The Fireman (2016)
Written by: Joe Hill
Pages: 747 (Hardcover)
Publisher: William Morrow
Why I Chose It: I am a big fan of Hill’s previous books, so of course I was psyched to read his newest release. Joe Hill is a pen name for Joseph Hillstrom King — as in the son of the master of horror, Stephen King. He writes under a pseudonym because he doesn’t want to coast on his father’s reputation. Even though Hill wants to be judged on his own merits, every time someone asked me what I was reading and I told them it was a book written by Stephen King’s son, they promised to look him up. I feel like Hill owes me a kickback. At this point, Hill has more than proven that he can stand on his own two feet, having provided a fresh take on the ghost story (Heart-Shaped Box), the vampire myth (NOS4A2), and the Kafkaesque notion of waking up one morning radically transformed (Horns). I was excited to see what he would do with the post-apocalyptic novel in The Fireman.
The fireman is coming. Stay cool.
No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies — before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.
Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live — at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine too. . . if she can live long enough to deliver the child.
Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads — armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow fire fighter’s jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted . . . and as a weapon to avenge the wronged.
In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman’s secrets before her life — and that of her unborn child — goes up in smoke.
Spoilers: A few mild spoilers ahead.
Discussion: My high hopes for this book did not pan out. Part of the problem is that the apocalypse is really having a moment in pop culture right now, and post-apocalyptic tales feel as done to death as vampire stories did a few years ago. Many parts of The Fireman felt eerily reminiscent of other post-apocalyptic sagas, especially Hill’s dear old dad’s novel The Stand, and the television show The Walking Dead (and I’ve only watched one episode all the way through). A diverse group of survivors banding together? A woman who is pregnant as civilization falls? Trying to shield and protect a child from the worst of the events? A cult-like religion that springs up after the apocalypse that turns out to be just as dangerous as the original plague? Even Dragonscale itself reminds me of greyscale (a skin disease that turns people to stone) from the Game of Thrones universe. Bizarrely, the characters in The Fireman seem more aware of other artist’s representations of the apocalypse than Hill himself, as one of them compares her experience of the end of the world to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.
I could be more forgiving of the plot’s familiarity if I had connected more with the characters. Harper Grayson, the nurse who models herself after Mary Poppins, never quite jells as the narrator. She’s brave enough to volunteer to care for infected patients at the hospital but not courageous enough to stand up to her jerk of a husband. The whole narrative tension of the novel comes from Harper’s struggle to survive long enough to give birth to her baby, but I never felt a sense of urgency over her plight. Harper is passive and kind of basic. You just know that she is the sort of woman who wears Ugg boats, watches Friends reruns, and drinks pumpkin spice lattes. John Rookwood, the mysterious Fireman, is too much of a superhero to be relatable. It’s disappointing because some of the minor characters were more intriguing. I would have rather experienced this world from the point of view of Renee Gilmonton, who paints her nails gold to match her Dragonscale and whose life begins with the end of the world, or Nick, the deaf child who bonds with Harper, or even The Marlboro Man, the psychotic radio host who wants to kill the infected.
The book also struggles mightily to find its villain. At first, the horrifying Dragonscale itself is the catalyst driving the action forward. As Dragonscale (and the book itself) gradually become less scary, Harper’s ex-husband Jakob becomes the villain, then a cult leader is the villain, then the Cremation Squads, then Jakob again, and then man’s inhumanity to man. Jakob pursues revenge against Harper way longer than makes sense, considering that he starts the novel as a rather indifferent husband. Early in the book, Harper says, “Every day is September eleventh. How are we supposed to live our lives when every day is September eleventh?” (page 38). It’s a terrifying concept that I wish Hill had explored more deeply.
In spite of the book’s problems, there is good writing here. Harper reminisces about the world that was, feeling “homesickness for all the good things that had once been hers and were gone now: coffee in Starbucks while the cold drizzle hit the windows, vacuuming in her underwear and singing along to Bruce Springsteen, letting her gaze wander over the spines of books in a little bookstore with high shelves, eating a cold apple in the front yard and raking, hallways full of babbling laughing scuffling children at school, Coca-Cola in a glass bottle. So much of what was best in life went unnoticed in the moments you had it.” (page 644).
In conclusion: The Fireman is far from being a terrible book but unfortunately, it’s also pretty far from being a great one. I couldn’t connect with the main characters; the fear factor quickly fades; and it was entirely too predictable. Reading it feels like going on a rollercoaster that you’ve already ridden. The twists and turns just are not that thrilling when you’ve already experienced them many times before. I’m not passionate about this book but I’m still looking forward to reading whatever Joe Hill writes next. I wholeheartedly recommend that you read Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, and NOS4A2.