By the time Firestarter came out in 1980, Stephen King was a bona fide phenomena. He was living in his now-famous mansion in Bangor, Maine, he was making more money than he knew what to do with, and his publishing deal with New American Library was making everything better: the binding on his books was better, the covers were better, and they treated him better than Doubleday ever had. Best of all, NAL was better at selling his books. Doubleday had only managed to sell 50,000 hardcover copies of The Stand in its first year. Viking, in conjunction with NAL, sold 175,000 hardcover copies of The Dead Zone in its first year, and Firestarter would go on to sell 280,000. Leaving Doubleday turned out to be the decision that made King a blockbuster author, and despite his massive alcoholism and his brand new cocaine addiction, the books he produced during this New American Library period were among his darkest, leanest, and meanest. They also revealed an essential fact about Stephen King: he wasn’t writing horror at all.
Bill Thompson, the Doubleday editor who discovered King, had been worried that King would be typed as a horror novelist after he submitted ‘Salem’s Lot and again when King told him the plot of The Shining. “First the telekinetic girl, then the vampires, now the haunted hotel and the telepathic kid. You’re gonna get typed,” he reportedly said. To Doubleday, horror was tacky and they had to hold their noses to sell King. Their editions of his books were printed cheaply, had lousy covers, and the higher-ups not only never wanted to wine and dine King, they couldn’t even remember his name, leaving Thompson in the awkward position of having to re-introduce his bestselling author over and over again to the very people whose holiday bonuses were based on King’s sales.
New American Library were paperback publishers and they understood the power of genre. They invested far more heavily in King’s career than Doubleday ever did, not only paying for half the advertising costs on Carrie’s hardcover release, but also paying him advances of $400,000 (Carrie), $500,000 (‘Salem’s Lot), and approximately $500,000 (The Shining) while Doubleday paid King a grand total of $77,500 for his first five books combined. To Doubleday, King was an embarrassment, but to New American Library he was a brand. “‘Salem’s Lot had been read at NAL with a great deal of enthusiasm,” King said in an interview. “Much of it undoubtedly because they recognized a brand name potential beginning to shape up.”
But is there anything beyond marketing that types King as a horror writer? Today, when you look at The Dead Zone (man tries to assassinate political candidate), Firestarter (girl and dad with psychic powers on the run from the government), and Cujo (rabid dog traps woman and child in their car) you realize that with no horror boom to hang them from, with no Stephen King horror brand to emblazon on their covers, these books would probably be sold as thrillers. King himself claims that he writes suspense. Right before Firestarter was released he gave an interview to the Minnesota Star saying, “I see the horror novel as only one room in a very large house, which is the suspense novel. That particular house encloses such classics as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” And, of course, his own books.
In another interview King stated, “The only books of mine that I consider pure unadulterated horror are ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and now Christine, because they all offer no rational explanation at all for the supernatural events that occur. Carrie, The Dead Zone, and Firestarter on the other hand, are much more within the science fiction tradition…The Stand actually has a foot in both camps…”
So why did the horror label stick?
King writes about characters in extremis, their emotions dominated by fear, pain, and/or helplessness, and he’s excellent at maintaining tension, hinting darkly at unfortunate events to come even in a book’s happiest moments. He also lingers on descriptions of the human body, dwelling on physical details of imperfection and decay (age spots, deformity, decomposition, acne, injuries), as well as reveling in writing about the more physical side of life (sex, excretion, zit popping). His character descriptions are painted in broad strokes, often centered on a physical flaw (dandruff, balding, bad skin, obesity, emaciation), giving many of his characters the appearance of grotesques. He also wrote about teenagers and children a lot, and his lead characters were usually physically attractive.
These intense scenes of sex and violence, his casts of attractive young people, and his emphasis on fear and tension reminded audiences of that other place where sex, violence, tension, and youth overlapped: the horror movie. As King boomed, so boomed the horror genre in film (1973 to 1986 is considered a golden era for American horror movies) and one came to be associated with the other. Comparing King’s writing to movies is something critics have done since the beginning of his career and King himself chalks it up to the fact that he’s an extremely visual writer, unable to commit words to the page until he can see the scene in his head. The link in the public mind between his books and horror movies was cemented when film adaptations of Carrie and The Shining both became widely publicized movies.
The short answer: if it’s marketed like horror, if it reminds people of horror, and if the author is comfortable being branded as writing horror, it’s horror. Even though, as King points out, science fiction would be a better label for many of his books.
Firestarter, the most science fictional of King’s suspense novels, spawned a flop movie and its reputation has become tarnished with time. Which is too bad because it’s unique among King’s books in that it finally tackles his biggest blind spot: sex. Started in 1976, King abandoned Firestarter because it reminded him too much of Carrie. With a main character based on his ten-year-old daughter, Naomi, King was fascinated first by pyrokinesis and then by the idea of a character like Carrie White passing her psychic abilities on to her daughter. He was also becoming more and more liberal. Descended from generations of blue collar Republicans (he even voted for Nixon in 1968) King started drifting to the left in university, and wound up on the Democratic side of the spectrum. It’s hard not to see that progression in The Stand, The Dead Zone, and Firestarter as they revel in broad depictions of an uncaring military-industrial complex, corrupt right-wing politicians, and black ops government departments run amuck.
This book reads like a paranoid, left-wing fantasy on speed. Kicking off with ten-year-old Charlie McGee and her father, Andy, on the run from a government agency called The Shop, we’re not 20 pages in before they’re run to ground and barely slip away. It turns out that Andy and his wife were dosed with an LSD-esque drug called Lot Six in a government experiment in the 60’s. It activated their latent psychic powers, which they have passed on to their daughter, Charlie, who can start fires with her mind, but has been expressly forbidden to do “the bad thing” by her parents. Mom was killed by The Shop, and Andy is armed only with the power to control minds, at the cost of brain damage every time he “pushes” someone.
Cornered again, Andy convinces Charlie to cut loose with her powers and she turns a peaceful farm into a raging inferno, killing dozens of Shop agents in their escape. A few months later, they’re captured by John Rainbird, a death-obsessed Shop operative with a mutilated face. The last third of the book chronicles Charlie and Andy’s captivity on The Farm (there are a lot of farms in this book), which is Shop HQ where Redbird begins a slow mind-game, pretending to be a simple orderly who befriends Charlie and gets her to cooperate with the Farm’s research. Separated from his daughter, Andy becomes an overweight pill junkie, and eventually it all ends in a horse barn with Charlie realizing the depth of her betrayal by Rainbird, destroying the Farm, and witnessing her dad’s death. It sounds straightforward, but King was firing on all cylinders at this point in his career, and so it’s anything but.
Full of actions setpieces so vividly described that they turn into a kind of surrealist poetry (exploding chickens running across a yard, guard dogs driven insane by heat and attacking the people they’re supposed to protect), it’s also spiked with subjective descriptions that that attain a funky beat poetry grandeur (“Never mind. Sit a little longer. Listen to the Stones. Shakey’s Pizza. You get your choice, thin crust or crunchy”). King has been accused of shying away from sex (Peter Straub once famously said, “Stevie hasn’t discovered sex yet.”) but if Firestarter is anything it’s the story of Charlie’s sexual awakening.
There are few things more fraught than the relationship between fathers and daughters, and pop culture has devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to showing the discomfort fathers feel with their daughter’s sexuality, from questioning who they date to controlling what they wear. Charlie starts the book as a little girl, holding her father’s hand, uncertain of what to do without being told. By the end of the book her father is dead, she’s not only in full control of her pyrokinesis but it’s far stronger than anyone thought, and she’s on her way to New York City to take down the government by blowing the whistle to Rolling Stone, of all places.
Sex and fire are linguistically joined at the hip (“burning passion” “the fires of desire” “smouldering eyes” “smoking hot”) and it’s the dirtiest of Freudian jokes that Charlie is told that her ability to start fires is “The Bad Thing” and she mustn’t do or she’ll hurt her parents. Things go from subtext to plain old text once she’s taken in hand by John Rainbird who yearns to “penetrate her defenses,” “crack her like a safe,” and to kill her while looking deeply into her eyes. “It’s a sexual relationship,” King later said about the friendship between the two characters in an interview. “I only wanted to touch on it lightly, but it makes the whole conflict more monstrous.”
As her inhibitions surrounding the use of her powers fall, Charlie revels in her newfound strength, which earns her special privileges and makes her the center of attention from every man in the book. The point is made repeatedly that unless she’s controlled or killed her powers could destroy the world, a clichéd fear about female sexuality (once they start, they just can’t stop). As Charlie’s sexuality becomes more and move liberating and overt (including dreams of riding a horse, naked, to meet John Rainbird), the sexual desires of the men controlling her life become more covert and self-destructive. Andy starts using his “push” to try to escape, but it sometimes sets off ricochets in the subconscious minds of his victims, unleashing their secret obsessions and sending them into self-destructive feedback loops.
For Dr. Pynchot, the psychiatrist in charge of Andy and Charlie, the ricochet involves an incident of sexual humiliation at the hands of his fraternity brothers. He becomes obsessed with the “vulva-like” opening of his new garbage disposal and winds up dressing in his wife’s underwear and killing himself by shoving his arm into it while it’s running. The head of the Farm, “Cap” Hollister, earns a ricochet that’s slightly more subtle, but a lot more symbolic, becoming doddering, distracted, and obsessed with slithering, phallic snakes whom he imagines are hiding everywhere, waiting to leap out and bite him.
Charlie, on the other hand, is obsessed, as are many young girls, with horses, and her fascination with their freedom and power is conveyed through dreams of riding bareback and out of control through a burning forest. One of the book’s most powerful images is of Charlie standing in front of a burning barn after wild horses have burst through its wooden walls, laying waste to the might of the United States military, her dead father behind her, freedom somewhere up ahead. It’s about as poptastic and tacky and powerful an image of a young woman’s sexual awakening as you could find, so resonant that it should be airbrushed onto the side panel of a van.
Far from being one of his “meh” books, approaching Firestarter with an open mind reveals it to be one of King’s most fascinating. He’s out of his self-proclaimed comfort zone here, exploring the sexual awakening of a character based on his own daughter, and celebrating power, freedom, and liberation in a way his books rarely did. It was the centerpiece of his mid-career trio—The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo—that showcased King at the height of his powers...but it was really just a warm-up for Cujo.