Firestarter by Stephen King

8/10 I just didn’t connect with the characters

First published in 1980 and nominated for the British Fantasy Award, Locus Poll Award, and Balrog Award.

I’ve read around 30 Stephen King books and have been looking into the ones I have missed. I thought, “what better place to start other than the beginning?”. So, with a printed out bibliography in hand I planned my course. Having read Carrie (1974), Salem’s Lot (1975), and The Shining (1977) I was left with two choices: The Dead Zone (1979) or Firestarter (1980). Having watched David Cronenberg’s excellent 1984 film adaptation of The Dead Zone, starring Christoper Walken, I was already familiar with that story and decided to read Firestarter, a book I knew nothing about.

For those of us who have read many of King’s books you notice similar themes running throughout: alcoholism, psychic abilities, the wonder of childhood, many of his books share similar themes. So when you begin reading a new - or an old - King book you may feel in familiar territory. But I am okay with this, while the theme remains the same the characters and events are what interest me. King is an author that believes in characters having a backstory, and not just the main characters but also those who may only appear briefly within a chapter and we are told something about them that makes them relatable. And this is one of the many things I love about his work.

So, in Firestarter, we have a father and daughter on the run. Both have psychic abilities, the result of an experiment which make them valuable to the government, in particular useful so as to be utilised in the war effort during the Vietnam war. When I refer to similarities in King’s work this book immediately reminded me of Ted Brautigan who appeared in Low Men in Yellow Coats (Hearts in Atlantis, 1999) and the final Dark Tower book (2004), where he’s on the run from those who would use his psychic abilities to achieve objectives he did not agree with.

Although there is much to like… I just didn't buy into the book. Stephen King has the rare gift of making the unbelievable believable but in Firestarter the unbelievable - for me - remained unbelievable. The plot, the dialogue, how the characters behaved, I just found it all incredibly unlikely, to the point of being, well, unbelievable. In other books with similar themes King pulls off this impressive achievement but here, for me, it just didn’t work. An example of this would be a father, pursuing his kidnapped daughter, listening to pop music on the radio in the car. I just didn’t buy that behaviour.

In my opinion this is not one of Stephen King’s best books, but he set that bar pretty high. I just didn’t connect with the characters and found the story too predictable. So while I never have any hesitation recommending King as an author I would definitely point the reader to another title in his prodigious canon.

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