The Fireman is Joe Hill’s latest horror/scfi thriller where a deadly infection has set the world ablaze and toxic ashes fall day and night. It recently won the GoodRead’s Choice Awards for Best Horror (2016) and has excited fans with its similarities to Firestarter. Local readers will be excited to know that The Fireman is set in our very own town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire (but you probably already knew that). William Morrow | May, 2016 | Kindle Edition | 768 pp
The disease is called Dragonscale and it’s caused by a spore – mode of transmission is unknown. After infection, the telltale signs of gold and black markings curl across the skin. Eventually, the diseased will succumb to spontaneous combustion and end up a pile of ashes. Maine and to the north is a raging inferno of forest fires, and fires caused by a sudden Dragonscale death crop up every day and in every locale. The infected are being rounded up and sent to camps, torn from families, executed in fields. Each day the fear intensifies, and local forces of ‘cremation crews’ hunt down the infected and inflict brutal deaths.
“The man who walked like a drunk began to sag. Then he arched his spine convulsively, throwing his head back, and then flames licked up the front of his shirt. She had one brief glance at his gaunt, agonized face and then his head was a torch. He beat his left hand at his chest, but his right hand still held the wooden ladder. His right hand was burning, charring the pine. His head tipped farther and farther back and he opened his mouth to scream and black smoke gushed out instead.”
Harper Grayson is a nurse at Portsmouth Regional and she does what she can to take care of the sick, keeping them comfortable until they burn up. The hospital needed all the help they could get and so she stayed, protected in her suit. When the hospital finally went up in flames, she went home to spend the rest of her days with her husband and hide out until it all blew over. Days later, she found out she was pregnant. Not long after that, she found the Dragonscale markings on her own body.
After a less than compassionate discussion, Jackob left the house to avoid contamination, but later came back angry and convinced he was sick because of her. He wanted to do what they had always talked about – suicide instead of burning. But Harper didn’t want to die; she wanted to see her baby born as there was strong evidence it would be born healthy. In a deranged state, Jakob tries to kill her but she escapes and is saved by a British fireman, one who had been looking out for her after she helped him in the hospital.
He’s not really a fireman, but then again – he is in another sense. He takes her to a secret camp filled with infected people and they all show Harper that Dragonscale is not a death sentence. With communal singing and a group sense of safety and love, they enter the ‘Bright’ together and glow. No one ever dies from burning at the camp. The Fireman can take it one step further and harness the power of the Dragonscale fire, turning it into a mighty weapon. And that ability is going to come in handy.
With the Marlboro Man on the radio waves inciting fear and violence against the ‘Burners’, Jakob looking for vengeance, a power conflict and sabotage within their camp community, a deranged cult-like mentality, dwindling supplies, and a growing belly, it doesn’t seem like they can sit and wait. Sides are taken and it seems Harper’s best bet is a mythological island off the coast of Maine run by MTV’s icon of the ’80s Martha Quinn – a safe haven for the infected. But does it really exist?
There is a lot to this book and I wouldn’t be able to fit a tenth of it into a description. What I love are some of the more outlandish figures portrayed in the book because as crazy as they sound, they are strangely believable. The Marlboro Man on the radio with his hatred and lies sounds mysteriously like Glenn Beck (although he burned up in the book) or possibly Rush Limbaugh. Of course, many of us remember the name ‘The Marlboro Man’ from the super popular TV show The X-Files. Then there is this mythical island of infected with Martha Quinn beckoning people on the airwaves – supposedly. Everyone seems to know of one person who heard a broadcast, but no one has heard it themselves. I love the fact that it is Martha Quinn – what a blast from the past. Anyone my age or older would instantly recognize the name. A domain is given and I naturally looked it up, but sadly found it hacked by Harold:
Harold is only known through second-hand accounts and through his old journal. He is an infuriating misogynist but also completely brilliant with his scientific deductions, not that anyone would pay attention or listen to him. Allie is a teenage girl who rules the roost at camp. She’s shaved her head, is bossy and foul-mouthed, and she’s created a gang-like following with other youths. Her aunt Carol winds up in charge of the camp community and devolves into a crazy cult leader who demands people carry stones in their mouths to atone for sins. She’s worshiped and deified as Mother Carol and there are those who would willingly die for her. It seems that Harper jumped from the frying pan into the fire. At least the fireman seems normal except for his freakish abilities to throw fireballs and cast a giant fire phoenix, and his persistent torch for an old flame.
The Dragonscale itself is terrifying when you think about it. To know that you are going to burn to death, or that your children will burn, with no way to stop it is horrific. To know its coming. Shiver. And the world created as the result of the pandemic is equally as monstrous: a world in flames with ashes falling day and night while the pious keep vigil for the four horsemen. No salvation in sight.
This is a long book and a lot of it is character development so it takes a while for it to get going. Once Carol is in charge of the camp, that’s when things really heat up, so to speak. I love Harper’s ability to use reason and logic, and keep her cool in the face of sheer idiocy. Harper is a great protagonist, one any reader will love. Although I found the end wanting, the ride is what matters here. A red-hot journey.