The Fireman, Joe Hill’s fourth novel, is an apocalyptic tale in which a deadly disease destroys the world. If this conjures thoughts of The Stand, it’s not a coincidence. Hill is on record as saying that the book is his version of The Stand “soaked in gasoline and set on fire.” In his dedication he says he stole “everything else” about the book from his father other than the title.
The illness that spreads like wildfire is Draco incendia trychophyton, a spore rather than a virus. People exposed to it do not burn with a fever—they simply burn. First, lesions develop. Some are almost decorative, resembling scales, hence the illness’s nickname: Dragonscale. Victims are mostly asymptomatic until they suddenly catch fire, usually when under stress. It’s a devastating and terrifying disease, because the conflagration takes out others in the vicinity. Buildings burn, then city blocks, and cities, and more.
In a Walking Dead universe, infected individuals would be the villains, targeted by those who are infection-free. Here, the infected band together to fend off those who would destroy them simply because they are ill. It’s not enough to isolate them like lepers—they must be expunged. Dead people don’t burst into flame. Hill inverts the genre, making the uninfected the antagonists.
Whereas The Stand was a sprawling epic, encompassing the vast American landscape, The Fireman (even at 700+ pages) is more intimate and geographically limited, set mostly in New Hampshire. There are occasional reports from afar, such as a vivid TV segment showing people leaping from the Space Needle in Seattle as it burns, but the focus is on a smallish group of people.
Despite the novel’s title, the central character is a woman, Harper Grayson née Willowes. She’s the book’s Frannie Goldsmith, a school nurse. Comparing her to a character from The Stand isn’t a stretch—her middle name, we learn, is Frances.
There are many such character echoes. Take the case of the overweight, socially awkward but highly intelligent nerd who pours his vitriolic thoughts into his journal. His name? Harold Cross, an amalgamation of Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross. There’s a deaf boy named Nick, and a virginal woman who uses the promise of sex to manipulate men without ever giving them what they want, à la Nadine. Another character will call to mind the Trashcan Man—especially toward the end. And wait until you find out who the book’s version of Mother Abagail is. I won’t spoil that surprise, but she summons people not via dreams but instead through podcasts over the internet.
There isn’t a one-to-one mapping from one book to the other—no analogs of Tom Cullen or Randall Flagg come to mind, for example—but the connections are definitely there. Characters forget the faces of their fathers. A cruel man wields a croquet mallet. There is an appearance by “the hand of God.” And, to confirm this isn’t just my imagination, Nozz-a-la, the beverage of choice in alternate universes, is consumed. Hill even adopts his father’s habit of ending many chapters with ominous foreshadowing statements.
The book is similarly festooned with literary allusions. The title comes from Bradbury’s original name for Fahrenheit 451. Harper is named for the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The Stu Redman character is a Brit named John Rockwood, presumably in tribute to the Death Eater from the Harry Potter novels, which are mentioned frequently throughout. Rowling herself has a kind of cameo late in the book. Sometimes these tributes go a tad too far, such as a cat named Truffaut (after the director of Fahrenheit 451) and the appearance of a boat with the unlikely name Maggie Atwood. I probably missed other such allusions—I didn’t Google every name in the book (which is how I figured out the Rockwood reference).
The story starts with the disease well under way. Many people have already seen someone catch fire, but society is still functioning, more or less. There’s food and television and phone service and internet, and people go to work and live at home, but reports from other regions are dire. The CDC in Atlanta has burned, and so has the American president. Harper is volunteering at a hospital, tending to (and quarantining) ‘scale victims, when she first encounters “the fireman,” who brings a young deaf boy in for medical treatment. Soon, the boy is gone, and so too is the hospital. In the aftermath of the fire, Harper finds herself infected with Dragonscale. And, like Frannie Goldsmith, pregnant.
Her husband, Jakob, is livid. By volunteering, she risked not only her life but also his and that of their unborn child. Most people with ‘scale live less than three months, so it’s unlikely she’ll last long enough to deliver, even though studies indicate the child might be disease-free. Jakob issues cruel condemnations and moves out—the mechanism of infection isn’t well understood at this point—and becomes increasingly deranged and violent, leading to a confrontation that Harper barely survives. Her escape is aided by the fireman, a teenaged girl wearing a Captain America mask and a young Tony the Tiger.
They escort her to Camp Wyndham (named, no doubt, for the author of The Day of the Triffids), a remote summer camp that has become a safe haven for scores of the infected. It is a precarious existence. There’s no electricity, but they have ample food. The residents’ main fear is that they will be detected by Quarantine Patrols or, worse, Cremation Crews, bands of harriers who revel in killing “burners.” They go to great lengths to keep the camp from appearing occupied.
Their great discovery, though, is that people with Dragonscale don’t need to die. The disease can be controlled and managed. After the spore infiltrates a person, it responds to floods of hormones. In some cases, the response is negative and the person burns, but in other situations it can cause euphoria. En masse, people enter into a state of bliss they call “the Bright” (occasionally “the shine”). If they could spread word of this discovery, the world might be saved from further devastation. However, the uninfected don’t want to hear about cures or management—they’re all about eradication.
Much of the novel takes place at Camp Wyndham—think Boulder Free Zone—but the residents aren’t as focused on re-establishing society, per se, although certain events give rise to concerns about punishing crimes committed by residents. It’s almost a benign theocracy, with “Father” Tom Storey in charge. He was once the camp’s director, and is grandfather to Allie (Captain America) and Nick (Tony the Tiger).
The book is populated with strong women. Harper is determined and willful, a cross between a young Julie Andrews and Helen Reddy, which makes the occasions where she is forced to capitulate especially distressing and dismaying. Allie Story is a rebellious teenager, carefree and adventure-seeking, seemingly indestructible, who occasionally gets herself (and those around her) in trouble through her actions. Her aunt, Carol, emerges as a powerful entity when her father is sidelined.
The book’s men tend to be less admirable, mostly rowdy, raunchy frat types personified by the radio shock-jock known as the Marlboro Man. Harper’s husband, Jakob Grayson, a college dropout, has been trying to write a novel while working for the department of public works. His true nature is revealed after Harper is infected. She reads the hundred or so pages he’s managed to write in the past six years and realizes how little she knew him. He becomes her boogeyman for the rest of the novel.
Though he is dead before Harper gets to Wyndham, Harold Cross is another skeezy male, and Harper encounters others both inside the camp and out, though some are better at disguising their natures. One exception is the fireman, who is aloof, distant and haunted but fundamentally good, decent and caring. He has learned to control his internal flame better than anyone else, and he uses it like a superhero to keep those who would do them harm at bay.
Harmony can only last so long. Once the food supplies dwindle and something befalls Tom Storey, the camp changes, echoing Lord of the Flies. There are power grabs and arbitrarily harsh punishments meted out to anyone who doesn’t fall in line. This isn’t a battle between Good and Evil, but between good characters and those who don’t behave well when the strictures of society fall away.
Harper, whose due date looms, starts working on an exit strategy. Things are declining in the larger world, as well, symbolized by the fact that Google is no more. “Our Search is Over,” the website declares before collapsing into ash, the ultimate doodle.
Hill may have symbolically burned much of Maine to the ground as a way of establishing his own territory, but it is to Maine that Harper and her small group head, in scenes reminiscent of the group of four’s journey in The Stand, complete with a pneumonia-suffering patient on a travois.
The book is filled with music, in part because music is at the heart of the Bright. Many of the songs have something to do with fire or flames, although others come from Mary Poppins, thanks to Harper’s Julie Andrews fixation. Hill also takes a few potshots at musicians he has expressed disdain for in the past, such as Toto, Hall & Oates and Rush, whose music is described as “limp dick prog rock bullshit.” One rare false note is a discussion about writing in which John expresses the opinion that people who work from outlines should be burned at the stake, which seems like forceful language from someone who isn’t a writer.
Reviewers will likely fall all over themselves to come up with fire witticisms to describe this book. Hill himself can’t resist the temptation to deliver a groan-worthy pun when he refers to a character as an “old flame.” But make no doubt about it, Hill is on fire in this book. It’s easily the best he’s written so far. He has created some of his most endearing and memorable characters, and lulls readers into complacency before launching into fantastic and thrilling scenes of conflict that will leave them breathless. He delivers genuine surprises time and time again.
I had to read this book fairly quickly for this review, but I look forward to revisiting it at a more leisurely pace in a few months to savor all of the wonders it has to share.
 Insofar as such a thing is possible, the science of the disease is reasonably credible (up to a point), and speculation about the origins of the spore will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the recent series Fortitude.