"You're afraid it's the End Times because we're surrounded by death and ruin. Nurse Willowes, don't you know? Death and ruin is man's preferred ecosystem. Did you ever read about the bacterium that thrives in volcanoes, right on the edge of boiling rock? That's us. Humanity is a germ that thrives on the very edge of catastrophe" (324).
Anyone who believes that horror isn’t for them should read this book.
I know that’s might be a difficult challenge given the hefty size of The Fireman. Weighing in at 768 pages it is no quick read—but it’s no slow-burn either.
I devoured these pages hastily as though the book was going up in flame in my hands, but I tried to take my time and really read every word because there is such craft behind the lines. Hill has really come into his own with this and his last book, NOS4A2—another honker at 686 pages.
While this book isn't being marketed as horror—just try to find some keyword mentions in the flap copy—it’s hard to ignore all the signals that Hill is giving us. The post-apocalyptic setting and all the death, chaos, destruction, and collapse of humanity that goes along with that, for one. And there are other elements: the emergence of a cult, a sci-fi disease, some paranormal activity, a handful of pretty evil people, and of course, a badass heroine who is smote at every turn.
This isn’t to say that you need these elements to call any book a horror novel. They are just pieces and honestly don’t mean much on their own.
For example, you could argue that McCarthy’s terrifying post-apocalyptic vision The Road (which Hill even alludes to along with a plethora of other books, songs, and pop-culture references) is considered literary fiction and not horror. And I would not argue with you! I’m not one to split hairs over genre, I just think horror has historically been given a bad rap by many consumers for no good reason and great books like this one are rewriting the boundaries and hopefully bringing new readers to other great contemporary horror authors like Dan Simmons, Stephen Graham Jones, Lauren Beukes, Ania Ahlborn, Adam Nevill, Paul Tremblay, and Stephen King.
Alright, there, I said it: Stephen King—the elephant in the room (or perhaps the monster in the closet?) when it comes to Joe Hill. For those who might be unaware, Hill is a pen name—Joe is King’s eldest son. So while Hill did escape notice for a while when his first book, 20th Century Ghosts, came out, once the cat was out of the bag, it was like the cat from Pet Sematary—one that wouldn’t stay dead. Hill draws constant comparisons to his dad, and its hard to deny the similarities, especially in these two most recent books. But Hill has no qualms stating that his dad has always been a big influence, so of course it affects his writing.
I think Hill has a similar sense of story—of the scope of a narrative—and also of the human connection to that narrative that King has always shown. There’s something innate about storytelling like that, and it’s difficult to forcibly create. I think its something some writers are just able to translate better than others. But Hill has grown up in a different world than King and he comes at his stories from a different, more modern angle. This is becoming more and more clear to me with King’s more recent novels—King sees things from a different perspective now, an older perspective, and he has always written his novels best with a piece of himself in mind. (Short stories are a different matter. King is a master of the short story—check out his newest collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, if you don’t believe me.) But Hill is more attuned to our world right now and writes with a more modern push.
In The Fireman there is a spore nicknamed Dragonscale that could infect you and make you susceptible to spontaneous combustion at any moment. The world is in a panic, the infected are pariahs—because no one quite knows yet how the disease is passed along—and Harper is pregnant and showing the first signs of the ‘scale, black and gold swirling tattoo-like marks on her body. Marking her as one of the walking dead, basically.
Harper is an odd-duck sort of gal. She's a bad-ass nurse with a take-no-prisoners, no-fear attitude when it comes to people with the 'scale. Before she had it, she was volunteering at the hospital every day, putting herself at risk to help these sick people who didn't stand a chance. But she also has this deep-seated passion for Mary Poppins and her compassion runs wide and deep. It's a strange but strangely real mix of independence, strength, and motherly warmth and she does develop into a real person. A great heroine, and honestly a great female role model in a book. I wish there were more like her!
Enter the Fireman. A mysterious infected Englishman who is able to control fire: creating torches out of his hand, throwing balls of fire, and other fantastical tricks that you'll have to read to believe. How does he do it? Are there others like him? And most importantly, is there a way to survive?
Death is a difficult thing to face, but it will come for us all in the end. I think that's one of the reasons people have such a visceral reaction to horror. There don't seem to be people who are just so-so about it. You either HATE it, or you LOVE it. Horror makes us confront our mortality, and if it does it well, it reminds us that it's okay to be scared, but we have to live too. We can't let fear get in the way of life and horror can be a release from that.
I think stories are important that way, and good stories are even more important. Here's a quote that really stuck with me from Renée, an infected patient of Harper's at the hospital, when she's discussing her book club on why she chose The Bridge of San Luis Rey:
"Partly because it's about why inexplicable tragedies occur," Renée said. "But also it's short. I feel like most folks want a book they feel like they have time to finish. You don't want to start A Game of Thrones when you might catch fire all of a sudden. There's something horribly unfair about dying in the middle of a good story, before you have a chance to see how it all comes out. Of course, I suppose everyone always dies in the middle of a good story, in a sense. Your own story" (28).
Oh, Joe! Hit us where it hurts... The Fireman is full of moments like this—ferociously human moments in the midst of the action and chaos. You see real people going through these struggles and they bring a sense of hope into the bleak world, hope that I'd hope somehow existed if the world really did go down the crapper or up in flames.
Of the many, many things that I could go on and on about in a review of this book, I'd like to mention the cult aspect. Without giving away the plot, there is wonderfully creepy cult-like group that is slowly developed throughout the middle of the book. There is a hivemind concentration to them that Hill is purposefully using as a foil, and its totally unlike any of the cult movies and books that I've seen and read (Emma Cline's The Girls excepted, but that's a beast of a different color that I'll be posting on soon enough!). To see this group of people go from a normal, functioning, community to something more sinister, something that fills me with unease, something that could turn deadly at any moment—the heimlich turned unheimlich—and it is squeamish and perfect and so, so realistic.
They use these stones as a punishment: if you've done something bad, you have to hold the stone in your mouth for a certain amount of time. No speaking, no eating, just silent contemplation of your wrong-doing. It seems innocuous, doesn't it? But this internal self-stoning is just one of the ways the leader of this little cult formation maintains control. It reminded me, in a way, of Jackson's "The Lottery," but in this case, they are stoning themselves—and doing it happily for the cause.
Everything is internal; just as those with the spore burn from within, their death literally waiting inside them, this innocent-seeming justice system works at them from the inside, alienating those who might oppose it while bringing the pack closer together. Like a flock of birds turning in an instant altogether, like wolves, going in for the kill.
Read it, and go ahead and dig into his other works too. You won't be sorry. It may be the end of the world, but Hill leaves room for humanity, for the hope of future, even as it burns around us.
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Find out more about the publisher: William Morrow (Harper Collins)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.