First of all, Joe Hill‘s The Fireman is no horror story. It’s apocalypse-lit through and through but without the hackneyed zombies and vampires. Second of all, The Fireman is thoroughly infected with the ‘King’ family genetics. If there were any doubt about a connection between Joe and his old man, Stephen King, put those doubts aside. Actually, put them in the way-back storage room in the furthest, darkest corner of your basement.
Fires run rampant across the world. It started in the far north of the Arctic Circle, but only hit the public American radar when Seattle’s Space Needle toppled over in flames, bodies falling in a replay of 9-11. This was not a terrorism-fueled horror, but one generated at the microbial level.
Harper Grayson is an elementary school nurse and a devotee of Mary Poppins who listens to music on her Hello Kitty radio. She turned to nursing to make people happy. And then the burning began. Harper saw her first person go up in flames while she was tending to a student at her school. A man started to smoke, he went slack and his head became a torch.
The world is being swept into flame due to a fatal contagion, but, as these plagues are wont to go, not everyone is infected (though all are affected). There are the lucky few: those lucky to not be dead, other “lucky” to survive in a depressed and blackened wasteland that’s teetering on the edge of anarchy.
The infliction, which we learn is actually a spore, is called Dragonscale. The ‘Scale carves dark swirls across the skin of the suffering; at times of heightened emotion, ‘Scale flickers with golden flakes like hot coals searing just beneath the skin. Too much emotion? Fwoosh. It’s incendiary.
When society falls, Harper finds herself nursing at the local hospital, wearing biohazard gear and caring for the Dragonscale-sick. It’s there that she first meets The Fireman.
The Fireman is a mysterious Englishman who, unlike the rest of the inflicted, can seemingly control the fire that consumes all else. He can ignite flame from his hand, use fire as a weapon and as a defense. In a panicked world where people are doing all they can to NOT light on fire, the Fireman kindles himself at will.
A bit of good news for our budding Julie Andrews: She’s pregnant. Bad news: she’s infected with the ‘Scale. Worse news: her marriage is a bit of a sham and her husband, Jakob, is a wee bit more than a psycho. The Fireman assists Harper’s daring escape from Jakob and he brings her to Father Tom Storey.
Father Tom was the program director at Camp Wyndham outside of Portsmouth, NH. Now the place serves as a shelter for folk with Dragonscale. Over a hundred people hid away in a rebel camp-like environment, surviving off of canned food, and whatever dregs were brought in by new arrivals. The residents of Camp Wyndham are physically and metaphysically like a forest after a cleansing fire. Harper is told, “This is where your life begins again.”
And, of course, they have their own religion. Led by Father Storey and his daughter Carol, the supplicants at Camp Wyndham have discovered The Bright. The collective emotion of church singing leads to Harper’s first witnessing of The Bright – a biological connection between people who have Dragonscale spurred by an emotional outburst. When that emotion is positive, you get The Bright. When the emotion is negative, you get group burning.
Eventually Harper feels The Bright, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the obsessive religious mindset and its eventual impact on the more rationale minded.
Hill explores the evils within the camp and the terrors without. Harper’s husband survives a battle with The Fireman and thirsts for revenge. He allies with The Marlboro Man, a loud mouth radio talk show host who organizes Burner-hunting parties.
To be honest, there were a few points midway through the novel where I questioned how much I even enjoyed the book. There seemed to be a lot of print focused on Camp Wyndham drama. Hill creates interesting and believable characters, though none will settle very deeply in the reader’s memory. They exist for the story; they serve their purpose. I was intensely moved by Hill’s Horns, and he flashes his unique ability to embed a heart-tugging scene or two in The Fireman. But none touched so relentlessly as they did in Horns.
Additionally, I thought I was kind of over the whole apocalypse thing. Stephen King’s The Stand was so epic and intense, and most others in the genre paled in comparison. I wasn’t sure how many new angles could be taken until I read Emily St. John Mandel‘s Station Eleven. The concept of a few people surviving in a worldwide wasteland remains the basic concept, but Mandel turned it into literature. Justin Cronin‘s The Passage broke the (seemingly) never-ending trend toward teenage hunk-vampire love stories. His vampires were nasty and the world that remained to the healthy was nastier.
I read The Fireman patiently and was rewarded with a rock-solid story and I tore through the 700+ pages. The story’s fueled by a plethora of action, some rather intense and not for the squeamish. There are no real scares, and the only supernatural activities are explained through Hill’s pseudo-science of the Dragonscale. The Fireman fits firmly in the genre of near-future apocalyptic science fiction.
Hill does a terrific job embedding a few sub-mysteries within the core narrative: How does The Fireman control the fire? Who is he and what’s his back-story? What’s the source of Dragonscale and how does it spread? All apocalypse stories have a rumored Shangri-la for survivors to escape their horrors and it’s no different in The Fireman, but this nirvana is run by MTV 1980’s queen Martha Quinn. Is it real? Several crimes, small and large, occur during Harper’s stay at Camp Wyndham and they all serve well to propel the story within the greater tale of apocalyptic survival.
It’s hard not to make comparisons with Joe’s old man, Stephen. Even as I tried not to, I couldn’t help it. Hill blends a generous amount of retro rock references. He ends his chapters with titillating foreshadow that force a reader to keep the book light on just a little bit longer. And naturally, the story is located in northern New England, though most of the tale occurs in New Hampshire, rather than the Kings boys’ native Maine.
And damn if Joe didn’t incorporate a wee bit too much of daddy’s The Stand. It’s not hard to compare Joe’s Harold Stone with Stephen’s Harold Lauder, though you’ll appreciate where it diverges.
The writing is fluent and the story is intriguing. While imperfect, The Fireman is compelling, smart, emotional and evocative. It’s not fine literature, but it’s more than literate, enticing and fun and is sure to be a spring and summer staple on bestseller lists.