Harper Grayson is working as a school nurse when the world ends. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, better known as Dragonscale, is a spore that infects that vast majority of people with whom it comes into contact – the symptoms are a beautiful tattoo-like patterning of the skin and an almost-certain chance of spontaneous combustion. Within six months Harper is carrying both the virus and a baby, and is running for her life from her husband who, in a misguided attempt to save her from the horrible end guaranteed by the ‘scale, is trying to kill her. Harper is rescued by an unlikely couple – a teenage girl in a Captain America mask and an Englishman in a fireman’s outfit – and taken to Camp Wyndham, a nearby summer resort now serving as home for infected people like her, under the watchful eye of “Father” Tom Storey.
Intrigued by the fireman, who has an uncanny ability to control the Dragonscale fire, Harper joins the camp as their resident medical expert, and quickly becomes engrossed in their search for the almost-mythical island of 80’s television star, Martha Quinn, which promises to be paradise for those with the ‘scale. But things are far from as perfect at Camp Wyndham as they appear on the surface, and as tensions rise, Harper finds that she is more prisoner than resident, and that the eye of suspicion is rarely far away when “Mother” Carol and ex-policeman Ben Patchett put their heads together.
From the book’s size alone, it’s easy to tell that Joe Hill’s latest foray into the weird, wide world is massive in both scope and ambition. A glimpse at the apocalypse, and the world it leaves behind, The Fireman is, without doubt, his most ambitious novel yet, and is anchored in reality, to a large degree, by the large of cast of characters that bring the story to life. It’s sure to be compared favourably with The Stand (more on this later), and it is, without doubt, a comparison that is well-deserved. Mining from a rich vein of popular culture – everything from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead and all points in between – Hill has produced a novel that will appeal to a broad range of readers, the breakout novel that is sure to expose his name – and his work – to more than the relatively small pool of genre readers who, up until now, have been his core audience.
Told from the point of view of Harper Grayson (who later reverts to her maiden name Willowes), the novel takes us through the end of the world as we would fully expect to witness it ourselves: on television, the facts distorted by whichever political lens is used by the channel in question to view the world.
FOX said the dragon had been set loose by ISIS, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980s. MSNBC said sources indicated the ‘scale might’ve been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by cult Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation. CNN reported both sides.
For the duration of the novel, Harper becomes the centre of our world, and her struggle to see her child safely born is one in which we become completely invested. Her mannerisms are informed, in many ways, by the characters played by Julie Andrews in the likes of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and, in fact, the fireman’s English character provides the perfect Bert-like foil to Harper’s Mary Poppins as their relationship develops. Harper’s contraction of the virus is the first sign that there is more to Dragonscale than we might have been led to believe; rather than the certain death that, say, a zombie bite might bring, Hill introduces the burning hope – hope because Harper has become such an important part of our lives – that the virus is survivable.
This is reinforced by the residents of Camp Wyndham, who have discovered the secret of living in harmony with the ‘scale, and, in particular, John Rookwood – the eponymous Fireman – and the Storey children, Allie and Nick.
Despite the novel’s title, Rookwood plays a relatively small part in most of what goes on: he lives on a small island off the shore of Camp Wyndham and rarely mixes with the residents of the camp, although it is clear that he has certain abilities when it comes to the ‘scale: not only can he control the fire, but he can shape it, give it consciousness and direction, and send it out to do his bidding. It is, perhaps, for this reason that he feels the need for isolation, and why he is feared by many of the Wyndham people.
A place of comfort and friendship, the camp quickly gives Harper a sense of belonging, a strange though welcome feeling of family with teenage Allie and her young deaf-mute brother Nick, the grandchildren of the camp’s leader. There are everyday tensions – small factions within the camp who can’t live by the simple rules, or who believe that Father Storey’s approach to leadership is ineffective. But these minor tensions pale in comparison to the threat that constantly hangs over these people: the threat of discovery by a Cremation Crew on patrol, a death sentence from which there is no escape. These people – uninfected and striving to rid the world of those who have the ‘scale – are personified in radio personality, The Marlboro Man, with whom Harper’s ex-husband Jacob has aligned himself.
The Fireman takes an unusual approach to the post-apocalypse, turning our expectations on their heads, and asking us to root for the people who would normally be considered the bad guys. Imagine The Walking Dead where the zombies are the central characters, or The Stand where we’re asked to sympathise with a group of people who have been infected by Captain Tripps. Hill presents us with a group of infected characters – characters who should be dead, but who have found a way to live – and invites us to live their story. Evil comes in the form of the uninfected, who are trying to stamp out the infection and save as much of what’s left of the world as they possibly can. In normal circumstances we would be right there with them, hunting down the infected and hammering wooden stakes through their hearts, but here it is difficult to identify with them and we find ourselves hoping for a world where Dragonscale might become a normal part of human life. It’s a powerful image, and Hill does a fantastic job ensuring that we can still feel empathy for these people who, aside from the beautiful scrollwork on their skin, are people that we can easily relate to and empathise with, despite the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.
Hill makes excellent use of imagery, and repeating motifs, to make the story more real for us, to bring it to life more fully in our minds. The characters and locations are well-drawn and seem to leap off the page as we read, but it’s things like the phoenix or the Freightliner that will stick with us long after we have finished reading the book. The fiery phoenix is a thing of beauty and 80s children will be hard-pressed not to think of Battle of the Planets when they first encounter it. A force for good, it is the diametric opposite of the Freightliner, the town truck that Jacob Grayson drives, and which haunts the residents of Camp Wyndham from the moment they first see it. In many ways an homage to Richard Matheson’s (and, indeed, Steven Spielberg’s) Duel, this truck takes on a life of its own, and constantly looms in the background of the story, a symbol of everything Harper has come to hate and fear about her ex-husband.
The homages and references come thick and fast, most frequently in the form of some of the greats of post-apocalyptic fiction lending their names to places or things. Camp Wyndham is the most obvious example, while The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood has a boat named after her. J.K. Rowling even gets a mention, as we learn of her demise at the mercy of the ‘scale. But perhaps the biggest homage, and the greatest source of inspiration for The Fireman, is the aforementioned King classic, The Stand.
As a massive fan of Stephen King, I tend to nerd out over the cross-references and in-jokes that he plants in his novels. More recently King and son Hill have been referencing each other’s books: Hill’s references to the world of The Dark Tower in his 2013 novel, NOS4R2 (or NOS4A2 for the world outside the UK); and King’s references to the central character from Hill’s debut, Heart-Shaped Box, in 2014’s Mr Mercedes. Here, Hill seems to take the referencing to a whole new level, and the number of parallels between The Fireman and The Stand are, frankly, staggering: world-changing virus: check; pregnant protagonist: check; a deaf-mute called Nick: check; an obnoxious teen called Harold: check; a leader who is referred to as “Mother” (or, indeed, “Father”): check. And that’s just the ones I made a note of. Despite these parallels, the stories are very different, The Fireman at once Hill’s own Stand and wonderful homage to four decades of his father’s work (including Hill’s own version of The Mist’s Mrs Carmody). Dark Tower enthusiasts will spot some references here as well to that well-worn world: Nozz-a-la Cola, and this disconnected thought as consciousness drains from Harper partway through the book:
They had forgotten who they were. They had forgotten their own names, the voices of their mothers, the faces of their fathers.
With The Fireman, Joe Hill has taken a strange – if not entirely unwelcome, for those of us who like Stephen King, at least – turn in his career as a novelist. For a man determined to make his way in the publishing world by his own talent rather than who he was – like many in the relatively small horror community of the time, I read and loved Hill’s collection, 20th Century Ghosts, before knowing his true identity – it seems odd that he should now attempt – very successfully, mind – to follow so closely in his father’s footsteps. The references are the least of it: there is a wonderful similarity in the writing styles of the pair and the reader comes away with the distinct impression that both subject matter and voice make this a distinctly “King” piece of work. The book is dedicated to, amongst a host of others, “my father, from whom I stole all the rest”, and The Fireman proves that, in this case at least, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Who better to be the “new Stephen King” than the man’s own son? This reader hopes that it’s not a miscalculation on Hill’s part, that it’s little more than an experiment in writing (though I, for one, would love to see Hill take on the fabled Gunslinger and crew). Because while The Fireman is a spectacular piece of work, Hill deserves much more than to be the shadow of his father.
In all, The Fireman is an excellent showcase for the talents of Joe Hill. I mentioned earlier that I think it’s likely to be his breakout novel, the story that spreads his name outside the genre. Yes, this is a grim look at post-apocalyptic America, but it’s a very different take than anything we’ve seen before. And more than that, it’s a story about people, about humanity’s acts of kindness and of evil. It’s a story about love, community, family. A story about hope, and how we cope when hope seems lost. Intense, beautiful and completely engrossing, The Fireman is Joe Hill’s finest novel to date, the work of a confident and mature writer for whom words are the building blocks of pure magic. It’s amongst the best novels I – or you – will read this year, and one I will be revisiting with the same frequency that I do its forebear. Essential reading for everyone, this is not to be missed.