The Fireman

firemanJoe Hill’s latest novel drew me in so quickly and so thoroughly that I placed it on my 2016 books of the year list when I was only halfway finished reading it. There was a point near the end when I thought I’d live to regret that decision, but I didn’t. And there’s a moment tucked into the credits page at the end that made me want to hug this book with delight. It was the perfect ending of what most people I know agree was a pretty rotten year.

I do not, however, want to give the impression that this is a happy book. It’s a dark and violent horror novel, but it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in this genre. The story begins with the recent outbreak of some sort of disease that causes people to develop a scaly rash that eventually bursts into flame. It’s unclear how this Dragonscale spreads, but it happens quickly and there’s no cure.

Harper Grayson, a cheerful nurse with a Julie Andrews-inspired can-do spirit, has devoted her days to treating those who’ve caught Dragonscale, but it’s a losing battle. She and her husband, Jakob, have agreed that if they get the ‘scale, they will drink some wine, make love, and end it all. But that changes when Harper discovers two things: that she has the ‘scale and that she’s pregnant. Healthy babies are born to women with the ‘scale, and she wants to give her child a chance. Jakob is having none of it, so Harper must find a way out and into a world where people with the ‘scale are increasingly being treated as threats.

With the help of a mysterious man in firefighter gear, Harper ends up at Camp Wyndham, a place filled with people who have learned to live with Dragonscale. As they sing together, the ‘scale glows and shines, and they happily share in what they call the “Bright.” As a nurse, she quickly becomes a valued member of the community. But the longer she’s there, the less safe the community appears.

There’s so much to enjoy about this book. The main plot follows a fairly predictable course, but there’s comfort in that. What’s fun is seeing exactly how the community collapses and following the specific allegiances and betrayals as they unfold and turn back on themselves. And the principal characters are likable, although Hill overplays Harper’s Mary Poppins love at times. Still, I enjoy that his characters clearly live in our world and enjoy and discuss our culture. Hill uses these interests to flesh out the characters, just as we use shared interests to get to know people in our own lives. I also absolutely adored the bits we see of Jakob’s novel in progress. It was so perfect. Jakob did become something of a cartoon in the end, but I still found him satisfying. And I always enjoy little callouts to Stephen King’s Mid-World. (Hill is King’s son, and King’s influence on his work is clear.)

This book is more than 700 pages long, but I didn’t often feel its length. Some of the action sequences went on longer than I would have chosen, but I find action sequences less interesting than character development and world-building. I wanted a little more of the world outside Camp Wyndham. And between the climactic “O come let us adore him” scene here and pretty much all of NOS4A2, I’m pretty sure Joe Hill wants us to be terrified of Christmas.

And then there’s that ending! I have rarely felt so worried about characters’ fates as I did in the final chapters of this book. And what happens is just right. This is a book about living on in spite of calamity all around. I think it’s the exact right message for this particular New Year.

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9 Responses to The Fireman

  1. Michelle says:

    You captured the essence of this book so well! It is by no means perfect but a very satisfactory read on many levels. I also agree that it provides a wonderful message as we head into 2017.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Rebecca says:

    I just recently read/reviewed this one. I live in Portsmouth, NH, where this book takes place – which made it all the creepier, knowing the landmarks so well. You know, I didn’t pick up on that which you mentioned, the scene finale with the ode to Christmas, connecting it in a way to N0S4A2 which I also read. No Christmas cheer for this author. Ha! Good call!
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
    Follow me on Bloglovin’

    • Teresa says:

      I can imagine knowing the area would make it so much creepier!

      There’s actually a point where Nick mentions Christmasland, which made me laugh. Hill and King both seem to enjoy including throwaway references to their other books (and to each others’ books). It’s fun to catch that stuff.

  3. Bellezza says:

    Whoa, terrified of Christmas? What a shocking thought to me! But then again, the Kings often present something totally out of the blue (to me) with tremendous shock value. I haven’t read this one, but I’m often compelled to pick up a horror novel for the simple fact that I know it will be fast and engaging. Sometimes, I tire of slogging through “literary” novels (such as happened to me with many of the Man Booker nominees).

    • Teresa says:

      I think some horror writers like to take things people enjoy and make them scary, and Christmas certainly works for that! I like horror and thrillers for the same reason you do. I can usually count on an exciting story.

  4. I am not a horror reader usually (The Girl With All the Gifts is a recent exception – and I love Shirley Jackson but I don’t really consider her horror) but your review of this one has me reconsidering my stance. I may have to try it!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m choosy about horror. I mostly just stick with King and Hill and some of the classic writers like Jackson and Levin. This is as much a dystopian thriller as it is a horror novel.

  5. Jeanne says:

    Ok, I’m sold, especially with your reference to what is to come in the life of our nation.

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