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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Fireman by Joe Hill (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)


Official Author Website
Order The Fireman HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Horns
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of NOS4A2

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "The people in charge can always justify doing terrible things in the name of the greater good. A slaughter here, a little torture there. It becomes moral to do things that would be immoral if an ordinary individual did ‘em."

They have been trying to take us down for quite a while. Some may enjoy the end of the world (EotW) arriving in the form of an incoming asteroid. Hey, it worked for the dinosaurs. Alien invasion is always popular. Very big in the 50s, whether by maleficent alien civilizations or maybe a nice juicy mobile plant of the triffid variety. Viruses have been pretty big the last few decades, global pandemics, whether of alien or Terran origin. Zombie apocalypse is all the rage today, whether the zombies are animated by a force of nature or not. How an author takes us from the pre-disaster here through the horrors to there, wherever or whenever there may be, is the fun. But many of these entertainments carry a stowaway. EotW tales exist not only to titillate, and elevate our blood pressure, but to deliver a core of perspective along with the fun. The collapse of civilization is a favorite mechanism for writers looking at the core of human nature. Imaginative tales go to extremes to point out things about the here and now.

                                                (Joe Hill - from USA Today)

Joe Hill has come up with a truly ingenious mechanism for bringing about his apocalyptic vision. Draco incendia trychophyton is a spore with some unusual properties. (smoothly rolling off the tongue not being one of them) The skin of people who have been exposed to it erupts in what looks like burger meat that has been way, way overcooked, interspersed with lines of gold. The affliction comes to be called “Dragonscale,” or ‘scale for short. It gets worse. Not long after initial exposure, most of the afflicted spontaneously combust. The spore spreads like wildfire, and soon the entire world is ablaze.


          (This Freightliner snow plow could be better called a Frightliner for its use here)

Harper Grayson, a school nurse, is practically perfect in every way. She is both kind and firm with her young patients, an admirable combination she employs when dealing with adults as well. Her hero is, of course, Mary Poppins. Throughout the 747 pages of this book (the page count may vary with the edition), there are many references to P.L. Travers’ magical nanny, too many to list here. But you should know that Harper totes her belongings in a carpet bag, once had a dog named Bert, and in the imagined film of the story of her life, she wants to be played by Julie Andrews. In an interview for his last book, Hill said:

 "I was thinking about Lon Chaney who had line about, “There’s nothing funny about a clown at midnight.” I think that’s part of the horror writer’s job: to create unsettling juxtapositions. You find something that seems harmless and innocent, and pair it with aspects that are disturbing. Christmas is a joyous occasion, it’s a time of pleasure and family, but there’s something about Christmas songs in the middle of the summer that’s not quite right." - from Nightmare Magazine interview

The juxtaposition of Harper’s Disney-ish aspect, which stops just short of animated bluebirds chirping away on her shoulders, adds a nice dollop of sweet to the sour of the apocalyptic landscape. Harper and her husband, Jakob, have talked about ending their lives themselves rather than burning to death like the Dragonscale sufferers. But when she discovers that she is pregnant, the appearance of tell-tale black-and-gold on her skin presents not a death sentence, but a challenge. She has seen ‘scaled mothers deliver uninfected babies, and hopes she can too. Jakob has other plans.

The Fireman of the title is John Rookwood. Harper first encounters him when he insists on crashing the very long line outside the hospital where she is working, (after the school has been shut down) carrying a boy with a severe illness. Later, as vigilante groups spring up to exterminate the infected, so-called Cremation Squads, he leads her to a place of safety. John’s talents extend beyond being handy with a halligan, being kind and protective toward children, and looking steamy in a yellow slicker. He can control his dragonscale, and do some pretty interesting things with it. You wouldn’t want to make his blood boil. John still carries a torch, though, for his old flame.



 It may not be a roque mallet, but John’s halligan comes in pretty handy.

The Fireman can be read on at least two levels. On the surface, this is a can’t-put-it-down amazing scifi/horror adventure, a barn-burner of a read, exciting, fun, and very, very scary. It will keep you flipping the pages so fast you might generate sparks. (I recommend reading with a glass or bottle of non-alcoholic liquid near to hand) Harper is a wonderful character. I mean, really, a young nurse, pregnant, fleeing dark forces, while trying to figure out how dragonscale works and how it might be controlled, a woman who is the epitome of cheerful and positive, in a very bleak time, just hoping to live long enough to deliver her baby into the hands of people who can care for him or her. Add a damaged hero in John, an ally who can help her find a haven, if one really exists, but who comes with a bucket brigade of baggage. Good guys, bad guys and plenty in-between, a lot of action and a wealth of creativity.

All that said, there is something more going on here. This is not just some cozy catastrophe in which a group of survivors carve out a manageable modus vivendi in the shadow of global horror. Hill is not only looking to give his readers a good scare. He wants to offer something more substantive. The Fireman delivers what the best speculative fiction provides, a look at contemporary reality through the lens of fantasy.

John brings Harper to a place where others with ‘scale have come together, for group support and defense. The place is called Camp Wyndham. And for those to whom the name is unfamiliar, it might help to know that John Wyndham was the author of a 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. You might know it better as the film Village of the Damned. The lovely kids in this tale, of dubious parentage, are possessed of a group consciousness. Members of the Camp Wyndham community, all with ‘scale, have found that under certain circumstances the spore allows them to join into a joyous group rapture they call The Bright. This entails a loss of self, which not everyone is all that thrilled about, somewhere between the ecstatic experience of a full-bore revival meeting and a hive mind. Hill also references Jack Finney’s book, made into multiple film versions, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

Carol said, “Sometimes when I’m in The Bright, I would swear I feel my [late] sister standing right next to me, close enough so I could lay my head on her shoulder, like I used to. When we shine, they all come back to us, you know. The light we make together shows everything that was ever lost to the darkness." Harper clamped down on a shudder. When they spoke of The Bright, they had all the uncomplicated happiness of pod people.

When we lose ourselves in a group-think situation, morality goes out the window. Why have a head at all if you only use it to ditto someone else’s psychotic rage? The relevance to our world is blazingly clear, whether the group be political or religious. There be dragons there. And there is a very real question of whether cooler heads will prevail.


There is consideration as well of how people reach out to help those in pain or in danger. Maybe like the way Chris Christie locked up a nurse returning to the USA after she had been helping Ebola victims in Africa. In addition to seeing the ‘scalers as infected, see them as unwanted immigrants, as a despised class. See them as Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. See them as Costa Rican children fleeing north to keep from being forcibly drafted into drug gangs. Even a Trump-sized wall cannot keep out a global pandemic. Fear can usually be counted on to drown out most kinder impulses, often with the assistance of small arms.

We get a taste of this here, as Cremation Squads do for spore victims what the SS did for Jews and others, or what, I am sure, many Tea-Baggers and militia groups would love to do to progressives, immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and ethnic and religious minorities here in the USA. Erstwhile residents of Auschwitz might recognize how some of the constabulary treat their prisoners in Hill’s dark landscape. All the nastiness is done with the eager support and encouragement, even participation, of a particularly sociopathic hate radio jock, broadcasting on a radio station with appropriate call letters.

Hill tips his hat to luminary writers who have written about despotism and apocalypse. In addition to John Wyndham, noted above, a boat is named for Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam series. Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago gets a mention, as does Cormac McCarthy, for The Road. There are almost certainly more of these.

Over his entire oeuvre, Hill has demonstrated considerable glee in referencing the popular culture in which he was raised. MTV VJ Martha Quinn gets a lot of ink. Song, TV and movie references abound. But his largest source of material here is Disney. The Mary Poppins references in support of Harper’s character are legion. But there are plenty of others, including Toy Story, and a somewhat more oblique reference to Pinocchio. A ref to a classic Coke commercial also resonates, creepily. He even references his own work a bit. I spotted one link to NOS4A2, but I bet there are plenty more. I did not check the DNA of character names against the Stephen-King-Joe-Hill-character-database (there probably is one) of names used in their books, but generally, Joe has taken to tossing in refs to his dad’s work. These are always fun to spot.

The writing of one particular character here is very reminiscent of Jack Torrance’s magnum opus in The Shining. Not so much the form, but the impact, and the revelation it contains about that character. As with the haunted Torrance, this guy blames others for all his problems. And The Shining is referenced as well, although of a sort different from that possessed by Danny at the Overlook, when the Camp Wyndham folks link up in The Bright. Hill has even said of The Firemanit’s my version of The Stand, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.”

So what comes next? Fire is often used as a cleansing image, in nature and religion. Burning the earth, as Maine, and the world, is scorched, may allow new growth, in the same way that new growth arrived in the years after Mount St Helen’s blew. Is that a factor here? Cleaning via fire so something new can grow? I won’t burn the ending for you, but it did suggest that Hill will be adding some logs to the flames of this story in future volumes. No inside intel, just a guess.

CONCLUSION: I am tempted to suggest that readers of The Fireman will feel the burn, but that might imply that Hill has indicated a preference in the Democratic primary for Bernie Sanders. He has not. But I can say that The Fireman is certain to be both one of the hottest books of the year, and one of the coolest.

NOTE: This review was originally posted by Will on Goodreads.

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