(2016) Joe Hill, Orion, £7.99, pbk, 767pp, ISBN 978-0-575-13073-9
I first bumped into Joe Hill a loooong time ago when he appeared at a Fantasycon, that I think, was being held in a hotel off a motorway junction for the launch of his first book 20th Century Ghosts. No-one really knew who he was then, he was just a friendly guy with black hair and a blacker beard who was chuffed that anyone had actually bought his first book. He’s been a fairly regular face at Fantasycons since then, and earlier in the year he was part of a double-act at the Edinburgh Book Festival with Mike Carey, or M. R. Carey as he is known these days, talking about fungal apocalypses, because that’s what his book shares with Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts – both are end of the world stories, not caused by superflu, or a crashed meteor or satellite, or global warming, or a plague of zombies, but by fungi.
But, oh, dear, I thought, hefting this tome in my hand, because as the world’s most reluctant reader, I did blanch at the prospect of ploughing through a book that is 767 pages long – this book probably being Hill’s longest after Heart Shaped Box and Horns and NOS4R2, but The Fireman is at least separated into nine separate 'books' framed by a prologue and an epilogue called 'Delivery'. Inevitably, being Stephen King’s son, Hill’s book has been compared to The Stand, but while that is a classic after the end of the world tale of good vs. evil, Hill’s book is perhaps more subtle.
No-one knows where it came from, but a fungal disease is spreading and wiping out humanity. It is called dragonscale or Draco incendia trychophyton to give it its proper name and looks like a tattoo, but it gets worse and then you burn if you gets stressed out. Who can survive and is it worth hanging on to see if you will become infected? School nurse Harper Grayson and her husband Jacob don’t think so, they talk about committing suicide together if they show signs of disease but then Harper becomes pregnant and everything changes, for her. She has seen other mothers give birth to babies that are uninfected and wants her child to be given the chance to be that way too, but Jacob has other ideas and becomes mad, bad and dangerous to know, but before he can kill her, she is rescued by the Fireman, a man wearing a battered yellow fire fighter’s jacket who can control his sickness and also control the markings on other people. Together they hit the road, away from the self-appointed Cremation Squads who seek out those with the dragonscale who might pass it to others, and reach the relative safety of Camp Wyndham where there are others who have worked collectively to control their sickness, mainly through their communal living and singing together, turning the threat of burning into being able to glow with their scales turning different colours, and everything seems fine for a while.
One of the great things about The Stand was the realisation that while Big Evil had been destroyed in Las Vegas, Little Evil still existed in the hearts of the survivors, all that rage and pettiness and anger and envy and greed was still out there, waiting to be stoked up and perhaps next time humanity wouldn’t survive. Likewise, in The Fireman despite appearances everything in Camp Wyndham is not the garden or roses that it appears to be and resentment is building up heading towards burning point with a few characters revealing their true nature in rather shocking and surprising ways. This is possibly Hill’s best work to date, but readers will find some of the scenes rather disturbing – no spoilers here and Hill does leave room for a possible sequel, but I can’t see that happening unless he revisits this world and some of the characters in a short story or novella. Like NOS4R2 this seems to be big, throwback horror to the 1980s when Hill’s father, Peter Straub and Robert McCammon were delivering door stoppers of books but, with its pop culture references and comments on the way we live now, or did before dragonscale struck, it probably is much better than some of the books these three horror greats delivered.
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