychic healing and communication by telepathy. Reports filtering out of the U.S.S.R. suggest that Soviets have achieved something of moderate success with the latter particularly by using identical twins as communicators.

Sounds like something more out of the comic books of Marvel than your typical Stephen King novel. (Oh, let’s face it, there is no such thing as a typical Stephen King novel.) If Firestarter holds several lessons to be heeded, lesson one is to aware of your unique gifts, and to be wary of those who wish to harvest them, to use them to their own benefits. (This is something King had been battling quite a bit on his own in the war to leave Doubleday at the time, as the publishing house wished to make millions off King’s special talents, but had little interest in giving him the respect, much less the binding that he deserved.)

But the lessons don’t stop there. That’s barely scratching the surface of what we can learn from Firestarter.

Charlie’s appearance was based on King’s own daughter, Naomi, who at the time was ten years old. King admits the book was born of his own fears of what would come of his daughter in her teenage years, and if he would be able to protect her from the evils of the world. Like many fathers, the thought of his daughter dating nearly made him sick. There is a collective fear of girls becoming women, or more directly females finding their own sexual power, blatantly on display in Firestarter as a result. Charlie is taught not to do “the bad thing,” for fear that if she starts, she won’t know how to stop.

In one passage, Kings writes:

She had been able to initiate that destruction at the Manders farm at the age of seven. Now she was nearly eight. What might happen when she turned twelve and entered adolescence? Maybe nothing. Maybe a great deal. She said she wasn’t going to use the power anymore, but if she was forced to use it? What if it began to come out spontaneously? What if she began to light fires in her sleep as part of her own strange puberty, a fiery counterpart of the nocturnal seminal emissions most teenage boys experienced?

Charlie’s journey is one in which she must decide for herself what circumstances are right for her to use her powers, along with how to control them instead of letting them control her. The story’s climax is all but purple with its literal and metaphoric explosions, complete with unbridled horses at last being allowed to run free.

With Firestarter, King warns his little girl about the power that she will hold one day as a woman. In his allegory, King does not refer to this power crudely, but delicately places it in a box marked fragile.

King also raises a red flag of warning against a certain type of man. A man like John Rainbird, who seeks to put McGee’s fire out completely. Rainbird is easily one of King’s creepiest villains. A Cherokee and Vietnam veteran, Rainbird is The Shop’s hitman who becomes obsessed with Charlie — not just with capturing her, but with winning over her trust and love. He makes a deal with The Shop that he will deliver her to them only if, when they are finished with her, he gets to dispose of her personally. He wants to see what will happen in the eyes of the little girl as the life is drained out of her. … Creepy, indeed.

Rainbird may be the one leading the hunt, but it’s Cap he’s working for. Cap has a plan:

The girl could not be tested and observed with any degree of validity if she was constantly drugged, but her father would be their hostage to fortune. And on the few occasions they wanted to run tests on him, the reverse would hold. It was a simple system of levels. And as Archimedes had observed, a lever long enough would move the world.

Later on in the novel, the character Mrs. Gurney will reminds us “A brain is a muscle that can move the world,” as Charlie’s father, Andy McGee does just that. It is a reminder of the power of the individual to stand up to “the man” — be it the collective man, or one man in particular.

The word “power” is used 90 times in Firestarter, and this is precisely what the book is all about. Firestarter is the story of one girl-on-the-verge-of-womanhood’s fight to stand up to the man. Through the story of Charlie McGee, King paints us a cautionary tale with a fistful of lessons that come off more like warnings — advice all young girls, and perhaps even young boys, would do well to listen to and heed. For it is the story of the power of the individual, and how one is meant to harness that power.

While Carrie warns us against handing over our absolute power to religious zealotry, Firestarter suggests giving that power to the government is just as scary — all the while reminding us that women on the verge of discovering themselves are not to be toyed with.

Or underestimated.

“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. Most recently, he writes his own horror fiction, and pens articles on Stephen King, horror, and sci-fi, which can be found at his official web site, He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.

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