The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Eight stars

Joe Hill made quite the ‘spark’ with this novel, which garnered a significant following in 2016, culminating in winning one of the Goodreads awards for its genre. With curiosity piqued and a gap in my reading requirements, I chose to dive in while trying to steer clear of the ripples and spoilers that others have left around me. Harper Grayson is a school nurse with little of interest going on in her life, though the world is coming apart at the proverbial seams. People from every corner of the earth are developing what the medical profession has labelled draco incendia trychophyton, known in the vernacular as ‘dragonscale’. It appears on the skin as a grey scaly rash and can progressively envelop more of the carrier’s body, changing colour at times as well. Dragonscale is highly contagious, though no one seems sure how it passes from one human to another. What everyone has come to see is that carriers can show signs of billowing smoke from their hands and feet, like a small collection of dry kindling. As the carrier’s illness develops, spontaneous combustion is also possible, though the general public has been given little knowledge of the events and this leaves them to turn against the infected. Carriers are pariahs and try to hide their plight, fearful of ‘cremation crews’, tasked to seeking to kill those who carry the condition before it can spread further. One such crew is headed by the Marlboro Man, who encapsulates the rugged cowboy and keeper of the peace while slaying the sick as quickly as he can locate them. Harper soon realises that she has been infected, which places an irreparable wedge between her and husband, Jakob. Even after he finds out Harper is expecting their first child, Jakob tries to banish her and does all he can to push added levels of isolation. Harper rages back and soon encounters a fireman-cum-pyromancer, John Rookwood, who has a small following of infected individuals. They lead her to an abandoned and secluded camp where other carriers are living. This camp, a collective of sorts, struggles with the daily worries around being hunted by ‘cremation crews’ and the inner struggle of any group seeking self-sustenance. Fractures within the group develop and soon Harper witnesses a mutiny, all while she tries to learn more about draco incendia trychophyton. Rookwood remains distanced from the group, though he and Harper share a strong connection and his insights are supported by a previous collective member who was murdered for his attempts to push back against the societal ostracism. While she learns how to tame the progress of dragonscale in a melodious manner, Harper has major hurdles ahead if she wants to survive, while the world is bent on killing those who differ too greatly. Hill does a fascinating job of developing this story on many levels and lures the reader in, be they interested in the story, the metaphors, or the microcosm found within the narrative. Well worth the hype it has received and should be high on the list of readers who need a little horror and entertainment any time of year.

Hill has writing pulsing through his veins, with both parents highly acclaimed authors in their own rights. He does not try to grab hold of their coattails to be effective, carving out a niche all his own and remains highly successful in this venture. His writing does have some parallels to that of his father, perhaps in the oddities in which he places his characters, but there is a definite uniqueness in the flow and the tangents presented to the captivated reader. The invested reader will see this novel as being something other than a collection of sick individuals who are in hiding, finding parallels with the proverbial leper colony in which people are thrown when the general public is not aware or given sufficient information on which to base an educated decision. The struggles are not unique or off the wall, though Hill effectively creates a character base to lure the reader into significant sympathy. Additionally, Hill touches on the in-fighting of any isolated community as group and personal politics cloud the larger struggle, that of survival. Hill’s ever-advancing narrative and swath of different characters provides the greatest Petri dish for effective political meltdown. Again, one might see this as a great microcosm of the larger human struggle for success, where those who are too alike tend to clash and forget the thread that ties them all together. I know I used to bemoan English teachers who asked students to look below the story to find these themes, but they seem so apparent and Hill develops these struggles so effortlessly that the reader cannot help but peer through the smoke and blazing to notice them. Hill does not shy away from generalities, perhaps painting the English as a potty-mouth group who curse so uniquely that North Americans could tear out a page from their verbal playbook. However, it has moments of humour, alongside a protagonist whose unusual obsession with Julie Andrews and her depiction of Mary Poppins keeps readers constantly shaking their heads. If this novel is anything like the other work that Hill has produced, I will be sure to rush forward to dive headlong into those, though my reading list is growing daily.

Kudos, Mr. Hill for a wonderful way to start my 2017 reading journey. You offered a light at the end of the tunnel, though tossed in enough smoke and mirrors to keep me guessing.