I know it’s not fair to compare because Joe Hill has only written four novels whereas his father has written more than ninety (!!), but I dare say that Joe Hill might be the better author of the two. Although he certainly hasn’t written anything on the scope of The Stand or the Dark Tower series, so that might be a hasty judgment. But I can say this for certain—I’ve loved everything Hill has written so far, and I’ve been enjoying each book he comes out with more than the last.
His latest, The Fireman, is one of his longest and there was a point near the middle where I knew things were coming to a head and I didn’t understand what was going to happen in all the rest of those pages. King has a habit of letting a story linger faaaarrrr past its death and so I was dreading that in this story, but instead the expected denouement proved to be far from that.
The story features Harper Grayson, a mild-mannered school nurse. In the opening scene Harper is playfully distracting a student who has come into her office with a mild ailment, when she spots through the window a man walk onto the school playground and burst into flames. It’s her introduction to the plague besetting the entire world—called Dragonscale in common lingo, it’s a fungus that infects people and causes them to first grow beautiful scales and then eventually causes them to spontaneously combust.
Eventually the school closes and Harper begins working at a local hospital that’s overrun with Dragonscale patients. After the hospital burns down due to a patient bursting into flames, she returns home to her husband, Jakob. At some point in his life Joe Hill must have encountered a manipulative emotional abuser because he captures their charm and ego in Jakob in a way that took my breath away. When you first meet Jakob you think he is wonderful. He dotes on Harper and fusses over her and they have this hot, passionate sex and he says some things that you’re like “hmmm” but he’s so sweet he really must not mean them the way they seem and Harper, our protagonist, has very little confidence or trust in her own interpretations of reality so you kind of just go with it.
…Until Harper starts growing scales and Jakob goes full-tilt psycho, changing from doting husband to a poisonous, accusatory, paranoid viper in a manner of seconds.
Eventually Harper, now living alone in a society that’s slowly breaking down, becomes afraid both of the wrath of Jakob and of squads of people calling themselves “Cremation Squads” who are hunting down infected and killing them before they burst into flames and start fires. She is forced to run off and is found by a rebel group of infecteds living at an abandoned camp in the middle of the woods. And, as these stories tend to go, there is, of course, a bit more to this camp than meets the eye. But it’s not the typical “utopia village has a dark side and winds up being worse than the anarchy going on outside it” story you think it’s going to be.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is a fan of King, Hill, the horror genre or books about disasters/the apocalypse. It’s a great new take on the later genre, it has GREAT characters and it’s definitely a worthy read even though the page count makes it a commitment.