By Katy Goodwin-Bates
The opening of Joe Hill’s The Fireman sees Harper Grayson, school nurse and Julie Andrews superfan, caring for a young child when a man staggers into the school playground and burns to death. It’s an occurrence Harper has seen on the news, but, up to this point, never in real life, and this sudden appearance of danger doesn’t let up for the next 700-odd pages.
The burning man of the prologue is just one of millions of people suffering from Draco Incendia Trychophyton, a fatal spore that destroys its host through spontaneous combustion, often killing bystanders and engulfing its surroundings in the process. Huge swathes of the USA have burned to the ground; suspicion rages as both the infected and the uninfected wander what is left. Harper, meanwhile, is working as a nurse in a hospital, treating victims of Dragonscale, when she makes two life-changing discoveries in quick succession; not only is she suffering from the ‘scale too, she’s also pregnant. Neither of these is Harper’s biggest problem: that accolade goes to her colossal douchebag of a husband, Jakob, who irritates with his patronizing misogyny even before he turns out to be a complete sociopath, intent on killing both his wife and the child she carries, rather than allow her to infect anyone else. The eponymous Fireman is an initially mysterious figure, able to ignite at will and playing the role of particularly dangerous guardian angel to Harper. I can only assume his Dick Van Dyke-esque English accent is a nod towards Harper’s beloved Mary Poppins, as I can state with some authority that British people have no particular ability to fight incendiary incidents in real life.
I’ve read two of Joe Hill’s previous novels–Horns and Heart-Shaped Box–and, in both, have found the representation of female characters to be problematic, with overly-sexualized descriptions and dubious incidents that distracted me from the overriding narratives. The Fireman provides a panacea to these issues, placing heroic Harper front and center; meek and mild at the outset, fleeing to a shady commune of Dragonscale carriers brings out the badass in her character, and she swiftly becomes someone far more formidable than her love of Mary Poppins would imply. Even as Jakob pontificates that “I’ve never thought much of the intelligence of women,” his credibility is so minimal that Hill seems to be satirizing such attitudes. This is how I choose to read page-long rants about why a woman couldn’t invent the internet, anyway.
She had seen at least a hundred people with Dragonscale ignite – ignite and begin to scream, blue fire racing over them, as if they were painted in kerosene, their hair erupting in a flash. It was not something anyone wanted or could do to themselves, and when it happened it was not controlled and it always ended in death.
Much as I loved Harper and enjoyed hating Jakob, it’s Dragonscale itself which shines as the true star of The Fireman. I’m not saying I’d particularly yearn for a disease which would result in self-cremation, but there’s something oddly alluring about the way in which Hill describes it, which only increases when Harper discovers sufferers who have learned to control the spore. Rather than a horrifying fungus, “they were all of them tattooed with loops and whorls of Dragonscale, which glowed like fluorescent paint under a black light, hallucinatory hues of cherry wine and blowtorch blue.” As post-apocalyptic fiction goes, it sure beats the staggering zombies of Max Brooks’ World War Z or the crippling sleep deprivation of Adrian Barnes’ Nod.
So, if the horrifying disease turns out to be strangely beautiful (until the point when it burns you alive, obviously), what is actually the source of the horror in The Fireman? Those infected with the ‘scale are explicitly depicted as victims: both of the spore itself and the ostracization and worse which they suffer at the hands and weapons of other people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the uninfected who pose the greatest threat, both in the forms of the official Cremation Squads and less organised but equally terrifying vigilantes. Jakob’s mission to kill his wife doesn’t end with her initial escape, and his bloodymindedness is one of the most chilling aspects of Hill’s novel; the vengeful psychopath is a feature of his other books too, and Hill excels in creating believably disturbing characters in otherwise fantastical situations.
Even for someone who doesn’t really seek out horror novels, The Fireman is hugely enjoyable; there are moments of fatalistic humor in among all the trying-not-to-die, including a delightfully wry moment when a stripe of Harper’s Dragonscale inadvertently burns her Coldplay t-shirt and another character remarks, “if I ever spontaneously combust, I hope I’m holding a whole stack of their CDs.” Elsewhere, however, pop culture references of a certain type began to grate; I’m not sure if it’s Harper or Hill himself who suffers from the Harry Potter obsession, but I was groaning by the third description of an old man as being like Dumbledore. While we’re on the subject of flaws, pacing is a surprisingly minor one; I embarked on this 747 page novel expecting things to drag, and, although for the most part this is not the case, there are a couple of conversations that didn’t really need to be dragged over multiple chapters.
I’d enthusiastically recommend The Fireman as a creepy Halloween read. Hill creates a genuine sense of peril, between the invention of such an insidious, unpredictable, and destructive disease and the chilling depictions of the basic awfulness of humans. There’s something truly compelling in the devastated landscape of the US; while Hollywood would have us believe the apocalypse only ever affects New York and California, The Fireman sees New England razed to great dramatic effect. While it may not fit in your pocket, The Fireman is a seriously entertaining read and one well worth checking out.
The Fireman is available now at GPL.