In my reading history, there is a longstanding tradition of Stephen King books and summer. When I was in high school and started my first summer job lifeguarding at the local park district pool, I spent a lot of time on my breaks talking with the cashier, Amy. She was a year older than me and I remember she always had a Stephen King novel with her. On her recommendation, I read Carrie, The Stand, and my favorite, The Dead Zone that summer and those stories will always remind me of the smell of chlorine, sun tan lotion, and just popped popcorn from the concession stand.
Six years later, I spent my first post-college summer, working both an unpaid internship and a prep cook job in a Chinese restaurant, and subletting a house in south Minneapolis with two friends. The room I slept in was a spare room/office/library and I read a lot of paperbacks off those shelves that hot summer—including a re-read of The Stand. Again, I associate King’s plots with the hum of a window fan and the feeling of sweat pooling on the back of my legs.
Why do I bring this up? Well, The Fireman was one of the four books I read while on vacation in Quebec last month and much of it was read on a deck with a mountain view, listening to birdsong and bees humming. Total summer mode. Also, of the three Joe Hill novels I’ve read (including Horns and Heart Shaped Box), this is the one that seems to me to connect Hill most strongly to his father—Stephen King.
You’ve got a worldwide epidemic that seems to bring out both the best and the worst in people. You’ve got a husband who goes crazy. You’ve got a character with powers that may destroy him. However, there are key differences that make this novel more than simply The Stand, Part 2. Where King often nudges his plots into some cosmic battle between good and evil, Hill seems more interested in the good and evil that naturally occur in humans. The epidemic, which starts out seeming supernatural—victims develop black swirling tattoos on their body (called Dragonscale) and eventually burst into flame—has a scientific cause, even if the CDC is slow to pick up on it. Unlike King who often jumps back and forth between multiple characters’ POVs, Hill focuses the story on one main character, Harper, a nurse with a fondness for Mary Poppins and cheerfulness but who ends up having a calm, steel core.
Basically, this is a good summer read, with a plot that moves quickly (but goes on a bit too long). I liked the character of Harper, who discovers her own strengths as the story moves along. Like many good summer reads, the closer you look, the more things fall apart but while I was reading The Fireman, I was in the world that Hill had created—nervously looking over my shoulder. The body count is high so it’s not for the easily spooked but that makes you worry about the main characters all the more. So, here’s my advice if you’re going to read this. Grab yourself a lawn chair or a porch swing, pour yourself a cold beverage, and get comfortable.