In all honesty, I picked up this book because of the author, Joe Hill, is Stephen King’s son, and Stephen King has been all time favorite author (he’s written some seriously scary novels!). It goes without the saying that I also absolutely loved the cover, with the slightly dotted texture that makes holding the book fun.
In addition to this, I’ve been craving for a decent horror novel of which there is a severe dearth. The newer horror writers are not really scary as such. So it was with that excitement and anticipation that I started off with The Fireman.
While it was extremely hard to get away from the fact that The Fireman is written by Stephen King’s son, the opening chapter of the book immediately made me realize that Joe Hill has a voice of his own.
The novel starts off at a school, where the teachers and students witness a man self-combusting. He merely catches fires and burns to death. Witnessing this is Harper Willowes, the nurse at the school, and through whom we witness the epidemic outbreak happening all around her. Hill portrays a harrowing scenario that immediately draws you in with intrigue and curiosity. It’s a brilliant set up and makes you want to read on to find out what’s happening.
Harper is married to Jakob, who himself is trying to work on a novel but not getting anywhere. In the midst of the crisis, their relationship suffers. We see that Harper is a sensitive and a submissive woman, while Jakob often bullies her. In the process, Harper relies on Mary Poppins and utilizes Poppin’s philosophy to get by in life, albeit with a “spoonful of sugar.”
The society, in general, is breaking down, with the discovery that the disease, known as Dragonscale, is affecting everyone. The spores develop on the body and ultimately the body self-combusts. As the world around her is crumbling down, Harper discovers there’s a place, Camp Wyndham, where there are people who are infected but have the ability to control Dragonscale.
She makes her way to the camp, having been estranged from Jakob, who goes cuckoo in the mind. She meets the group of survivors, among them, is Renee, a sweet lady who doesn’t know how tough the future will be, and Nick, a young deaf-mute boy who communicates in sign language. It is here she meets the Fireman, who reveals that he has a capability to control Dragonscale. Turns out, that everyone in the group is infected with the disease, but have powered the ability to control the disease by singing songs in a group, and prevent themselves from burning.
The twist comes when the group decides to eradicate the infected and so develops a moral dilemma. This is actually the best part of the book as we get to witness the real horrors a human being can inflict onto other in the worst of times. This part of the book also takes the readers by surprise as we are drawn into an emotional, human drama and away from what is actually happening in the outside world. Hill aptly writes about how the real horror lies inside the human being, and not in the disease that’s spreading all over.
The novel is set in a post apocalyptic world, where societies are breaking down, rule and law have vanished and people are dying all over. Hill does a remarkable job of creating this kind of world and we feel the doom and gloom scenario. As said earlier, what starts out as a horror novel, shifts tonally into a human drama, albeit with a few jump scares. There are a few major exciting scenes, such as the Phoenix, but nothing grabs you and shocks you. It’s all fairly downhill towards the end.
See, the problem with The Fireman is that it cannot entirely get out the shadow of The Stand and the influences of King on his son. At more than 750 pages long, it’s a gargantuan read, and while the beginning and the middle are superb and engrossing, it’s the ending that just sort of fizzles out, when the whole time I was led to believe the book will end with a bang! It’s precisely this reason why I would give this book a 3-star rating and not a 4 star.
To the seasoned readers of Stephen King, some comparisons will be drawn to The Stand, which also follows a band of people seeking to reach a high ground amidst the world falling apart. There are also a few connections between the characters in The Fireman to the characters in The Stand.
Having said that, I am a fan of Joe Hill because, for one, his way of writing allowed me to turn each page with excitement. He’s a brilliant and masterful storyteller. He knows how to weaves his words around, create characters that we can connect to, give all his characters their own time, and doesn’t get bogged down in detailed descriptions in the narrative.
I have picked up Hill’s earlier book, Heart Shaped Box, as I am indeed drawn into the way he writes stories. Pick up The Fireman if you are a fan of horror novels, and have enough time to read through all the pages, otherwise, I would suggest revisiting The Stand.