Novel * Stephen King * Extreme Government Overreach * 1981
Like most of America this last summer, I really enjoyed Stranger Things. It’s rare when I take the time to watch a TV series, let alone at the same time as everyone else, so it was a fun thing. The show was concise, well-acted, and told a good story. Its very eighties-ness was evident throughout, of course, and as someone who’s sensitive to nostalgia exploitation, I felt they walked the line between a period-setting and nostalgic pandering fairly well. That said, the show certainly wore its influences on its sleeve, and it reminded me of a novel I haven’t read since high school. The central figure of Stranger Things is a girl with extraordinary powers that is compelled by a shadowy government agency to use her talents for the national interest. Firestarter is a novel about a girl with extraordinary powers who is actively being chased by a shadowy government agency in order to do the same. Obviously these are two very different narratives, but what I’m interested in is the government as a villain.
The story begins with the two principal characters, Andy and Charlie McGee (yo, I don’t know about that name Steve… although to be fair this came out well before Anchorman) on the run in New York City. This is an in media res opening, however, and soon the story flashes back to fill the gaps as to how and why this father and daughter are running for their freedom. Turns out when he was in college, Andy and his wife-to-be participated in a research experiment in which the government shot a bunch of people with a serum designed to awaken latent psychological powers. While high, both Andy and his new lady friend were able to communicate telepathically and do some other fun things with their minds. Oh, and two of the other test subjects died right then, and the rest eventually went insane or committed suicide.
Flash back to the present and now Andy is on the run with the child produced from the two experiment survivors. They’re running from an outfit called “The Shop,” which is an agency kind of like the CIA or the NSA, except they’re even more secret and tend to oversee science and technology projects that could help us win the Cold War or whatever. The Shop is responsible for the disastrous experiment that ultimately resulted in Charlie McGee. This special little girl, unlike her parents, has tremendous extrasensory powers. While her mother was able to close the refrigerator door with her mind, and her father is able to “push” people psychologically with his, Charlie can light fires. Further, while her mom was constrained to parlor tricks and Andy’s use of power damages his brain, Charlie has no such limitations. As she gets older, her power becomes greater and with it her control. She is, obviously, quite dangerous.
Still, she’s just a little girl. She’s smart and cute as a button and does not deserve to be chased and imprisoned by the big bad government agents. And really, more than anything, Firestarter is a story about the mistrust of the federal government. The Shop is the embodiment of the repressive arm of the United States, and it is stated in no uncertain terms that they are a force of great evil. They created Charlie, and now they seek to exterminate her after extracting what knowledge they can from her. Because this is Stephen King, the characters are well drawn and worth reading about on their own, so luckily this is not a didactic scold about the evils of government overreach.
It is difficult to write about this subject, and by extension this book, without devolving into a ten thousand word screed about the 2016 election and the confounding, contradictory, and occasionally insane mood of the electorate. Suffice to say that mistrust of the federal government is certainly not a new thing, as this 35 year old novel can attest to. Americans have always had an uneasy relationship with their government, and I think arguments can be made as to why this mistrustful streak can be seen as a good thing. After all, at the end of the day it’s not the Constitutional checks and balances that keeps true tyranny at bay, it’s the will of the people. This is why, when the federal government acquires non-disclosed power for itself, it becomes scary. By and large, the public still runs the show. Now, there are certainly arguments to be made that many of our institutions are kind of running on inertia at this point, but we’ll set that aside for the sake of simplicity. Firestarter’s main antagonist is not any individual. It is not Rainbird, the enigmatic assassin. Nor is it Cap, the crusty, amoral official-in-charge. The reason Firestarter is scary is because of The Shop.
There is a moment of quiet in this story when Charlie and Andy are able to hole up for the winter in a Vermont (not Maine!) cabin by a lake. Unbeknownst to them, they have been surrounded and observed by Shop agents pretty much the entire time. Toward the end of this interlude, Andy decides to take his story to the press and writes letters to various news outlets detailing his government problems. The Shop, of course, isn’t about to let this happen, so one of the agents is sent to intercept the letters by accosting the mailman and relieving him of the incriminating letters. The following scene transpires:
“He was scared, as scared as any man is when suddenly confronted with the force of the government, when gray enforcement bureaucracy suddenly takes on a real face, like something grim and solid swimming up out of a crystal ball…. Everett gave him the small sack of mail from Bradford and Williams. They opened it right there on the road and sorted through it impersonally. Robert Everett felt anger and a kind of sick shame. What they were doing wasn’t right, not even if it was the secrets of the nuclear bomb in there. Opening the U.S. mail by the side of the road wasn’t right. Ludicrously, he found himself feeling about the same way he would have felt if a strange man had come barging into his house and pulled off his wife’s clothes.”
There are two enlightening aspects to this excerpt, both of which tie into America’s peculiar duel attitude about our government. The first is the mailman’s terror of being confronted by the real face of “gray enforcement bureaucracy.” We forget, sometimes, the magnitude of power that we’ve ceded to our government. So long as this power is diffused – and the gun is pointed at someone else – it’s an easy thing to forget. Bureaucracy is a terrible thing (just ask Kafka) because it depersonalizes individuality. When everything, up to and including human life, is reduced to a handful of numbers on a spreadsheet, it becomes possible to detach from the worst kind of violence and violation. This introduces the duality of the United States government, as seen from the American point of view, which is distilled in the second part of this excerpt.
The above scene takes place entirely between two employees of the federal government. They ostensibly have the same boss (President Reagan in this case). Yet they represent very different viewpoints. The local mailman is a member of the community. He serves his country in an important, but small way. Given how he feels when the Shop agent shows up flashing his gun, he takes his duty very seriously. Government, in this case, is a good thing. It connects our citizens and protects their confidence. Meanwhile, the Shop agent represents the dark side of the federal government. He is not a member of any community (other than other shadow agents), and his service is limited to blind enforcement. The only ideal he seems to care for is that of ‘national security,’ but even that is swept aside for the agent’s love of personal power. The Postal Service is a portrayed as a necessary, even noble, public service. The Shop, however, is depicted as a malignant growth on a sprawling bureaucracy. They’re not accountable to anyone, and are therefore a threat to their own citizens.
Meanwhile, we’re given an incredibly sympathetic protagonist to root for as she single-handedly takes down The Man. Charlie is an unassuming little girl with ferocious power and a good heart. She only uses her destructive talent when pressed by the bad mens in black suits, and then spends a good deal of time feeling bad about it. The Shop takes everything away from her: her mother, her father, her childhood. When the fiery apocalypse goes down, it’s cathartic for everyone involved. Obviously the novel builds towards the scouring cleansing flames, I mean it’s right there in the title. In the end, Charlie makes her way to the good folks at Rolling Stone to tell her story, presumably because they’re hip rock n’ roll journos that haven’t been co-opted by The Man like the rest of the lamestream media. The presumption is that the only thing that can damage the dark side of the government is light. After all, public accountability is what keeps the ‘good’ side of the government in check.