I first started reading Joe Hill based on the promise of genetics.
My love of Stephen King’s work is no secret, so finding out that Joe Hill was following in his father’s footsteps was a foregone conclusion for me. For those not in the know, his full name is Joseph Hillstrom King. I don’t blame him for writing under Hill; the Grand Master of horror, among other things, must cast a long shadow.
Having read a lot of Joe Hill’s work, though, I can confirm he has definitely earned his stripes in his own right. I see hints of Stephen King here and there; a little nod of acknowledgment and a bit of a warm, fuzzy feeling for us King fans. More on that later. Hill is a hell of a story-teller in his own right and The Fireman may be his best yet.
Hill’s latest, The Fireman, debuted at number 1 on the New York Time’s best seller list.
Joe Hill’s THE FIREMAN to debut at #1 on the NY Times bestseller list. Way to go, kid. All the love.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) May 25, 2016
Impressive, right? The only thing that impressed me more was the arrival of a first edition hardcover copy, signed by the author. I have a husband that knows me well enough to realise splashing out on something like this is far better than a bunch of flowers! He was also wise enough to buy a paperback copy too, knowing I’d never crack the spine on a first edition by doing something as pedestrian as reading it. Hey, we all have our quirks! But, I digress…
The story centres around Harper, a nurse working in a school at the beginning of a very unusual epidemic. People are falling victim to a rapidly spreading spore called Draco Incendia Trychophyton, known colloquially as Dragonscale. Infection leaves dark, scrolling patterns flecked with gold on the host’s skin. It also causes spontaneously combustion, which proves highly inconvenient as I’m sure you can imagine.
In the grip of this epidemic, the world changes rapidly. Schools are closed and Harper, who wants to be of service, starts work in a hospital caring for infected patients. Spending her days in a rubber protective suit, she tries not to get too attached to her patients, having seen first-hand what can happen as a result of the Dragonscale.
A fireman arrives one day, carrying a small boy called Nick. Profoundly deaf and infected, Harper can see straight away that the infection isn’t the problem Nick has appendicitis. Harper gently intervenes when the Fireman becomes involved in an argument with an aggressive matron who wants to send them to the back of the line. This is our first encounter with the enigmatic Fireman, who makes quite an impression on Harper.
Young Nick survives his appendectomy and vanishes from the ward soon after. Meanwhile, Harper’s life takes an unexpected turn when she finds out she is pregnant. It should be happy news for Harper and her husband, Jakob, but Jakob in particular struggles with the news in a world that is rapidly crumbling under the weight of an epidemic with no cure. Soon after, Harper finds the first marks of the Dragonscale on her skin.
Jakob, convinced he is carrying the spore but not yet showing signs, tries to convince Harper to go through with what they agreed on if they were to become infected. A suicide pact; take some pills, listen to music and go off together peacefully and on their own terms. Harper, however, knows that the spore doesn’t seem to cross through the placenta; infected women have safely delivered healthy babies. She can’t go through with what Jakob wants.
Harper has to flee from Jakob when he decides that she will be going through with their pact, whether she wants to or not. When she leaves, her path crosses the Fireman’s again. He helps her get to the relative safety of Camp Wyndham. There she finds a small community of infected people who have learned to manage the Dragonscale so that it doesn’t literally consume them. Instead, the ‘scale allows them to bond on a harmonious and communal level. They attend chapel together, presided over by the gentle Father Storey, and they sing and glow together. The Fireman himself has even greater control over his Dragonscale, using it to shape and send fire at will or to safely light himself up when he wants to.
Camp Wyndham seems a sanctuary to Harper; an island of calm in a burning world filled with fear. They must remain in hiding; from the remaining authorities who don’t know how to manage them and from the so-called “cremation crews”- vigilante groups that rove through towns, killing the infected before they can burn.
The sanctuary is short-lived, however. Circumstances force a change of leadership within the camp and the small community’s ethos no longer aligns with Harper’s. Tensions build. She isn’t alone in her desire for change. The Fireman, John Rookwood, is with her. So are a handful of others. So while everyone tries to remain safe from those outside the community, a new threat becomes apparent from within. It’s only a matter of time before these two things collide and things really heat up. (I’d apologise for that pun but I’m not even a little bit sorry.)
Themes and Stuff.
The idea of a contagion that causes combustion is terrifying enough, but I think the real premise of this book is an exploration of what can happen in communities when bad ideas take hold. It only takes one rogue to infect other members with a poisonous thought; something that can spread as insidiously as any spore. At Camp Wyndham, everyone has Dragonscale and everyone connects through the ‘scale. It’s not telepathy exactly but it’s definitely a bond above and beyond the usual. Being in accord with each feels right. Harmony is important. It’s a commentary on mob mentality, in a way. People do things they would never even consider, because the collective mentality of the group they belong to calls for it.
This applies as much to the uninfected as it does to those with the Dragonscale. Ordinary people forming crews to kill “burners” (people with the Dragonscale) might have initially done so out of fear and a misguided idea of wiping out the contagion that no one really seems to know much about. But before you know it, gunning down burners is kinda fun. People with Dragonscale are reduced to beings without value; something to be gotten rid of. They are dehumanised. Any higher purpose is gone and it becomes a merciless hunt.
Joe Hill also thoughtfully explores love and grief and relationships with the powerful bond that develops between Harper and John Rookwood as well as the closeness and love that grows between Harper and what becomes her new family.
The one other thing I want to mention is that although the title of the book implies otherwise, this book is very much a story of a woman. Harper drives this tale; everything revolves around her story, her decisions and her relationships. The Fireman is a pivotal character, but the other key characters are also mostly women. The book is being made into a film, so it will be great to see an action-packed , female-led film on the big screen!
The Stand, but with Fire.
It can’t remain unsaid; there were some definite parallels between The Fireman and Stephen King’s The Stand. In this interview, Hill says he was two thirds of the way through the first draft when he realised that it could be The Stand, “but with fire instead of snot, of flu” but he decided to embrace the concept and have fun with it. It certainly wasn’t the only inspiration, with Hill referencing J. K. Rowling, Ray Bradbury and his mum, Tabitha King.
I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down. I’d recommend this to anyone that loves a good apocalyptic drama or likes a study on human nature.
You need to read this book! Click here to grab your copy while it’s hot! (Again, not even sorry!)
#FYBF @ With Some Grace.
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