Friday, 18 December 2015

Firestarter, reviewed by Paul M. Feeney

Over the last few months, I've had many occasions to ponder the idea of subjectivity versus objectivity where works of fiction are concerned; specifically, when a particularly 'contentious' book appears, dividing opinion and now and again leading to heated debates (and arguments). And - aptly enough - this often happens with Stephen King's books, which is only natural as he is our (yes, our; he is, through and through, a horror writer) most well known author. And probably most well read, too (by others I mean, not himself). And in many of these discussions (arguments), the final comments tend to devolve into variations on 'agree to disagree', or 'well, that's just my opinion'; pointing to an innate inability to present an objective argument against the book (or, by extrapolation, any work of creativity). And this would be true if the only thing that were up for debate was the reader's reaction to the work; essentially, stances of 'I liked it', 'I hated it' and all the myriad shades between these. Except...except writing - and reading - is, or should be (I believe) so much more than this. I'd suggest if you are incapable of separating your - very - subjective opinion of how much you liked (or disliked) a book, from the very real objective, practical aspects of the writing itself, you're possibly not in the best place to argue your case; or are certainly missing out on a large part of the discussion. Of course, the notion of what's good prose itself can be suffused with subjectivity, but I do believe you can set baselines for pace, rhythm and flow; and then there’s grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and so on; and a greater understanding of these comes with time, experience and reading widely. Otherwise - to say it all comes down to simply a matter of taste - you give anything a pass, and you are putting the best of fiction and its worst examples on the same footing. Which is simply ludicrous. I’ve been misunderstood on this point in the past, and while I don’t agree that any one person’s subjective opinion of a work is more valid than another’s - at least, not where mere opinions of like/dislike are concerned - it’s a massive disservice to the craft of fiction writing to suggest that the practical elements of prose are not just as important as any other aspect. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy something that’s perhaps not very well written from an objective point of view; and the converse can apply too. To give an example, I adore the Harry Potter books, but as an exercise in prose writing, they do leave a lot to be desired. Similarly, I can appreciate good writing in other arenas, but it may be that the story itself is not for me (or bores me rigid). I've had this with a few shorts I've come across. And this leads me to King.

I've seen King lambasted for an almost infinite variety of fiction 'sins'; seen him criticised six ways from Sunday. I've even seen someone dismiss him as 'writing like an amateur' (and if you knew who that was and saw their work, you'd choke with astonished laughter at the irony...). Yet, aside from the occasional awkward line or clunky bit of prose - which we all suffer from, from time to time - I truly believe King is up there with the greatest writers, and my opinion only becomes cemented more and more, the more I read of other, wonderful, writers. However, that doesn't mean that I've loved everything of King's I've read; no siree. There are a handful of books and stories I've struggled with, but I can say - with almost one hundred percent conviction - that it was not the writing that was the problem, but my response to the story. And that, ladies and gentlemen, lies almost squarely in the province of the subjective. All of which (and I apologise if I've bored you thus far) brings me to the book I'm revisiting here; Firestarter.

Published in 1980 and coming at a time when King was on the - rapid - ascent, "Firestarter" is one of King's novels that almost exclusively never gets mentioned when discussions of his early, classic work arise. Everyone remembers "Carrie", "The Shining", "'Salem's Lot", "The Dead Zone", "The Stand"; even the collection (collection!) "Night Shift" gets props, and the books that followed "Firestarter" - "Cujo", "Christine" and "Pet Sematary" - are mentioned with equal reverence (most of the time). Yet "Firestarter" tends to be the forgotten one, the black sheep of this family. I first read it way back in the early to mid 90s, and I can't recall much from that reading except that I wasn't impressed at all. Yet the basic plot sounds right up my street; shady government experiments, enhanced human beings with almost superhero type powers, a frantic chase across the country, evil people masquerading as the good guys; what's not to love? So when the book came up for the King For A Year project, I thought, 'why the fuck not?' And here we are.

I won't go over the plot too much, save to say it concerns - mainly - eight year old Charlene McGee, the daughter of two people who got involved in a shady experiment in the 60s trailing an experimental drug that appeared to give both of them psychic abilities. Their abilities pass on to Charlie, where it seems to have mutated and grown immeasurably; Charlie can create fire from nothing, amongst other, slightly less explosive (haha) powers. The first half of the book has Charlie and her father Andy on the run from The Shop, a shady and seemingly untouchable government agency (who were also responsible for the initial experiment leading to all this). The second half of the book has Charlie and Andy indefinitely detained in The Shop's secret compound while the organisation’s scientists experiment on both. And throughout all this, there are flashbacks and recalled events filling in the blanks. If all this sounds a shade unusual for a Stephen King book - though by this point, he had already released three novels where main characters had psychic abilities - that's probably because it reads much more like a thriller than a horror. In fact, there really isn't any horror in this story at all, aside from a few violent events and, perhaps, the threatening shadow cast by The Shop and some of its operatives (more on that in a mo). This impression is bolstered by the opening, which puts us straight into Andy and Charlie's desperate flight. It's a move typical of thrillers and action books, eschewing a slow build-up for fast paced action and peril. Any character study or back-story is thrown in piecemeal, with short recollections through Andy's memory, or the POV deviations to the agent chasing the pair. I think this clearly demonstrates that King knows what he's doing here; he knows this story is a thriller - albeit one with slightly paranormal attributes, and even those have a cod-scientific explanation - and he knows (superficially, at least) how to write one. And it’s bloody enjoyable. I was sucked in from page one, flying through the early sections very quickly; feeling trepidation and concern for these two unlikely and weary fugitives, who haven’t even had time to grieve for the loss of Vicky, Andy’s wife and mother to Charlie. King puts across a palpable and convincing portrait of a man and his daughter who are haggard, harassed, shell-shocked, and running out of both time and fortune as The Shop closes in; their tanks are almost at empty. We also get snippets from the POV of the agents chasing them, and while this robs the organisation of some of its shadowy power, it conversely serves to up the tension as we see how close they are getting to their quarry. Added to these early pages are some classic examples of show and tell, where we see both Andy and Charlie’s abilities in use - he with the power to push people into doing what he wants, though at great cost to his physical self; she with her fire ability, though it is wild and uncontrollable when unleashed - rather than merely being told about them. It’s a very good opener and fits right in with the notion of the book as a modern - for its time - thriller.

The problems - for me - start to appear as we head towards the mid-point of the book, and they are hinted at even early on. One of the criticisms often levied at King is that he takes far too long to get to the point, and while I don’t agree that this is justified in most cases, here it definitely feels as though it’s the case. While he handles the action of the story well enough - following their nick of time escape at the start of the book, Andy and Charlie receive brief respite at an old farmhouse, before they’re tackled by Shop agents again in a disastrous (for the agents) scene that seems to have been lifted many years later by the movie "X-Men 2" - it’s the quiet moments in between that feel dull and drawn out. Not that there’s anything wrong with quiet moments in a thriller; or, indeed, any type of book. I’d argue that they’re necessary in a book full of action, to give shape and pace to the story; providing dips amid the peaks. The problem here is that they seem to go on for interminable pages without anything of real substance or value being spoken about. After the botched operation at the farmhouse, the pair hole up in an old family cabin and it’s this section that really dragged for me. A sizeable chunk of the book is taken up with overly descriptive detail of nothing of importance while the two drift along in situ much like the narrative; formless, purposeless and without any sense of being necessary. Even at the halfway mark, when they’re both finally caught and imprisoned by The Shop and we see them again three months later, the narrative feels sluggish and drawn out. It’s only when plans are formulated later in the book - about three quarters through - that the pace picks up again, and starts to rattle to its mostly satisfying conclusion.

I also had issues with the depiction of some characters and The Shop itself. Because of the piecemeal way in which the narrative plays out, you never get a full sense of who the players are. Even Andy and Charlie are a little two-dimensional, Charlie most of all over the course of the book; the narrative is supposed to show her developing emotionally as the story unfolds, as she moves from being afraid of her power to refusing to use it, before finally learning to control it and almost enjoy. Yet I got little sense of this happening in an organic way; it seemed that we were to simply accept it as having happened, through a couple of throwaway lines. The gap of three months between capture and picking them up again doesn’t help in this instance, as everything then gets spoken of in retrospect, robbing it of impetus. As for The Shop; as much as I love the idea of this organisation, and the role it plays, I wasn’t quite convinced of its overreaching power, its position as an unaccountable force. Part of this, I think, is that we get too much insight into a number of its agents and they tend to be two-dimensional bully boys, taking cruel, immature delight in hurting those they see as weaker than themselves. It's not a terrible way to depict your antagonists, but it does strip them of that overshadowing nature that I think an organisation like this would require; it reduces them, makes them less serious, less significant. I also felt that the likes of Buddy Repperton from "Christine", or Henry Bowers from "IT" were far more terrifying presences. The only possible exception to this is the scarred form of John Rainbird, one of The Shop's most callous and probably psychotic agents (who is, essentially, a hitman); his aura of placid amorality unnerving even those he works with and for. And the method by which he manipulates and hoodwinks Charlie in the latter stages of the book is pretty chilling. Yet for all that, he still doesn't seem to dominate the narrative the way I feel he should. I think this is my biggest issue with the book; all the elements are present, it's just that none of them seem to feel big enough for the story. There's far too much waffle and meandering in between the actual action, and very little of it actually necessary to the unfolding story. Certainly most of it could have been told in a far more concise fashion.

However it does pick up again in the last quarter; as Charlie's powers grow, as Andy starts to formulate a desperate plan to escape, as the intentions of both Rainbird and The Shop towards both their prisoners begin to turn to the terminal... The pace really starts to pick up here, and it's a welcome return. There is also a nice line in the extent of Charlie's powers, a hint that they might be limitless, reaching far beyond anything any of the characters - Charlie herself included - could have possible feared or imagined. I also loved the scene when Charlie finally unleashes her powers against those who have taken her - and her father's - liberty, have experimented on her, and have pushed her into using the one thing she wishes she could get rid of. It's the sort of thing King is great at, the turning of the tables on bullies and oppressors; and it's something I'm an absolute sucker for. Even though I felt he could have gone further with this, I recognise that it's appropriate for an eight year old child to not necessarily want to go on a revenge/murder rampage...

Sadly, the final chapter returns to that ponderous, dragging method of writing with a twenty page epilogue that could - and probably should, in my opinion - have been only a couple of pages long. It cements - for me - the idea that this book would have worked far better as a novella, taking out all the extraneous fat and making it a lean, powerful, fast moving action-thriller. Alternatively, King could have expanded massively on the mythology and concepts, giving everything the breathing space I felt it required, making the book more epic in scope. Instead we have something that feels uneven, choppy and thin; characterisations that feel half-hearted, a plot that feels too small and intimate despite its national (and potentially global) implications. Might just be me, but I think this is possibly why "Firestarter" is not really mentioned much when people gather to talk about their favourite King works. A missed opportunity, I feel.

One thing I did take away at the end of the book was the notion that this novel could really benefit from a sequel; a revisiting to Charlie and her strange powers. Far more than the uneven sequel to "The Shining", "Doctor Sleep", I'd actually love to know what Charlie did after she grew up. I think that has the potential to be something very interesting, especially in the current climate of superhero adulation. After all, Charlie is only one or two steps away from an X-Men...


Paul M. Feeney is fast approaching middle-age but denying all knowledge of it. He was born in Scotland. Having migrated and lived all over the UK and Ireland, he is now currently settled in the North-east of England. An avid and passionate fiction reader - his first love being horror and all things dark - he has recently turned his hand to writing with a number of short stories currently in publication and several others due throughout 2016. He has also had his first novella, "The Last Bus", published by Crowded Quarantine as a limited signed & numbered paperback in late 2015, and his second novella "Kids" is due in mid-2016 from another small press. He continues to turn out short stories at a leisurely pace, while contemplating more novellas, and the dreaded first novel. In between working a dull, full-time job and trying to finish his stories, he also contributes the occasional review and article to The Ginger Nuts Of Horror website.

Paul previously reviewed "Blaze" (which can be found here) in the King For A Year project

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