Fire-Starter by Stephen King
(Viking Press, 1980)
Reviewed by Robert W. Bly, founder,

Stephen King is known as a horror writer. But Fire-Starter is clearly a science fiction novel -nor horror - though horrible things happen to the characters in it. What makes Fire-Starter SF, not horror?

In horror novels by Stephen King such as The Shining and Salem's Lot, the source of the horror is respectively ghosts and vampires - clearly supernatural.

In Fire-Starter and other Stephen King works that are partially or wholly SF part or all of the horror has scientific explanations. In the Mist, a government experiment is the suspected cause of a dimensional rift that releases a thick fog hiding horrible creatures into a small town in Maine.

Fire-Starter is pure science fiction. The protagonist, a little girl named Charlie McGee, is pyrokinetic - she can start fires with her mind - and the power is growing as she gets older.

Charlie's pyrokinesis is an inherited trait from her parents, Andy McGee and Vicky Tomlinson, whose biochemistry was altered by an experimental drug.

Andy and Vicky volunteered to participate in a clinical drug trial while students at college to earn extra money. The participants were not told that the drug was developed by the government agency known as "The Shop" to trigger paranormal powers in humans.

After the trial, Andy and Vicky date, marry, and have Charlie. Vicky has gained a mild ability of telekinesis - she can move light objects with her mind, and she is barely aware of the power or her occasional unconscious use of it.

Andy has developed a considerably stronger power: the ability to mentally "push" people into seeing things that aren't there and doing what he commands. But if he pushes too hard, he gets migraines and occasional nosebleeds.

The Shop has been watching the couple since the drug trial. As Charlie begins to display the awesome power they were hoping to develop, The Shop kills Vicky, kidnaps Charlie and Andy, and holds them hostage.

Their goal is to test and develop Charlie's power into a military weapon, but to do so without infuriating her to the point that she unleashes the full fury of her power and kills her captures.

Although he is fed sedatives to keep him docile, Andy avoids taking some of the pills, regains a clear mind, and plans an escape. His brain has been damaged from constant use of the push, and if he continues to use his power, it may cripple or kill him.

Charlie is befriended at The Shop by John Rainbird, a seemingly kindly Native American who works there in maintenance. Rainbird is undercover as a janitor to win Charlie's trust. In reality, he is a dangerous assassin, who for reasons not quite clear, is obsessed with being allowed to kill Charlie when the experiments are done.

As with many SF novels, Fire-Starter mixes a science fictional concept -- paranormal powers -- with a social issue: big government controlling our lives and compromising personal freedom of citizens.

Stephen King takes it up a notch by adding strong elements of suspense (the relentless pursuit of Andy and Charlie by The Shop). The result is an eminently satisfying read.

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