The title character of Firestarter is Charlene "Charlie" McGee, a young girl possessing many potential abilities, amongst them most notably pyrokinesis——i.e., the ability to create fire with her mind. Charlie is a mutant; she was born with her abilities due to her parents' (Andrew "Andy" McGee and Vicky Tomlinson) having participated in a mysterious government-funded experiment during college. Both parents had been injected with unknown amounts of a drug known as Lot Six, which, among other things, had been proven to alter the subject's chromosomes and pituitary gland.
As a major effect of the Lot Six, Andy developed telepathic hypnosis, a mind control ability he calls the "push", the ability to create a state of extreme suggestion in the victim's mind. Vicky developed minor telekinesis, the extent of her power being able to close a refrigerator door from across the room. Both of their powers are almost insignificant compared to the latent power of Charlie, who at one point is suspected of eventually being able to create a nuclear explosion from sheer will alone. It is also revealed that Andy's powers are self-destructive; prolonged use of the "push" causes him to suffer devastating headaches and nosebleeds.
The government agency that sponsored the original drug trials, The Shop, regarded the experiment as a failure, with one member stating that humans were simply not evolved yet to make full use of the drug. However, although they unanimously regarded Andy and Vicky as useless test subjects and dead ends, it was also unanimously agreed that Charlie was a groundbreaking development, and as a result, the McGee family was placed under surveillance for around seven years.
Due to a mistake made by Shop agents, Vicky was unnecessarily murdered and Charlie kidnapped. Using "the push", Andy is able to rescue Charlie and the two live together for several years as fugitives, moving whenever Andy feels the Shop may be catching up to them. After several near misses with Shop agents, the McGees find temporary refuge with Irv and Norma Manders, who were a friendly old-fashioned couple living on a remote farm. The farm is then besieged. Due to this event, the McGees are able to elude the Shop for a short time, holing up at Andy's grandfather's lake cabin in Vermont for several months. However, the event also draws renewed interest into the project from the Shop, eventually leading to the introduction of John Rainbird, a dangerous Native American tracker and agent of the Shop.
For six months, the McGees are prisoners of the Shop, who perform extensive tests to study their powers. Charlie McGee resolves not to use her ability and is an unwilling prisoner for the majority of the time, Andy, however, breaks down and becomes an overweight, apathetic subject, living comfortably in the Shop complex. Although he cooperates with the scientists, Andy is disappointed and distraught to find that his push power has seemingly abandoned him, and he gradually becomes helplessly and hopelessly addicted to the drug Thorazine, which the Shop is using to sedate and control him.
Eventually, an unprecedented thunderstorm creates a blackout in the facility, which sets in motion two very important events: John Rainbird is able to gain Charlie's trust by masquerading as a complex janitor with a troubled past, and Andy McGee, in a subconscious effort of will, manages to "push" himself into losing his drug addiction, thus regaining his mental power as well as the will to escape and live again. For a period of several weeks after, Andy uses his ability to manipulate the Shop personnel, notably Captain James Hollister (aka Cap), the head of the Shop, into helping him, while John Rainbird slowly encourages Charlie to start using her powers and participating in the Shop's experiments. It is revealed that Charlie's powers are developing along with the rest of her body; presumably, once she hits puberty, they will progress to something far beyond simple pyrokinesis.
Andy is finally able to communicate with Charlie again for the first time since their capture by passing her a note, but his plan goes awry when Rainbird discovers his scheme and meets them at their rendezvous point. Andy is then shot by Rainbird and dies, from a combination stroke (due to the cumulative brain damage caused by the use of his power) and bullet wound. In their last conversation before he dies, Andy tells Charlie to "burn it all down", finally breaking her complex that using her abilities was wrong. She honors his last request, incinerating the entire Shop headquarters, killing Rainbird and dozens of others, and making her escape.
Charlie returns to the Manders, who take her in until she recovers. The Shop, however, with new management, is now actively hunting Charlie. The book ends with Charlie offering her story to the magazine Rolling Stone. She hopes that revealing her story will make it impossible for The Shop to kidnap and harm her again.
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