A nightmare vision of a world in flames – The Fireman is Joe Hill’s best book to date.
Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Reviewers who acknowledge this also tend to lament the fact that they should mention it at all, because he is clearly an accomplished author in his own right. That he has achieved popular and critical success is due to hard work and talent. Having eschewed his famous name he succeeded on his own terms. Referring to this point, The New York Times claims “He deserves not to have it mentioned in reviews of his books anymore, so look up his pedigree if you really need to.”
This type of sentiment seems slightly disingenuous considering the blatant artistic debt Hill owes his father. While reading The Fireman it was at times difficult to remember it is not a Stephen King book. This might sound churlish or unfair, but it’s not – if this really was a Stephen King story it would be one of his best.
The Fireman describes society’s collapse following the outbreak of a fungal disease called Draco Incendia Trychophyton, more commonly known as Dragonscale. Highly contagious, it marks its victims with oddly beautiful black and gold markings before eventually causing them to burst into flames and die. Millions have perished, and whole cities have burned. Fires rage everywhere and are constant. The air has turned to smoke. It is a grim vison, but remarkably, not a grim read. Terrible things happen – it’s thrilling and horrific, but there is an unexpected and refreshing feeling of hope and optimism throughout.
For such a huge book about the end of the world, this is an intimate story. Harper Grayson is working as a volunteer nurse when she becomes infected. That she is also pregnant is the crux of the plot – she is desperate to live long enough to give birth. Hill really knows how to turn the screw, and Harper’s condition results in an urgency and tension that at times feels unbearable. Her relationship with her unborn child is so tender and true it raises The Fireman to a level above the horror thrill-ride it is being marketed as.
The most sinister parts of the book belong to Harper’s husband, Jakob. A comically pretentious writer, he becomes a maelstrom of violent paranoia and insecurity. His constant presence (both in reality and Harper’s imagination) permeates real fear throughout. He is a brilliant villain. Unfortunately for Harper, he’s not the only one. Without giving any of the plot away, it should suffice to say if the collapse of civilised society can bring out the best in people, it more often brings out the worst.
Despite all this The Fireman remains a hopeful book, full of humour and kindness. Yes, there is horror and violence, but it feels warranted. It has been compared to Stephen King’s The Stand, but really it’s more like The Mist. It asks how a small community might deal with the end of the world, and the results are exhilarating.
Every couple of years a book comes along which both reinvigorates and justifies the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. In 2006 it was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Eight years later it was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Now we have The Fireman.