The Fireman: Baby King delivers his own incendiary apocalypse

The Fireman by Joe Hill horror book reviewsThe Fireman by Joe Hill

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.

Publication date: May 17, 2016. From the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Boxcomes a chilling novel about a worldwide pandemic of spontaneous combustion that threatens to reduce civilization to ashes and a band of improbable heroes who battle to save it, led by one powerful and enigmatic man known as 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.

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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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2 comments

  1. I want to read this and compare it against Stephen King’s The Stand (reading your reviews of the two books gave me the idea), but I don’t know if I have the time to commit to 700+ pages for The Fireman and 1000+ pages for The Stand. That’s a LOT of sleepless nights!

  2. Kevin S. /

    I like the basic storyline of this book. The plot made it fairly interesting and tolerable. However, there was A LOT that hurt the quality of the story. First, it is waaaaaaaaaaaaay too long. Like 250-300 pages too long. I cringed every time one of the character told a story of something that happened in the past because these stories (and there were many) drug our far too long. Hill is very longwinded. Second, his writing is waaaaaaaaaaaay too similar to his father. Purposefully or not, the lack of originality was distracting. Lastly, it’s hard to like or feel empathy for a female protagonist (NOT The Fireman…I’m not even sure why the book is named after him) who curses like a drunken sailor. Actually, most f the characters curse like drunken sailors. Not a bad book but there was much room for improvement.

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