In my room, I have a pile of books sitting on the floor (I’m out of shelf space!) that I recently bought with the mindset of getting through the ones I’ve most recently bought instead of them just being yet another pile of books in my room. As I’ve gone through those books these last few months, admittedly, I kept avoiding Joe Hill’s 2016 novel, The Fireman. Because it’s a big one at 750 pages! So, I knew it was going to take some time and attention. And even when I did pick it up earlier this week and reminded myself what it was about, my initial thought was, “This is a weird premise, but let’s see.“
I’m glad I decided to “see.” The novel is a post-apocolayptic novel that brings to mind Hill’s father, Stephen King’s, 1978 post-apocalyptic novel, The Stand. Both books involve plagues wiping out most of humanity. In the latter, it was weaponized influenza, and here, people have the “spore” or Dragonscale, or ‘scale, where humans get these tattoo-like marks across their body, and they combust, which often causes a chain-reaction of others to combust and/or millions of acres of property to burn down.
Which has a neat meta quality to it in two ways: We think of a virus needing to burn itself out by running out of hosts, but well, this one thrives on burning! Then, it spreads through the ash after combustion. Clever. Secondly, arguably, human progress was “ignited” by the discovery of fire, and here, humanity shall extinguished with fire (or get close to the brink). It is also argued later in the book that the previous five extinction events, including the dinosaurs, involved in the unleashing of this combustible spore because of the melting of the ice caps, rinse and repeat, and our actions at present caused the latest melting and unleashing.
Once the spore unleashes, humanity reacts in a reasonable, measured way … just kidding, of course not. It is chaos, and on the periphery, we hear of cities burning down, George Clooney combusting on a refugee mission to New York, and the promise of a Camp in New Hampshire where the sick have mastered the ‘scale so as to not explode through it. But the primary story starts and follows through with Harper, a nurse caring for the sick, who then comes down with the ‘scale herself. Her husband, a self-centered piece-of-crap, Jakob, freaks out and thinks they need to pull a Romeo and Juliet. Instead, she escapes with the help of the titular character, The Fireman. He not only is able to not die by the ‘scale, he’s able to wield it to effective use against cremation teams (what they sound like) and other evil-doers.
Of course, like with The Stand, and it feels like many other apocolayptic novels, our heroine is impregnated right as the crap hits the fan, adding another layer of drama to the proceedings. While I’m making comparisons to The Stand, this book has a Nick character who is also deaf. And a Harold character, who turns out to be awful, but also kept a diary. Not related to The Stand, but also something I took note of, is that the ability to control the ‘scale is sometimes referred to as “the shine” (because the person is literally glowing aflame), which made me think of The Shining, although that was more telepathic, so maybe, that’s a looser comparison.
Hill also credits J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series at the beginning of the book for her stories “which showed me how to write this one.” Direct inspiration seems to be The Fireman, John’s, deceased lover, Sarah, who appears to still be alive, in a sense, through the embers of fire, and it feels reminiscent of the way Sirius Black used to communicate through fire with Harry Potter in the books, which Hill even references. He also compares the main camp leader to Dumbledore a few times.
Anyhow, comparisons to other books aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and largely devoured it over the last two days. There are two primary things I loved about the book. First, Harper is a genuinely great female lead character, who doesn’t fall apart like Frannie did in The Stand (whoops, that’s my last comparison!), as she is literally dominant, defiant, and in charge up until the moment when she has to give birth. Yes, she and John fall in love, and John saves her and the others quite a few times, but he is the title character, to be fair. Secondly, speaking of the title character, Hill puts John through the ringer. John gets beat up thoroughly throughout the novel until he finally can’t survive the final blow (a shot to the stomach) at the end of the novel, when it turns out that there isn’t some island sanctuary that they all had hoped for. He wasn’t written as invincible, even though part of his “gimmick” was myth-making and legend-making about “The Fireman,” but that he was just a man trying to do right.
Like the best apocalyptic novels, there is the overarching thing ravaging humanity, and then there is the inner humanness ravaging what remains. In this case, that’s the cult-like Carol, Ben, and others at the camp who take a religious-like control over the others, particularly Harper and her allies who aren’t as gung-ho about the cult stuff. For example, to punish those who run afoul of their strict rules, they must keep a stone in their mouth for however long is deemed necessary to repent. The reason I like Harper so much is she flouts this nonsense, and calls it out as nonsense, for as long as she can until she’s attacked (while pregnant, mind you). Carol was far worse than the fear of contracting the spore, or even the cremation hunters, which later included Jakob, out to finish off his wife.
Far from being silly, this book had fantastic action sequences, believable, characters I rooted for, and characters I hated, in equal measure, and even the fantastical plague impetus here, had enough basis in reality to be interesting and thought-provoking. Like with most books that are this long, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think it could be a hundred or so pages shorter, at least. I reached about page 600, where the story felt like it came to a reasonable and satisfying climax, and then I realized there was still 150 more pages. Still, it wasn’t a labor to read.
If you dig an imaginative, well-characterized plague story, I highly recommend this one.