In January, Teresa published a review of Joe Hill’s latest book, The Fireman. I had already been planning to read it, since I’ve read and enjoyed most of what he’s written, but her review made me really excited about it. And (of course) she was right. I just read this 750-page novel in less than three days, and if I hadn’t had a life to live, I’d have read it even faster. This book is fast-paced, dark, violent, and incredibly compelling.
I won’t go into detail about the plot, partly because Teresa already gave a good sense of it and partly because there are a lot of twists and turns that are more fun if unanticipated. But the general premise is this: people have become infected with a disease called Dragonscale, which makes them burst into flame and burn alive. Harper Grayson is a nurse, and she’s working with infected patients when she finds she, too, is sick. Originally, she had promised her husband Jakob that if they got infected, they would drink some wine and commit suicide together. But just before Harper found the first traces of Dragonscale on her skin, she found out she was pregnant. Now she has something to live for — the hope of delivering a healthy baby — and she must negotiate a world that’s burning all around her.
There were so many good things about this book. The early scenes, when Jakob is freaking out from fear and stress, and he won’t listen to Harper’s desire to live, are deeply frightening. There’s something about someone you love and care about becoming a terrible danger that’s horrifying, and Hill builds the case for Jakob’s unpleasant and self-serving madness with care. Later, when Harper finds a kind of compound of the sick on the cusp of becoming a cult, Hill builds the same kind of case, as it becomes clear that group behavior can be harmony or a mob. Those who remain calm, trustworthy, and capable of altruism — in an apocalyptic situation are few and far between. I was totally gripped by the emerging crisis, watching the way small events could push people one direction or another, toward their community principles or far away from them. I am fond of saying that the human capacity for self-delusion is bottomless, and that’s in evidence here. It was also very satisfying to see the tough, smart women in this book. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but Hill doesn’t generalize about who can be strong and who has to follow. During the course of the novel, he goes into some detail about the mechanism of Dragonscale, and while it was both clever and relevant, that wasn’t as interesting to me. It was his people I wanted more of, and in 750 pages I got plenty.
Another fun thing was catching references in this book, both to Hill’s own work and to his father’s (Stephen King.) There are several references here to The Stand, and others to Mid-World from the gunslinger series. I found this absolutely delightful, especially since it wasn’t overdone, and I wonder if I even caught all of them. And then, of course, there are the references to Ray Bradbury, Dire Straits, and dozens of other cultural references. It’s a lot of fun to read.
If horror interests you — horror that is mostly suspense — I absolutely recommend this book, along with Hill’s other work. The only book of his I haven’t read is Horns, because the premise doesn’t appeal to me, but now I’m wondering if I should read that one, too.