I am a fan of James Smythe’s insightful and affectionate column reviewing Stephen King’s back catalogue. His articles are a perfect case study in how to review genre fiction from a fan’s perspective. I have found myself agreeing with him almost entirely on every book he has covered so far.
Not so with Week 9: Firestarter. Well, I don’t want to overstate my position. James, you see, was disappointed on re-reading this book. Though many fans put it up in their top 10, and James himself confessed to having once loved it, he felt that it suffered on re-reading. Flabby plotting, re-hashing of ideas that were not only same-old-territory for King but also for much of the horror/thriller publishing scene at the time (the whole psychic kid thing, see also John Farris’ 1976 thriller, The Fury), and a list of niggles that, to be fair, reflect James’ personal taste (which is fine, I have no problem with that).
I will put my hands up and admit that it is not one of King’s best. We are talking about an author who, at his best, can trade punches with the heavyweights of American literary fiction, and whose finest works stand at the core of the modern horror genre. Firestarter has a comic-book simplicity that even King himself has commented on, and it adds little that is new to his oeuvre.
But it has many fine qualities. The relationship between father and daughter, forming the heart of the book, is deep and touchingly rendered, and more than makes up for the relative simplicity of the plot. Which, by the way, definitely does have a beginning, middle and end – indeed, the plot structure is so by-the-book it is visible from space, so I don’t buy into that critique at all. If anything the plot is a well-trodden formula, used as a framework for other exercises that King probably wanted to work through. All of the characterisation is superb, including the well-rendered psychopathy of John Rainbird.
But what I like best about this novel is that it is a showcase for something that King can do really well when he wants to, but hadn’t done nearly as well since Salem’s Lot – the cathartic, big-bang apocalyptic climax. King structures the build-up with consummate skill, ratcheting up the tension to near-unbearable levels with sharp switches of perspective. When the climax comes it is first heart-rending, then devastating. You want Charlie to let rip, and by hell, she does. The visceral enjoyment of those scenes, the liquid, elegant flow of the prose conveying a sense of power and violence and a child’s grief and rage, never pales.
Which reminds me in turn of the movie, released in 1984, directed by Mark L. Lester, starring Drew Barrymore, George C. Scott and Martin Sheen (a King veteran after Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone only the previous year). A stellar supporting cast, doing their best with a somewhat lumpen script it is true, but it hangs together and it takes a decent stab at delivering the punch of the novel’s climax with a bombardment of pre-CGI pyrotechnic special effects and stunt work that remains truly impressive to this day. A popcorn thriller well worth revisiting.