Stephen King has done for the horror story what Colonel Sanders did for the chicken.
In less than a decade, he has dished up five workmanlike and amazingly lucrative novels (including "Carrie," "Salem's Lot" and "The Shining") and a good collection of short stories. And now, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bookstore, the dependable franchiser of terror is hitting the racks again with "Firestarter."
When you're hot, you're hot -- and King is a one-man entertainment industry. By mid-summer the movie rights to the new novel were already sold, it was locked into a Literary Guild Main Selection, and the presses were groaning with the first 100,000 hard-cover copies. The new paperback edition of "The Dead Zone" was smothering the newsstands, and the movie version of "The Shining" was playing down the block.
Obviously, King is giving his all to prop up our failing economy. So it seems ungrateful to suggest that the most shocking thing about this ostensible chiller is its success. Just as his last novel, "The Dead Zone," was an amalgam of politics and precognition, "Firestarter" is a hybrid of weirdpower tale and spy thriller, a sort of "Carrie Meets Six Days of the Condor."
Little Charlie McGee can start fires just by using her mind. She inherits the torch from her parents, Andy and Vicky, who in 1969 become the unwitting subjects of a CIA-style government drug experiment while undergraduates at their midwestern university.
They are married soon after the experiment and gradually Discover Strange New Powers. Vicky can close refrigerator doors from a distance, a combination of Uri Geller and Betty Furness. Andy, in whom the power is stronger, can alter people's minds by forcing his own thoughts into their heads -- "pushing" them, he calls it. Their daughter, Charlie, can set things on fire.
Ordinary Americans in their circumstances would either call Ralph Nader or try to get the kid on "The Gong Show." But not Andy and Vicky: Like the parents of psychic Danny in "The Shining," they are unbelievably tolerant. After Charlie's first infantile smoulderings ("of course they knew she wasn't normal") their response is to put "fire extinguishers all over the house." When the incendiary tot is 1 year old, she has a tantrum and turns her teddy bear into a "lump of charcoal." Andy's reaction is: "If you burn Teddy, you might burn Mommy. Daddy. Now . . . don't do it anymore!"
As Charlie grows, so does her power. By the age of 8 she is a veritable Radar-Range and could settle down to a comfortable living demolishing buildings or drilling for oil shale. Instead, she and her father (who has parlayed his "pushing" ability into a nice little self-help counseling service) are being pursued by agents of The Shop. This entity -- the Department of Scientific Intelligence -- ran the drug experiment under its mandate to handle science projects "bearing on national security." The Shop wants Andy stifled for what he knows and Charlie harnessed as the Ultimate Military Weapon.
A series of chases and escapes pits Andy and Charlie against various sadistic agents. They get theirs, of course, when she Flicks her Bic every 40 pages or so. In one terrific cookout, she fricassees half a dozen agents: "For a moment he was all there, screaming silently under a transparent caul of flame, and then his features were blending, merging, running like tallow."
But finally father and daughter are brought to The Shop's Langley-like Virginia confines at the mercy of crusty old head spook "Cap Hollister and his top agent/assassin, John Rainbird.
This latter specimen is a "half-Cherokee" who is "a troll, an orc, a balrog of a man." He "stood two inches shy of seven feet tall, and he wore his glossy black hair drawn back and tied in a curt ponytail. Ten years before, a Claymore mine had blown up in his face during his second tour of Vietnam, and now his countenance was a horror show of scar tissue and runneled flesh. He left eye was gone."
Although he has "an apt, ferociously bright mind," and speaks four languages fluently, Rainbird is not playing with a full deck. He spends most of his salary collecting shoes he never wears. ("Gucci, Bally, Bass, Adidas, Van Donen. Shoes. His house was a strange forest; shoe trees grew in every room, and he would go from room to room admiring the shoe-fruit that grew on them.") Worse yet, he is obsessed with death and observes his dying victims closely to see what's on the Other Side. He has similar plans for Charlie, and readers who can sit through 428 pages will find out whether this little match girl will ever get to Vassar.
But it's not easy to warm up to "Firestarter." For one thing it refuses to deliver the advertised goods. The justly enthusiastic readers of "Salem's Lot" and "The Shining" do not buy Stephen King hoping to find either political tracts about secret agencies or maudlin scenes of father-daughter affection. King's readers want to be scarred -- especially in a book Viking calls his "most mesmerizing . . . and menacing." But the only scary moment occurs when the purchaser realizes that his $13.95 is gone forever.
Moveover, the prose is fat. Witness the passages cited above: A troll, an orc and a balrog? And what Iis a ponytail, if not "hair drawn back and tried?" And wouldn't a mind that is ferociously bright" also be "apt?" (Of "shoe-fruit," the less said the better.)
But the main problem is the Hamburger Helper approach to fiction. King finds himself obliged to stretch out a short-story-sized plot and serve it up as a novel. So there is moral agonizing aplenty from Charlie; there is prodigious loathing of the government agents; there are a number of fully-drawn (if extraneous) characters and ample passages depicting family love; there are asides of the "shoe-fruit" species. But for all the careful pacing and King's obvious good intentions, it's still just a half-pound of hamburger -- and the rest is noodles.
Yet who can blame the 33-year-old former English teacher? He must sell his work to an industry which increasingly buys not books but marketable "concepts" that "describe well." The new novel alone reportedly will earn $1 million in movie rights from Allied Stars and another $1 million as the second of a three-book contract with Viking and New American Library.
And more: King seems to have sold the movie rights to everything he has ever written except his Maine Driver's License application and a few letters from camp. "Carrie," "Salem's Lot" and "The Shining" have already been filmed. "The Stand" has been sold to George ("Night of the Living Dead") Romero, along with an original screen-play called "Creep Show." "The Dead Zone" went to Lorimar. And the third book in the Viking/NAL contract -- reportedly without an afficted child for a change -- is now in the works.
So if "Firestarter" is not so hot, well, King is very busy. And after all: A man's reach should exceed his grasp -- or what's an agent for?