Joe 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.