1 Days Left to Support a Troper-Created Project : Personal Space (discuss)

Literature / Firestarter

The original Katie Kaboom.

It was a pleasure to burn.
Epigraph (from Fahrenheit 451)

Firestarter is a 1980 novel by Stephen King. It's about a 7-year-old girl named Charlene Roberta McGee (she goes by Charlie), who can start fires just by thinking about it, or if she's feeling particularly upset; she also has a hint of precognition and a fair amount of telekinesis. Her father, Andy, has an ability he calls the 'push', allowing him to influence people; and her mother, Vicky, has a very limited form of telekinesis, which only extends to closing doors and turning off the television from across the room.

They have those abilities because Andy and Vicky participated in an experiment sponsored by a government organization called the Department of Scientific Intelligence (nicknamed "The Shop," after A. E. van Vogt's "The Weapon Shops of Isher") during their college days; they were told that there was a 50% chance they would be injected with a small dose of harmless hallucinogenic drug and a 50% chance of being injected with water. It was actually an incredibly dangerous Psycho Serum, which gave them - and all the other participants in the test - paranormal abilities. Out of these other people, all but 3 are either dead or in a mental asylum of some sort. (The third one lost his abilities and is living a normal life.)

The agents of the Shop kept the McGees under surveillance, eventually killing Vicky and kidnapping Charlie. However, Andy freed her, using his 'mind domination' ability. At the beginning of the book, Charlie and her father are on the run from the Shop, whose members want to use Charlie's power to "influence" world leaders.

Also made into a movie of the same name in 1984, starring Drew Barrymore as Charlie, David Keith as Andy, George C. Scott as Rainbird, Martin Sheen as Hollister and Heather Locklear as Vicky. This was the first of several Stephen King adaptations produced by the Dino De Laurentiis Company. There was a Contested Sequel sometime later on titled Firestarter 2: Rekindled in 2002.

This book has examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Rainbird gains Charlie's trust by posing as a friendly janitor.
    • Cap Hollister often comes across as a kind, elderly gentleman.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Wanless' explanation of Charlie's relationship with her father, and how the McGees controlled her ability by creating a complex.
  • Arcadian Interlude: Andy and Charlie have a short break from being chased by the Shop when they stop for a big country lunch at Irv and Norma Manders' farm. Charlie returns alone after the death of her father and the destruction of the Shop.
    • Although the weather is rough, the winter Andy and Charlie spend hiding out at his grandfather's cottage in Vermont is on the whole peaceful and restorative.
  • Badass Adorable: Movie version Charlie.
  • Blackmail: Rainbird blackmails Captain Hollister into both letting him live (Hollister wants him to have an "accident" after he captures Charlie) and letting him get close to Charlie, by revealing he has gathered enough incriminating evidence to have the Shop closed down and Captain Hollister put behind bars for the rest of his life.
  • Blatant Lies: The Shop claimed that they were using the double blind method in the Lot Six experiment, in which only half of the volunteers will get Lot 6 and the other half will just get distilled water. They also said that Lot Six is a harmless hallucinogenic. Actually, all the volunteers got Lot Six, to which they reacted in different, but drug trip-like ways. Special mention going to the eye clawer, Andy and his future wife.
  • Blessed with Suck: Andy's powers give him pain and minor brain hemorrhages when he uses them; Charlie's does not, but she has a hard time controlling them (and, of course, they are chased because of them).
  • Bullying a Dragon: The government knows how powerful Charlie and Andy are, or have the potential to be, so what do they do? Give them all sorts of reasons to hate the government!
    • Mostly averted with the Shop people. They do everything possible to keep Charlie happy, including using Rainbird as The Mole, and give her a chance to exercise her power in safe confines. However, the one thing they cannot do is let her see her father, and after a while, that's all she wants to do...
  • Burning with Anger: Charlie's getting close to puberty, and that makes her a little hot under the collar sometimes...combine that with the murder of her mother and being on the run, and she's a lit fuse the Shop willingly takes into itself.
  • Can't Stop the Signal: Throughout the book, Andy is desperate to make his way to a national media outlet with no government ties so that he can tell the story of the Shop and what they did to his family. In the book's final scene, Charlie is seen entering the offices of Rolling Stone magazine.
  • Cement Shoes: The subjects for the Lot Six experiment were chosen from people with no living relatives, so there would be fewer problems if they die. The Shop still had to kill the godfather of one of the victims, who had been determined to find out the truth of what had happened to his godson. Rather than getting to the bottom of what happened, the only place he wound up getting to was "the bottom of the Baltimore Trench, where he presumably still was, with two cement blocks tied around whatever remained of his legs."
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Dr. Pynchot who has secretly enjoyed dressing up in women's underwear since his college days. His crossdressing eventually becomes, literally, the death of him, after a "push" from Andy goes horribly wrong and causes him to stick his arm in a garbage disposal while crossdressing.
  • Daddy's Girl: Charlie (though it's because her mother is killed).
  • Death Seeker: Rainbird pretty much. The root of his obsession with Charlie.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Rainbird goes barefoot when he's alone. He's fascinated with shoes and has a whole collection of them; he just doesn't like wearing them.
  • The Dragon: Rainbird to Captain Hollister.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Rainbird
  • Dramatic Chase Opening: The book starts with Andy and Charlie chased by the Shop agents in New York.
  • Dramatic Wind : The Film of the Book features this. Charlie's hair starts to blow around, the straight out, when she uses her powers.
  • Driven to Suicide: Several participants of the Lot Six experiment. Also, Dr. Pynchot (in the book) who commits suicide by shoving his arm into the garbage disposal while it's running, after Andy triggered an 'echo' in his mind.
  • Empty Promise: After Charlie finds out that her mother is dead, Andy tells her that everything will be all right, while knowing perfectly well that nothing is ever all right.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Cap Hollister on a number of occasions. He is disgusted when Dr. Wanless tells him about how his brother burned his child's hand with a match to stop him from playing with matches and about an experiment that tried to convince participants to wet their pants. He is also horrified when he mistakenly thinks Rainbird wants to rape Charlie and loathes Rainbird's enthusiasm about killing her.
  • Eye Scream: One of the participants in the Lot Six experiment goes insane and claws out his own eyes.
  • Fate Worse Than Death / Cool and Unusual Punishment: When Andy and Charlie escape from the Shop the first time he puts one of the agents responsible for Vicky's death in a coma, and permanently blinds the other one.
    • And by that, we mean he mindrapes him into "knowing" he's blind.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Fingore: The Shop agents pulled some of Vicky's fingernails out before killing her to get her to tell where Charlie was.
  • Funny Background Event: After the woodchips scene if you look hard enough, you can see Charlie walking out of the room while the Shop agents discuss what to do about her and Andy. Rainbird was the first to notice when she leaves.
  • Gilded Cage: When Charlie and her father Andy get kidnapped by the Shop they are given attractive living quarters. Andy notes, however, that his apartment has no inside handle.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The Shop wanted to see the full extent of Charlie's powers and trained her to harness them. This blew up in their faces. Literally.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Played with with the Lot Six victim who rips out his own eyes; it's flashed briefly, then you get a long, loving look at the poor sot screaming, covered in blood and holding his own eyes in his hands.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: Department of Scientific Intelligence (the Shop).
  • Happily Married: Andy and Vicky, before she is murdered.
  • Heal Thyself: By way of a dream, Andy "pushes" himself clean of his thorazine addiction.
  • Heroic RROD: Andy eventually has a stroke because he overuses his power.
  • Hidden Depths: Rainbird, of the villainous kind. Though he is a murderous, death-obsessed psychopath, he is also a gifted actor who is able to convincingly portray himself as a friendly janitor who is also shell-shocked from his ordeals in the Vietnam War, and hence gains the sympathy and trust of a very suspicious Charlie. By the time the novel begins he also already knows much more about the Lot Six program than Cap Hollister realized, having been able to secretly tap into Hollister's computer and personal files for the past three years. He was also able to finance all his information gathering through some skillful financial investments.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Charlie uses the same pyrokinetic powers the Shop has been training to turn her into a weapon in order to escape and burn the Shop down in the climax.
  • Hypno Fool: The Shop agent that Andy puts into a coma. He wakes up after six months, but from that moment on, everytime somebody mentions the word "sleep" in his presence, he will fall into a deep slumber again that usually lasts for four hours to a day.
  • I Love the Dead: When Andy temporarily gains telepathic powers during the Lot Six experiment, he reads the mind of one of the Shop agents present, and learns that he killed four people and raped one of the bodies.
  • Immune to Bullets: At the end, Charlie reaches this; her powers become fast and strong enough to explode bullets before reaching her.
  • In Medias Res: The novel starts with Andy and Charlie escaping from the agents of the Shop. Their backstory is told in parts in Andy's flashbacks.
  • Ironic Nickname: "The Shop," a nom de guerre hung on the Department of Scientific Intelligence, is a grisly joke. It's derived from A. E. van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher, except that, in that book and its sequels, the Weapon Shops are intended to give power to the people against their government; The D.S.I. is only interested in expanding government power at the expense of its people.
  • Knockout Ambush: The Shop agents capture Andy and Charlie this way. Charlie is shot by Rainbird with a tranquilizer dart from long range, and Andy, distraught over this, is easily taken out from short range.
  • Lamarck Was Right: Andy and Vicky gain mental domination powers and telekinesis, respectively, from a drug given to them in an experiment. Their daughter is born with telekinesis and pyrokinesis as a result. This is Hand Waved when the father speculates that the drug must have affected their DNA. King mentioned afterwards that he never liked that explanation, preferring stories where supernatural things just happen, and are never explained.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Wanless. Lampshaded when Andy's friend compares him to Dr. Cyclops.
  • Magical Defibrillator: Averted; Lot Six causes a heart attack for one of the participants of the experiment. They use a defibrillator on him, but he dies anyway.
  • Magical Native American: A rare example of subversion. Rainbird's death-oriented mysticism makes him terrifying and dangerous rather than understanding and helpful.
  • Meaningful Name: Charlie. Also, in Stephen King's Dark Tower books Char is a root word meaning death in the High Speech of In-World.
  • Mexican Standoff: At the end, Charlie, Andy and Rainbird have a three-way Mexican Standoff, with Rainbird being the only one with a gun.
  • Mundane Utility: Andy uses his powers to hold diet classes and confidence classes. Charlie once uses hers to light a fireplace. Vicky's powers are quite weak and she uses them to do things like close doors.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The novel is set between 1981-1983.
  • No Control Group: The participants of the Lot Six experiment are told that half of them will only be injected with distilled water in a double-blind test. Actually, everyone gets Lot Six.
  • No Conservation of Energy: Lampshaded. In an interdepartmental memo, a Shop scientist writes that they have no idea where the heat Charlie is producing is coming from. "Figure that one out and you've got the Nobel Prize in your hip pocket!"
  • No Sell: When Andy first describes his powers, he makes it clear that his "push" does not work on everybody. How effective it will be depends on a persons ethnicity (Caucasians are easy to manipulate, while Asians are very hard), age (the older a person is, the harder it becomes to manipulate their mind), and intelligence (intelligent people are the easiest to manipulate, while very dumb or even insane people are immune to the push).
  • One-Dimensional Thinking: Subverted. Three men try and run away from a line of fire at the climax. It seems to be played straight until two of them try changing direction. All for nought when the fire just splits in three and follows them anyway.
  • One Girl Army: Charlie, as the arrogant idiots of The Shop found out the hard way.
  • Only Sane Man: Rainbird; see Too Dumb to Live below. (Well, "sane" perhaps isn't the right word to describe him, but he sees the situation more clearly than others).
  • Mistaken for Pedophile: Cap in the book wrongly assumes Rainbird wants to rape Charlie when he says he plans to know her "intimately." Rainbird's intentions towards Charlie are murkier in the movie, however.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: Charlie, obviously. And her powers are constantly increasing. Dr. Wanless says that when she grows up, she may be able to cause nuclear explosions, or even destroy the whole planet. Later on, Charlie herself thinks that she may one day be able to affect the sun itself.
  • The Peter Principle: Lampshaded by Rainbird in reference to Patrick Hockstetter, one of the shop doctors in charge of Andy and Charlie. When summoned back to the shop one night for an emergency involving Charlie, Hockstetter is mainly peeved that he was interrupted while watching a James Bond film.
  • Pineal Weirdness: An acceptable variation. The extrasensory powers induced by Lot Six are connected to changes this drug creates in the pituitary gland. Dr. Wanless says that if the soul exists, it is probably located in this gland.
  • Power Incontinence: Charlie finds it very hard to control her power at first.
  • Powers Do the Fighting: Used to very eerie effect in the film version, especially in the climax. Charlie just stands with her hands at her sides and looks at the people, building and vehicles she is blowing up, while also remaining unflinching as she vaporizes bullets fired at her.
  • Pstandard Psychic Pstance: In the movie, Andy has a variant where he brushes his hair back from his forehead and presses his palms to his head.
  • Psychic-Assisted Suicide: Cap thinks that the Shop could use Andy's power for that: "Imagine him getting close enough to that pinko Ted Kennedy to suggest in a low voice of utter conviction that suicide was the best answer."
    • Andy is momentarily tempted to use a strong push to interrogate Pynchot of everything he knows, then get him to go home and commit suicide so the Shop doesn't know. He's repelled by the thought, and decides not to risk pushing Pynchot further. However Pynchot kills himself anyway, due to his own neurosis interacting with the effects of the push.
  • Psychic Nosebleed / Deadly Nosebleed: In the film, Andy gets one of these whenever he uses his power; in the book, he has terrible headaches, scleral hemorrhages that turns the whites of his eyes red, and eventually small strokes which leave part of his face numb.
  • Psychic Powers: Well, yes.
    • Compelling Voice: Andy's "Push" ability.
    • Mind over Matter: Charlie's mother, Vicky, has some limited powers of telekinesis. Charlie also has this power; she uses it to get change from payphones.
    • Playing with Fire: Charlie, of course.
    • Telepathy: Andy and Vicky could converse without talking when they were under the effect of Lot Six (though not later). Charlie also has limited telepathic powers.
  • Psycho for Hire: Rainbird. He kills people because he's obsessed with death. From the money he receives for it, he mostly buys shoes that he never wears. He uses the rest to finance his information gathering on the Shop itself, first for protection, later to blackmail Hollister into letting him get close to Charlie.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Dr. Pynchot who grins too much and gets Andy hooked on Thorazine. He also suggests torturing Andy with electric shocks in front of Charlie to convince her to start lighting fires.
  • Psycho Serum: Lot Six, the experimental substance given to 12 college students, including Charlie's parents, in hopes of boosting their ESP abilities. Most of the participants didn't live very long afterward.
  • Puberty Superpower: Not precisely, but it's hinted that the psychic powers are linked to the pituitary gland, which goes nuts at puberty. Charlie is already extremely powerful, and she's prepubescent. At the end she reflects that someday she might be able to affect the sun itself.
    • At least some of the Shop's scientists think that the pituitary gland is the key to the powers, and during puberty they fear Charlie will literally be able to destroy the world at will.
  • Race Lift: Rainbird in the novel is Native American. In the movie, he's played by George C. Scott.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Charlie burns down every building belonging to the Shop, and kills Rainbird, Dr. Pynchot and pretty much every agent in her line of sight after her father dies.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Rainbird plays that role for Charlie: he pretends that he has a paralyzing fear of the dark, because the Vietcong imprisoned him in a dark cave. (He really is a Vietnam War vet, and he saw plenty of disturbing things, but they don't seem to affect him much and he was never captured).
  • The So-Called Coward: The Shop continually underestimates Andy, regarding him as an outclassed English professor.
  • Stern Chase: About half the book.
  • Stuffed into the Fridge: Andy finds Vicky's body in an ironing closet after the Shop agents killed her.
  • Super Soldiers: One of the goals of The Shop's experiments on parapsychology is creating people who might be useful as weapons.
  • Take a Third Option: After his duplicity has been revealed, Rainbird manages to take Charlie out of the fight by pointing out that she'll kill the horses in the barn if she starts burning everything. While this does succeed at first, Charlie eventually realizes, during a second standoff that comes later, that she can simply melt the hinges off the stall doors so the horses can run out on their own.
  • Tested on Humans: The Lot Six experiment.
  • Tomboyish Name: Charlene's nickname "Charlie". Also her alias "Bobbi" (Roberta is her middle name) used by the kind-hearted farmer Irv Manders.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Like with many horror stories, lots of examples from the heroes and villains alike.
    • You have a girl who you know can start fires — BIG honkin' fires — just with her mind. Wouldn't it be a lot better to, oh, be nice to her?
    • Rainbird once muses how stupid the Shop's agents are, comparing them to thieves who he had heard of. They blew a safe, destroying all the money in it because they used too much explosive.
      "The Shop, like the FBI and CIA, had a long history of killing the money. If you can't get what you want with foreign aid, go in there with some Thompsons and gelignite and assassinate the bastard. Put some cyanide gas in Castro's cigars. It was crazy, but you couldn't tell them that. All they could see were RESULTS, glittering and blinking like some mythical Vegas jackpot. So they killed the money and stood there with a bunch of useless green scraps sifting through their fingers and wondered what the hell had happened."
    • Actually averted at the end with the Shop agents. Once they figure out Charlie's impenetrable from the front (and lose several agents horribly in the process), they try going at her from the back, sniping her, using heavier and heavier firepower, and finally just line up to be fried, to give as many civilians time to escape as possible.
    • There's a heroic example too: after Andy watches his daughter get shot (with a tranq dart) by Rainbird, does he grab her and run for cover? Nope, just kneels right out there in the open holding her (unconscious) body until another agent shoots him too. However, this is an understandable reaction as he was in shock.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Charlie starts the story giving people hotfoots when she loses her temper. By the end, she's creating high-explosive plasma projectiles and rapid-firing them into everything in the vicinity.
  • Transvestite: Dr. Pynchot returns to being one of these in the book, as a side effect of being "pushed" by Andy.
  • Tyke Bomb: Literally what Charlie is. The Shop wants to make her their Tyke Bomb, which is why she and her father are on the run in the beginning of the story. They succeed in training her how to use her powers, and then they discover that she doesn't belong to them after all.
  • The Verse: The Shop has a lot of fingers in a lot of pies throughout the Kingiverse (The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Golden Years, etc.).
  • Villainous Breakdown: Captain Hollister receives an awful side-effect of Andy's powers, heightening his love for golf and fear of snakes, to the point that they're pretty much the only things he can think of. When Andy and Charlie finally meet, he believes he finds a snake in the barn and screams loudly in terror. This leads to the complete and utter destruction of the compound, and the deaths of himself, Andy, Rainbird, and countless Shop employees.
    • The one mook during Charlie's rampage, he thought he had a clear shot but the bullet exploded before it could hit Charlie. When Charlie faces him, he already knows he's screwed and helplessly begs for his life. Of course Charlie's in no mood to take prisoners.
  • Villains Out Shopping: Rainbird's home has entire rooms full of shoes that he collects during his travels.
  • Voice of the Resistance: Andy believes that the media will expose the Shop's corruption and save him and Charlie if only he can contact a reputable newspaper. His letters to The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Toledo Blade are intercepted by Shop agents, but Charlie makes it to the offices of Rolling Stone at the end of the novel.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: At the very end, Charlie starts to realize this, and goes back to the Manders to blow the story open.

Alternative Title(s): Firestarter 2 Rekindled