Putting out Fire with Gasoline: Stephen King’s Firestarter and Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild
Welcome to Late Night Love Affair, a column in which I’ll share with you the pieces of writing I’ve most recently come to love. Sometimes I will love ‘good’ writing—award-winning, critic-seducing, endowment-winning writing, the kind by the serious people with the nice sweaters and the author-photo expressions of mild consternation and eternal pensiveness. Sometimes I will not. Sometimes I will love the supermarket writing. Sometimes I will love the accidental poetry of Fox News, or the copy on the back of my hot sauce bottle, or the songwriting prowess of Donnie Iris (though I’m still not sure how I feel about “Our minds said no/ But our hearts were talking faster”). The only rules are that Late Night Love Affair has to be about writing, and that I have to be honest with you.
What do you love? For me, the list changes daily, in writing as in life. It’s shaped by momentary fixations and brand-new discoveries, some of which will peter out in another day’s time, and some of which will join the ranks of my longstanding obsessions. In life, what do I love, right now, today? Liverwurst, which I impulse-bought at the grocery store last night and found to be surprisingly delicious; Donnie Iris’ “Ah! Leah!,” a minor pop hit from 1980 and my favorite song to listen to in the car (and am currently pretending is actually about Dune’s Alia Atreides, which makes it that much more entertaining); and Case Study, a Portland coffee shop where I often write.
What I love as a writer and reader requires a little more thought. I love good action writing, which is surprisingly rare. I love Lorrie Moore’s “Vissi D’Arte,” which I just reread the other night, in a horrified and exhilarated burst of self-recognition and writerly jealousy. (In particular, I love Moore’s riskily unwriterly phrasing when she tells us: “when [Harry] slept he did so dreamlessly, like a bug.”) I love Elmore Leonard, and I love the way Elmore Leonard handled verbs—those tense little building blocks—with, as Martin Amis put it, “a kind of marijuana tense: [not ‘Dawn says’ or ‘Dawn said,’ but] ‘Dawn saying.’ Creamy, wandering, weak-verbed…He doesn’t just show you what these people say and do; he shows you how they breathed.” Speaking of which, I love Martin Amis, but let’s stay with Elmore Leonard, so recently departed, and still, I think, underappreciated, partly because it is impossible to fully appreciate his formidable gifts, and partly because—this is where things will get uncomfortable for a minute—he was a writer of popular fiction.
Elmore Leonard is one of my longstanding popular loves, but this past summer I discovered a new one: Stephen King. Of course, no one can really plead ignorance about King—not about his success as a writer, or even about his stories. We all know a few of them, or at least their bones. They have been adapted for movies and TV, then sequelled and remade and parodied and deconstructed and adapted yet again through the lens of pop culture. He wrote the one with the pig’s blood and the gym showers, the one with the Colorado hotel and the alcoholic writer, the one with the axe-wielding superfan and the manual typewriter missing an N, the one with the killer car, the one with the killer dog, the one with the killer clown, the one with the killer kids in the corn maze, and a whole lot else. Earlier this summer, I knew—as well all do—that, like it or not, Stephen King is part of the American landscape. What I learned this summer is that I like it—that, in fact, I love it. And now I’m going to tell you why.
Few writers have begun their careers so explosively, and continued them so unflaggingly, as Stephen King. His beginnings as a writer have become a kind of popular myth: when he sold his first published novel, Carrie, he was living in a trailer and supporting his young family on a schoolteacher’s salary, which he supplemented with work in an industrial laundry while his wife worked behind the counter at Dunkin Donuts. (This legacy is especially visible in his early stories, which feature more than a few factory workers—to say nothing of factory machines—taking grisly revenge on the boss.) Discussing his growth from the teenage boy who kept his rejection notices on a spike to the publishing titan he became, King has always emphasized hard work and determination above all else, and it seems the status he has gained as a hero to so many young writers may have as much to do with his own story as it does with the stories he tells. Scrape away the gore from any of his novels, and you’ll find an oddly heartening message: this could be you.
His early heroes also have more than a little in common with the young King, journey to sudden fame and all: at its most basic, each centers on an average man who wants nothing more than an average, happy life, but instead finds his existence governed by extraordinary new circumstances which he must learn to navigate, not with the skills of a math genius or former Navy SEAL, but with common sense, doggedness, and a desire to care for his loved ones even at his own expense. It is as compelling a story as that of the hard-working young father who makes it into publishing’s big leagues, and it dominates King’s prolific first decade. In 1975’s ‘Salem’s Lot, shell-shocked young writer Ben Mears returns to his hometown and starts dating a pretty local girl, only to find that the place is quickly being overtaken by vampires, and that he must play Van Helsing. In 1977’s The Shining, Jack Torrance is introduced to us as a recovering alcoholic whose greatest fear is being unable to care for and protect his young family (I think you know the rest.) In 1978’s The Stand, a host of unheroic characters—a softspoken Texas factory worker, a coke-addled musician, a Deaf vagabond, and a misanthropic sociologist—must rebuild and defend society after an apocalyptic virus kills 99% of the world’s population. (It may not be entirely coincidental that one of The Stand’s most loathsome villains is a pretentious young poet who, in the pre-virus world, styled himself an Ogunquit Rimbaud, and certainly did not have the same Yankee discipline as the teenaged King.) And, in 1979’s The Dead Zone, small-town schoolteacher Johnny Smith just wants to take his girl on a date, but gets in a car accident on the way home, and wakes up after four years on a coma to find himself a modern-day Cassandra.
And so to 1980’s Firestarter, in which small-town college instructor Andy McGee (are you beginning to see a pattern here?) has to save his eight-year-old daughter Charlie from a malevolent government organization nicknamed “The Shop.” Andy, you see, has been not quite ordinary since he volunteered himself as an uninformed guinea pig a scientific experiment that left him with mild ESP. The pretty girl on the gurney beside him emerged similarly altered, but the real problems arose when the two fell in love and had a daughter who quickly revealed herself as—to use Professor X’s terminology—a mutant. An altered pituitary gland has given her pyrokinesis—the ability to create fires with her mind—and once The Shop catches on, they set out to catch Charlie and find out exactly what she’s capable of. At the start of the novel, The Shop has already killed Charlie’s mother, and Andy and Charlie have been on the run for a year, with Charlie’s power getting stronger all the time.
In the spirit of full disclosure—and can book reviews be written in any other spirit?—I read Firestarter after having dispatched of all King’s previous books in fairly short order. After falling in love with The Stand last summer—an adventure amply chronicled in the first installment of Late Night Lit—I decided to read all of King’s other books, fiction and non-, chronologically. (Later installments of this column will no doubt offer further evidence of my fondness for unnecessarily huge undertakings.) By the time I reached Firestarter, I was eight books deep and beginning to tire. If my gleeful experience reading The Stand amounted to a literary first date—with King picking me up for the prom, resplendent in a cherry Plymouth, a pink ruffled tux, and the gargantuan unibrow he sported in the ‘70s—Firestarter felt more like marriage. The Plymouth wasn’t murderous, but it did have an awful lot of Arby’s wrappers under the seats, and King’s own adorable quirks were starting to seem less than adorable. Worse, I was also getting used to his stock characters: the introspective and precocious young boy; the spooked deliverymen who always came within inches of slaughter; the decent blue-collar man enduring marriage to a cold and priggish woman; the down-to-earth firebrand of a love interest, assuming the hero was lucky enough to have one; the telepathic community elder. Worst of all, though, was the fact that the stars of this revolving cast seemed little different to me than they had in their previous incarnations: once again, the ultimate Nice Guy had to face off against the ultimate villain, who, in King’s early novels, often took the form of a charismatic politician or politician-type figure who seduced you with his promises while he quietly slipped a knife into your guts. Andy McGee, meet Johnny Smith, Stu Redman, Jack Torrance, and Ben Mears; Cap Hollister, meet Greg Stillson, Harold Lauder, and Randall Flagg.
One of King’s most noticeable attempts at innovation is visible in Firestarter’s structure: its events take place over the course of more than a year, with long intermissions between periods of action. Andy and Charlie hide out all winter in a rural cabin, biding their time before making their next move—as does The Shop. After The Shop finally captures Andy and Charlie, and brings them to its compound in Virginia, many more months elapse before Charlie begins to make use of her titular abilities. There are suspenseful sequences scattered throughout, and the conclusion is everything one might wish for—not least of all because King finally gets a chance to engage with his subject matter, and writes about fire, heat, destruction, and unbridled power with all the relish and ruthlessness of a dog tearing apart a bone—but when it comes, it is too little, and too late.
It seems likely that King wanted to explore an episodic structure in Firestarter because he had such success with it in The Dead Zone, which had been published only the previous year. Both the chronological scope and the number of narrative lulls in The Dead Zone make the risks King took with Firestarter seem minimal: The Dead Zone takes place over the course of a decade, and chronicles the disillusionment of the ‘70s as much as it does Johnny Smith’s attempts to grapple with his newfound power. But the questions The Dead Zone raises—What responsibilities do we have to our fellow man, and to our fellow citizens? What does it mean to be an American? How much agency do we have in our lives? Can murder ever be justified?—are questions the novel can only answer if it provides us with a portrait not just of one man’s struggles, but of American society as a whole. The Dead Zone does just that, and we keep reading not so much because we want to know what happens to Johnny—though we do—but because we want to know what the book might teach us about the way we view our country, our countrymen, and ourselves.
But Firestarter is not about America, not really—even if it does take the same dim view of the American government that The Dead Zone, and many of King’s other early novels, did. Firestarter is about a precocious little girl who possesses an unspeakable power, and, even more essentially, it is about the power and perils of girlhood. In the end, this is both the book’s greatest strength and it’s greatest failing.
For King, Charlie McGee is something totally new: she is a character of a kind he has never explored before, and the book gives him every opportunity to paint a riveting portrait of a girl victimized by both the world around her and by her own strength. And in the sections when we do get to see Charlie clearly, or see the world through her eyes, she is as finely and thoughtfully drawn as one could wish. Charlie is quick-witted and circumspect, though not unbelievably so; she loves her father, but also recognizes that he does not have the power to keep her safe; and she shows a steely determination when The Shop pressures her to use her gift for their experiments, but has the same sensitive spots as any child, or any adult, for that matter. After Charlie is forced to use her gift to defend herself and her father when they are ambushed at a farm, Charlie is horrified when the chickens that had so charmed her go up in flames. Amid the greater carnage of the incident, in which grown men are killed perhaps even more gruesomely than they deserve, Charlie’s focus on the chickens—whose deaths haunt her throughout the book—feels idiosyncratically real.
Her extraordinary powers aside, Charlie is a normal, bright little girl, and perhaps King’s unwillingness to get as close to her character as he could or should (we spend only about a quarter of the book in her perspective) suggests that he is reluctant to take on not an extraordinary character, but an ordinary one. In attempting to see the world through the eyes of a young girl well on her way to becoming a woman, King takes on a perspective that stills seems to terrify most male writers, regardless of genre. Most male writers are, of course, more than happy to handle the often lovely exteriors of both girls and women—as are their male protagonists—but exploring their minds is another matter.
Nabokov provided not just one of English literature’s greatest novels but one of literature’s most problematic lacunae when he presented us with Lolita, and with Dolores Haze. Throughout the novel we are given ample opportunity to feel charmed by—and perhaps even comfortable with—a kidnapper and pederast, but to feel we understand Lolita herself (or Dolores, or Dolly, or Lo—even her name quickly becomes an ambiguity, with each version suggesting a different girl), we must do all the work. We are given the power to decide that she is a wanton seductress, or a manipulator, or an innocent victim, or a fiction. As readers, we can utilize this power thoughtfully, but also destructively. Lolita has become a cultural palimpsest, as has the character herself, her name schizophrenically signifying any one of a hundred visions of girlhood, though, overwhelmingly, these visions occupy one end of the spectrum: the lust-driven schemer smart beyond her years. It is an interpretation that we have seen absorbed into our cultural fabric, and utilized in horrifying ways. During the 1992 trial for the Glen Ridge rape case, in which a group of teenage boys had lured a developmentally disabled girl into a basement and sexually assaulted her, defense lawyer Michael Querques built his arguments on a characterization of the rape’s victim as “a Lolita.” In his understanding—which he trusted would be the jury’s and the media’s as well—the term unambiguously signified a sexually precocious young woman who asked for and enjoyed the experience of being assaulted, just as her fictional counterpart had.
Yet Querques’ arguments about what it meant to be “a Lolita” are indicative, more than anything, of the problems plaguing our society and its literature: in our depictions of women and girls, we err dangerously on the side of simplicity. Even if we reject the cultural meaning Lolita and Lolita have accrued, we still run the risk of settling for an equally reductive interpretation: if not the seductress then the victim, if not the manipulator then the innocent child. Part of this is our own fault—we are too used to getting by with easy characterizations, and often are simply given no other choices—but part of it is Nabokov’s. In Humbert Humbert, he created one of the slyest, slipperiest, most intriguing, bedeviling, and bizarrely sympathetic narrators in the English language. But after observing the tragic fate of Humbert’s beloved victim—who has suffered more at the hands of readers than in her own text—one wonders: would it have been even more difficult, and more worthwhile, for Nabokov to present us with an equally nuanced understanding of Lolita-Dolly-Lo herself?
In Firestarter, we come tantalizingly close to having the kind of complex and respectful understanding of Charlie McGee that we need. But time and again, King backs away, retreating to his old standby (and inevitably male) characters: the tormented everyman, the slimy politician, the sycophantic yes-man, the avuncular old farmer, the detached and merciless killer (who, it must be noted, sees at least the light of his life in Charlie McGee, if not the fire of his loins). As soon as we feel we can see Charlie clearly, we’re whisked away into another perspective, and though those whose viewpoints fill the page afford us other ways of seeing Charlie, we quickly realize that seeing the way the world sees Charlie—her power, her potential, her intelligence, and her strength—is not nearly so illuminating an experience as seeing the world through Charlie’s eyes.
In the end, Charlie McGee is so fascinating to the reader not because of her abilities, but because of her status as an ordinary young girl. Perhaps the most spectacular sequence in the book—and the only one the reader emerges from without feeling the least bit cheated—is its climax, in which Charlie, very much alone, must defend herself by using her power to its fullest potential. The destruction is spectacular—and spectacularly written—when seen through any perspective, but it is when we see it through Charlie’s eyes that the scene truly comes alive:
Windows broke like gunshots. The ivy trellis climbing the east side of the house shuddered and then burst into arteries of fire. The paint smoked, then bubbled, then flamed. Fire ran up the roof like grasping hands.
One of the doors burst open, letting out the whooping, panicked bray of a fire alarm and two dozen secretaries, technicians, and analysts. They ran across the lawn toward the fence, veered away from the deaths of electricity and yapping, leaping dogs, and then milled like frightened sheep. The power wanted to go out toward them but she turned it away from them and onto the fence itself, making the neat chainlink diamonds droop and run and weep molten-metal tears…
She sent the force out, all of it. For just a moment it seemed that nothing at all was happening; there was a faint shimmer in the air, like the shimmer above a barbecue pit where the coals have been well banked…and then the entire house exploded.
Here, we are given the chance to understand much more than the destruction Charlie is capable of: we are given the chance to understand Charlie. We understand her when we watch her watch a world blisteringly ravaged and ruined by a power that she can “force out” but not call back; when we watch her destroy, with shell-shocked abandon, the safety around her, as thoroughly as her own safety has been destroyed; and when we watch her horrible realization that all the destructive power in the world will not allow her to bring back what she has lost.
It would be, I think, just a little to easy to go for the fire-as-sex metaphor here—though The Shop’s operatives devote a fair amount of time to discussing what new levels of power Charlie will be capable of once she undergoes puberty, as her pyrokinesis is linked to her mutated pituitary gland. We could certainly run with that metaphor, but if we followed it too literally it wouldn’t take us anywhere very interesting, except to a pat conclusion: sex is dangerous. Sex can destroy girls and those around them. Get it? Good.
But no. It would be a discredit to Charlie McGee, and to Stephen King—the man who very nearly succeeded in doing her justice—to draw such a simple moral from this book. And though I wouldn’t connect Charlie’s power exclusively to sexuality, I would say that it is intrinsically bound up in the experience of being a girl. Charlie is feared and valued for what she might be capable of, and those who seek to capture and study her can never quite reconcile themselves to the fact that there is no fire without Charlie, no power without Charlie, and no knowledge of Charlie without Charlie’s cooperation. She holds the most coveted assets The Shop can imagine, and though her capacity for destruction gives her a certain kind of power, her refusal to allow The Shop access to this capacity amounts to an even greater strength. She has what those around her want—want to use to their own ends, without regard for her well-being; want to understand as thoroughly as they can before they destroy Charlie herself, for fear of the way she might use it; want simply to gaze upon in fearful admiration—and she understands both the magnitude of her power, and the fact that it has very little to do with who she is. She is the hive that makes the honey, the field of wheat to be threshed and distilled to whiskey, the oyster that holds the pearl, and at the end she will be shucked and forgotten—or at least, this is what The Shop plans.
That Charlie recognizes the separation between herself and her abilities speaks to her intelligence, and shows a kind of power every girl, or every reader who has once been a girl, can aspire to. To be female in this world means growing up to feel esteemed for attributes one can never fully understand or control: beauty, sexuality, or simply the state of being a girl, and of being seen as belonging to the world at large more than to oneself. To be female in this world is to be told that one can be powerful by being sexy, or pretty, or by using one’s exterior, or by letting one’s exterior be used. When it comes to her abilities, Charlie is told the same, but she knows better, and she is there to tell young readers that they are capable of the same strength and intelligence in their own lives. And if she can teach us this in a book that spends so much time focused on other characters, imagine what she could be capable of if Firestarter had been hers and hers alone.
On the face of it, it may seem somewhat odd to jump from Firestarter, a speculative horror novel published in 1980 by one of the most prolific authors writing today, to Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel Girlchild, a literary bildungsroman published just last year. Yet, like Firestarter, Hassman’s book is at its best when it deals head-on with the intense vulnerability and blistering potential power present in the lives of girls. Like Firestarter, it also ends in a scene of blazing destruction. The final, inferno-depicting scene of Girlchild appears to suggest that its heroine, Rory Dawn Hendrix, has found some semblance of freedom—from her past, from her home, and from the forces that govern any girlchild’s life—but this seems like far too easy a way out. In this way, Girlchild’s ending is in keeping with the rest of the novel, which, like Firestarter, seems poised to explore the explosive truths its subject matter necessitates, but all too often shies away from its most meaningful material.
In Girlchild, Rory Dawn Hendrix tells us of her childhood in the Calle, a Reno trailer park, and of the shaky matriarchy that both lends love and structure to her life and provides her with a legacy of poverty and abuse. We follow Rory Dawn from earliest childhood through the end of high school, and perhaps it’s because of the ambitious scope of the narrative that the book feels so splintered, split between too many staccato chapters—130 in all—too many storylines, and too many styles of writing. To name just a few plotlines, we see Rory Dawn’s improbable success in spelling bees; her discovery of her mother and grandmother’s pasts; her childhood abuse at the hands of a character known only as the Hardware Man, and his daughter; and her imaginary friendship with a girl named Vivian Buck, who is later ambiguously revealed as the ghost of a child whose alleged “feeblemindedness” gave rise to Buck v. Bell, a Supreme Court eugenics case. This last storyline leads us into Hassman’s somewhat academic exploration of eugenics and America’s war not on poverty but on its impoverished citizens, and the assumption that they do not have the right to bear or raise children. Certainly, this alone would have given her enough material to fill Girlchild’s two hundred and seventy-one pages. But the novel is also meant as a story of sexual abuse and the ghosts it leaves behind, and of day-to-day life in a dangerous and dismal yet tight-knit community, and of what it means to honor one’s family legacy while attempting to escape one’s circumstances, and of growing up smart and lonely in a world that doesn’t much value girls for their brains, and…
And, and, and. Throughout Girlchild, we shuttle not just between story lines, but between writing styles, finding ourselves first in pseudo-ethnography (“the physical punishment of Calle children rarely goes beyond a threat with a closed fist or a slap with an open hand, as both serve to curtain the offending behavior and reinforce the Calle’s core values of violence and physical intimidation without requiring a move from the couch”), then in childhood stream-of-consciousness (“there is nothing wrong with me if I just would stop covering my mouth all the time but under my hands there are scabs”), then in prose-poem interlude (a chapter, in its entirety, reads: “The bell rings the signal for inside dares. Boys sit at their desks and count how many seconds long they can rub their skin raw with the erasers on their Number Two Pencils before they bleed. Boys grow up with scars from erasing their skin”). Rory Dawn’s obsession with the Girl Scout Handbook also provides the narrative with a structure, but whatever writerly innovations it allows her pale in comparison to the raw power we know we would encounter if we approached Rory Dawn and her experience without any kind of distance or mediation. Hassman employs a similar device in chapters detailing the Hardware Man’s abuses, in which Rory Dawn censors her own thoughts, or perhaps her memories:
Here’s ddddd the Hardware Man’s house xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… my mouth all the time xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… don’t fucking say anything ddddddd don’t fucking say anything to anyone ever.
It’s an arresting choice, but it also seems like a deeply self-conscious one. We don’t need graphic depictions of Rory Dawn’s abuse in order to understand her life, but we do need to feel close to her, and of all the voices Hassman uses in Girlchild—the anthropologist, the essayist, the poet, the theorizer, the adult woman looking back across a decades-wide chasm—it’s hard to find much of Rory Dawn’s during her girlchild days.
Hassman is a writer of stunning power and originality, and can wring the most revealing kind of insight from descriptions that might, in another writer’s hands, be rendered as a dull necessity: Rory Dawn describes her grandmother’s “intentions lining up as sweet as cherries promising a jackpot, and her anger “grim as meat and bent as bone, too delicate for touch and too raw for air.” For a writer with gifts as formidable as hers, it would be difficult not to treat a first novel as a chance to demonstrate all she can do. But Girlchild falls short by giving us too much, and by allowing Hassman’s Midas touch to take precedence over the raw and ugly truths of Rory Dawn’s experiences. Hassman is a powerful writer, but in the end, there is perhaps nothing more powerful than the simple experience of girlhood, rendered with honesty, simplicity, and care. That a writer must be fearless to do justice to girlhood seems only fair: one must be fearless simply to be a girl.