Book Review: The Fireman
by Joe Hill
William Morrow, 2016
There’s a moment early in Joe Hill’s big new novel The Fireman when our heroine Harper Greyson, a plucky, pregnant young nurse at Portsmouth Hospital, recalls the time she tried to read the novel written by her lover Jakob, a manager at the Portsmouth Public Works. She’s sure it will be bad, but a combination of sentiment and guilt compels her to read at least the first chapter. But even though the prose is as bad as she expected, she finds herself turning the pages anyway with a kind of sordid fascination, knowing the thing is no good but not really wanting to stop.
For forty years, this has been the exact experience of reading Stephen King novels. Those novels have grown almost steadily worse as the years went on and editors became deferential, but just like his fellow bestselling behemoths Danielle Steele and Dan Brown, King was never particularly good even at the beginning. And yet his novels undeniably tap some kind of zeitgeist of shared dreads; their stories of killer clowns, killer cars, killer dogs, and killer cell phones exercise just the kind of sordid fascination Harper Grayson feels in that scene. Readers know they should be reading something worthwhile instead (how many Stephen King fans have even heard of John Collier?), but they sink themselves into Under the Dome instead.
In this way and in a couple of others, Joe Hill is a chip off the old block of crap. He’s King’s son (the industry folklore is that he adopted the pen name “Joe Hill” and submitted his first manuscript “blind” to agents specifically to avoid any suspicion of nepotism)(if you actually believe that, I’ve got a lovely bridge in Brooklyn to sell you at a one-time-only bargain price), and he’s very much King’s protege, writing novels on the fuzzy border between science fiction and horror, trying to tap into the deep-seated societal fears that lurk behind the day’s headlines.
The Fireman is his latest book, his longest book, and by a wide margin his best book. It still shares a few too many King pere‘s stylistic ticks (small-town New England is still treated like a cross between 19th-century Deadwood and a Hollywood back lot, a place where the inbred locals say “kilt” instead of “killed”), but it also displays a narrative generosity and control far exceeding anything readers saw in his previous book. And – a downright enviable family trait – it tells a crackerjack story.
In this case, the ripped-from-the-headlines bogeyman is a vicious foreign-born epidemic, only with a typically fire-obsessed King twist: a spore-born infection called Dragonscale carves an angry filigree on the skins of the infected and then causes them to burst into flames. The condition is so easily communicable and so dramatically unpredictable (in a gesture sure to please just about anybody on Earth, it causes Glenn Beck to combust live on camera) that it’s breaking down civil society; schools have closed in Boston, and armed bands of vigilantes roam the streets looking to pre-emptively snuff out the infected.
Into this nervous nightmare comes a figure who could have walked out of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series: a weary, haunted-looking hero who calls himself simply the Fireman and who has somehow learned to control the Dragonscale that’s infecting him. He can turn it on or off, even igniting just a single hand, although as he tells Harper, he’s stumped as to how to pass along his knowledge:
“I thought about offering a class once,” the Fireman said. “But I couldn’t figure out what I was teaching. Advanced Pyromancy? Spontaneous Combustion for Dummies? Arson 101? Besides, it’s hard to get people to sign up for a course when failing a test means burning alive.”
That rough-toned humor runs throughout The Fireman and entirely saves it from the leaden portentousness that afflicts so much contemporary horror fiction. But it’s window-dressing: underneath the rattling good yarn of his plot, he has some fairly cutting observations to make about trauma and dread (at one point a character pointedly asks, “How are we supposed to live our lives when every day is September 11?”), and about the cultural complacency that comes before a fall (Harper and Jakob always assumed that the Dragonscale originated in “filthy places no one wants to go,” and the revelations of its real origins shock them in ways most non-Americans would find charmingly naive).
The plot is jump-started not only by the appearance of the Fireman but also by a more immediate calamity: Harper contracts Dragonscale (the moment when she and Jakob mournfully examine each other plays as a quietly powerful dark reflection of a love scene) despite her best precautions:
She remembered – with a kind of exhausted resentment – boiling inside her full-body Tyvek outfit all day, the material sticking to her flushed, sweaty skin. It took twenty minutes to put it on, another twenty to take it off, after the required five-minute shower in a bleach solution. After, she remembered the way she’d stink of rubber, bleach, and sweat. She carried that stench on her for two months, the whole time she worked at Portsmouth Hospital, an odor like an industrial accident, and she got infected anyway, and it seemed like a real bad joke.
There’s a glimmer of hope – or maybe shared delusion – called the Bright, and there are scattered individuals who seem attuned to a folklore of salvation (some them being, in another groan-worthy King tradition, local parish priests) they’re willing to share with Harper as her adventures take her into the heart of the mystery afflicting her world. “The Dragonscale is like anything else that makes fire, Nurse Grayson,” one such individual tells her. “You can use it to burn a place down … or light your way to something better.”
Whether or not The Fireman lights the way to something better for Hill is the key, pivotal question; this novel is ambitious and accomplished but also verging on bloat. When Stephen King’s novels were at such a point, fame and fortune conspired to rob the world of a funny satirist and give it a blowsy superstar instead. So maybe Hill’s fans should be hoping the book fails?