Andy and Charlie McGee are a father and daughter on the run from the government. Andy and his late wife took part in an experiment in 1969 to test a drug called “Lot 6.” Bad things happened to most of those who took part. In Andy’s case, he developed the ability to “push,” use his mind to mentally dominate another person. It doesn’t work on stupid people, kids, or the elderly. It also leaves McGee with a splitting migraine headache when he uses it. But his daughter?
She starts fires. And even when she realizes she is able to project heat out from herself to set things – and people – on fire, she has trouble controlling it. Through a bit of incompetence of a government agency known as “The Shop,” a play date is mistaken for an attempt to hide Charlie from them. They kill Andy’s wife and kidnap Charlie. Andy gets them back using his newly discovered power to blind one agent and send another to a padded cell for the rest of his life. They flee.
They’re caught, and Andy and Charlie are kept sequestered in The Shop’s Virginia compound. Andy is kept drugged. Charlie befriends an orderly named John Rainbird, who really wants to be the one who “sanctions” Charlie when The Shop is through with her. A power outage sets them on a path that will end in carnage. Charlie, who has already incinerated one agent in an earlier attempt to capture her, is manipulated into controlling her captors. She’ll make fire, but only if she gets what she wants. During the outage, Andy has withdrawal from the thorazine they’ve been keeping him on and begins planning how and when to push to make his escape. It ends in disaster.
Firestarter is one of King’s more paranoid offerings, laced with a sixties-era distrust of the government. It’s a theme that runs through The Stand, The Dead Zone, and the Richard Bachman books The Long Walk and The Running Man. It’s probably at it’s shrillest in The Long Walk, but its a loud, steady drumbeat in Firestarter. A lot of staples of King’s work are absent in this one. In particular, that perfect snapshot of childhood that King excels at and has become a hallmark of modern New England writers. (Dennis Lehane is a rather skilled disciple of this literary gambit.) The town of Harrison, Ohio, which I first took to be the very real Cincinnati suburb of Harrison, doesn’t feel very real. It’s a generic Midwest small town with a college. It could have been Mt. Vernon or Oxford or Ashland in Ohio or any of a dozen small towns in Illinois or Indiana. Unlike Castle Rock, Derry, or other fictional small towns in King’s native Maine, there’s no sense of reality or place to Harrision.
Still, the draw here is Charlie, a little girl who grows up very quickly when confronted by people who wronged her simply by making her existence possible.
And she does have her revenge.