The Fireman is the fourth novel by horror author Joe Hill. This time around, Hill tackles the end of the world in an epic length novel about a deadly spore that sends people up in flames. A plague has spread the country, called Draco Incendia Trychophyton – more commonly referred to as ‘Dragon Scale’. Those who catch ‘the Scale’ develop a beautiful, gold-flecked pattern across their skin – and are also given a death sentence, as anyone infected will, sooner or later, spontaneously burst into flames.
Harper, the protagonist of the novel, is working as a school nurse and newly pregnant when she discovers the first marks of the Dragon Scale on her skin. When her pretentious, wanna-be author husband responds badly to Harper’s infection and attempts to carry out a murder/suicide before Harper burns, Harper flees her home whereby she is rescued by the mysterious ‘Fireman’ – a man who has learnt to control the Dragon Scale and can manipulate flames from his body at will. The Fireman brings Harper to a secluded camp where a community of infected are not dying, but flourishing. While Harper begins her new life in the camp, the rest of the world burns and becomes divided, as those infected are quarantined or executed.
For those unaware, Joe Hill is the son of a very famous author – Stephen King. Joe, who wanted to succeed on his own merit adopted the name ‘Hill’ and did not tell his agent of his lineage for 10 years! Now that Hill is established with excellent contributions to the horror genre under his belt, including Horns which received a Daniel Radcliffe led film adaptation and the terrifying tale of a child stealing vampire in NOS4R2 , it is easy to see that the apple does not fall far from the tree. However, there is now no doubt that Hill has inherited King’s gifts for scary stories, because the Fireman is as good as some of King’s best work.
Like his father, Hill has an uncanny ability to write rounded, engaging characters which populate his novel. The Fireman is filled with a large cast, and while some characters only play a minor role, all feel wonderfully real and complex. Our main character Harper, is Mary Poppins loving submissive type, who eventually grows into an assertive, yet warm, leader. Harper feels authentically genuine and it is a pleasure to spend the hefty 747 pages with her.
Comparisons will naturally be made to Stephen King’s the Stand, another apocalyptic tale of epic proportion. While there are some similarities, (a deadly plague, a gathering of people into a community and an obnoxious character who greatly resembles Harold from the Stand), the Fireman has its own distinct focus and story to tell. The Fireman focuses less on the battle of good and evil and more on the extremes people will go to when in fear. The ‘us against them’ mentality that quickly develops when the plaque begins to spread, brings to mind responses to immigration. Likewise, when matters begin to naturally break down in the camp and extreme measures are put in place for safety, one thinks of our reactions to terrorism in recent years. Hill also brings to light themes of religious fervor and the dangers of fear caused hysteria which causes many to act irrationally.
All of this is wrapped up in a intensely thrilling novel filled with emotional twists and turns. What pervades throughout is deep sense of frustration, injustice and anger that is evoked from the reader as characters begin to take certain actions to protect their interests. But there is also plenty of humor and meaningful bonds that are developed between characters young and old. Hill also litters his novel with references and tid-bits of his previous novels, the Stephen King universe and Harry Potter (of which Hill is a huge fan). The book is filled with charm and character, but violence and the macabre as well.
The Fireman is not really a horror, but rather a sprawling, emotional apocalyptic epic. Call it what you will, Hill has earned his stripes as an talented author and the Fireman is his best example yet.