By JENN ADAMS
FIRESTARTER is seldomly listed among Stephen King’s classic novels. Published in 1980, it falls at the height of what’s known as “Vintage King.” This sci-fi horror about a little girl who can light fires with her mind never receives the level of praise heaped on King’s works like The Shining or The Stand. While FIRESTARTER has its problematic elements, the character of Rainbird alone could fuel many think pieces on appropriation and stereotyping, it is a story of female rage and patriarchal control. FIRESTARTER is a prime example of “Good For Her” horror with lessons that can be directly applied to the fourth wave of feminism currently raging. Perhaps FIRESTARTER’s impact was diminished by a lackluster 1984 film adaptation that labors a slavish devotion to the text, but the novel’s themes remain relevant 41 years after publication. The upcoming adaptation by Blumhouse Productions will hopefully smooth out some of the story’s rough edges.
Eight year old Charlie MaGee is a firestarter. She is the daughter of Andy McGee and Vicki Tomlinson, former college participants in a study run by a government agency known as The Shop. They were injected with a serum called Lot Six designed to create psychic powers in human subjects. Charlie is born with pyrokinesis and a host of other psy talents such as telepathy and increased intuition. In King parlance, she not only burns, she shines.
Charlie contains within her an enormous power for destruction. A Shop doctor notes that she may have the potential to create a nuclear explosion or crack the planet in half with the force of her will. Her parents, afraid she will hurt herself and others, teach her to hide and fear this gift by telling her it’s a “bad thing.” While this is ultimately a damaging and misguided strategy, it’s understandable. As a baby, Charlie lacks the perspective to make rational decisions about her enormous power and can’t be expected to understand the consequences of using it. But instead of teaching her to have a healthy respect for her unique ability, they instill in her a deep-seated fear and need to suppress her essential self.
Charlie’s powers are often fueled by her emotions and she burns as an expression of anger. Her rage is a literal fire that she can manipulate according to her will. Though her ability is unique, the training to repress her emotions is not. Plenty of girls grow up hearing that they must be polite and pleasant, and never show anger. Though men are praised for the ability to express emotions, women are vilified for it. We’re seen as hysterical and our rage is evidence that we have lost control. Many of us grow up suppressing our frustration with a world that controls our bodies and expects us to sacrifice our own happiness for the benefit of men. The rage burns inside and with nowhere to go, either escapes in uncontrolled explosions, or burns up from within.
Though Charlie must break free from several paternal figures seeking to control her, it is her father Andy who does the most psychological damage. He believes he is acting out of love and the desire to protect his daughter, but his methods leave deep emotional wounds. He screams at Charlie after she burns a teddy bear. He terrifies her with stories of arson and spontaneous combustion. He is not offering empowerment, but shame and fear.
The comparison to potty training is used by several characters to describe Andy’s process of creating psychological barriers in Charlie to prevent her from using her powers. But this comparison is flawed. The goal of potty training is to teach children control over the natural function of their bodies, not to teach them to stop using the bathroom. Charlie is not learning to control her gift, but to suppress it. As a result, she begins to fear her own power. When she must inevitably light fires to defend herself, she is terrified, fearing that she won’t be able to control her fire and that using it will make her “bad” and unworthy of her father’s love. Andy has made her more vulnerable by training her out of the ability to trust her own instincts. He’s not teaching her to protect herself, but to depend on him for protection.
The Lot Six experiments gave Andy powers of his own. Described as mental domination, he has the ability to control the thoughts and actions of others. What he calls “the push” is a manifestation of patriarchy in pure form. Andy can only use his power for small amounts of time before experiencing monstrous headaches. His attempts to exert dominance over others against their will prove just as damaging to him as to those he pushes.
Andy’s power occasionally causes a ripple effect in the mind of a person being pushed. Called a ricochet, it spirals out of control until it tears the mind of his subject apart. Those experiencing ricochets are all men and their reactions perhaps a rejection of losing control over their autonomy. Unlike women they haven’t grown up in a system designed to deprive them of it. Andy doesn’t use his power on Charlie because he doesn’t have to. He’s been pushing her from the moment she was born; guiding her and telling her what she is and who she should be.
Captain Hollister, known as Cap, is the Shop’s director and chief decision maker. He authorizes the initial Lot Six experiment and plans the surveillance and eventual imprisonment of Charlie and Andy. Cap wants to study Charlie’s abilities to either turn her into a weapon or create others with power like hers. His henchman in this is Rainbird, a Native American assassin who poses as an orderly to develop a relationship with Charlie. He gains her trust to convince her to comply with Cap’s tests. Though Rainbird does grow to care for Charlie, his ultimate goal is to kill her in an attempt to absorb her power or at least prove himself strong enough to destroy it.
Ironically, it’s her imprisonment in The Shop that empowers Charlie to gain control of her gift. Cap creates experiments where she is able to safely practice lighting fires and Rainbird helps her work through the fears created by her father. While this is ultimately a service to Charlie, they do it for their own ends with no concern for her. She has no agency and though she does eventually consent to the tests, it’s after months of imprisonment and manipulation. Rainbird and Cap both help Charlie hone her talents, but only under a strict set of controls designed to deprive her of larger autonomy. In retaliation, she destroys them.
When Charlie finally lets her power out, the burning is cathartic. She finds that not only can she control herself, but that she enjoys using her unique ability. There is relief in finally letting go. The reader celebrates with her as she burns down the Shop that held her prisoner, but she is also burning down years of control that taught her to hate herself. We burn with her because we too know the feeling of finally deciding that the price of being good is too high.
Unlike her father, Charlie’s power does not hurt her. His is about control, bending the natural world to fit his will, but hers is centered in creation. She conducts heat and uses it as a powerful force. Yes, it can be destructive, but what is she really destroying? Charlie is burning down a patriarchal system that taught her to fear her own power. Doesn’t that world deserve to burn? Her fire can clear away the old order making room for a world that allows women to be powerful.
Charlie’s story ends as she tells the world about her gift, refusing to hide in shame and fear any longer. We don’t know what will happen next, but I like to think that she will inspire other girls to see themselves as firestarters. Perhaps she can show them that their anger doesn’t make them bad, it makes them human. We are allowed to be human and we are allowed to burn. If we can trust ourselves to use the power of our righteous anger, the fire of our fury will light the world.