Review – Firestarter by Stephen King

The background: I’m reading all of Stephen King’s work in publication order, for the first time, starting with Carrie. I’ve just finished Firestarter, which is the first of his 80s novels.

I’m not entirely sure what to say about Firestarter. King’s writing is, as always, excellent… but for the first time, its almost like he knows it and uses his mastery of character to sidestep the fact that there is hardly any story. Firestarter is 567 pages of beautifully written nothing.

I don’t mind that, in principle. The journey is often more interesting or even important than the ending, and King’s talent at characterisation is breathtaking.

But 567 pages, you start to need something more. Characterisation will take you a long way, but eventually something has to happen. In Firestarter, Andy McGee and his daughter Charlie are on the run, and then they get captured, and then they escape. That’s it.

Which is fine. Everything is painted vividly, and we really explore the thoughts and motivations of everyone involved. That’s characterisation.

But this book took me two months to read. I rattled through King’s previous book, The Dead Zone, in two weeks. Firestarter, I’m sorry to say, was a real chore.

There’s something else, too. Apart from a lack of plot, I had the real feeling that I’d heard it all before. A girl with a terrible psychic power? Carrie. Psychic powers in general? Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone. And the fact that The Dead Zone came directly prior to Firestarter doesn’t do the latter any favours, as The Dead Zone is a masterpiece.

Firestarter was a huge disappointment. Despite coining the term “pyrokinesis”, and despite being made into a well known film starring Drew Barrymore, this is, alas, a rather dull book. I did enjoy the technical aspects of the writing, and I’m sure (as always with King) I learnt a great deal about the craft. That’s reason enough to read it once in your life, I think. But for me, Firestarter is even worse than The Shining, which so far is the only other King novel I haven’t liked. The Shining at least is original, and despite a flabby middle section kicks into high gear towards the last quarter.

Firestarter feels like a retread of old ground and never quite hits top speed. The climactic sequence of Charlie’s escape from The Shop is a brilliantly written action piece, but it’s too little, too late.

Chalk this one up to experience.