The Fireman, by Joe Hill

>> Saturday, July 28, 2018

TITLE: The Fireman
AUTHOR: Joe Hill

PAGES: 768
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Near future, US
TYPE: Thriller / Horror

Nobody knew where the virus came from.

FOX News said it had been set loose by ISIS, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980s.

MSNBC said sources indicated it might've been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by culty Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation.

CNN reported both sides.

While every TV station debated the cause, the world burnt.

Pregnant school nurse, HARPER GRAYSON, had seen lots of people burn on TV, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.

With the epic scope of THE PASSAGE and the emotional impact of THE ROAD, this is one woman's story of survival at the end of the world.
I love a good horror novel, but I'm picky. This one by Joe Hill sounded like exactly my sort of thing (or one of them; I love creepy paranormal as well). Apocalyptic horror? Sign me up!

We meet nurse Harper Grayson just as the world has started to disintegrate. A disease called dragonscale is spreading quickly. Those infected first get ash-like patterns on their skins, almost like tattoos. At first they're fine, but at some point, they all start to smoke and smolder and they ultimately burst into flames. And dragonscale seems more unstoppable every day.

Harper's husband, Jakob, decides that if they get dragonscale, it will be best to just end it, rather than wait to burn and die in pain. Harper, numb by the horrors she's seeing, is sort of willing to go along. But then she discovers she's pregnant and has dragonscale almost at the same time, and that doesn't seem like such a great idea. She becomes determined to stay alive long enough to give birth to her child. After all, there are rumours that dragonscale is not transmitted in childbirth. But Jakob is not willing to diverge from his plan, so Harper is soon on the run, helped by a mysterious figure called The Fireman, who seems to have a special relationship with the dragonscale.

Well, on the plus side, the writing is vivid and propels you forward, and the descriptions of how the world would react to something like dragonscale feels uncomfortably true. And I liked Harper. She's someone whose role model is basically Mary Poppins, and I like to see some variety in the all the different ways in which women can be portrayed as strong.

However, although the book has a great setup and lots of promise, I had quite a lot of issues with the execution.

My main problem is that Hill didn't seem to know what kind of book he wanted to write. Was it going to be about resisting a cult? Was it going to be about escaping from the Cremation Crews? As soon as it seemed that the book was taking a particular direction, it was as if Hill got bored of it, and just got rid of it with a gleeful bloodbath, changing tack completely. As a result, the book feels too long, as if it's a first draft, where the author was just trying out different things.

I also felt the dialogue was not great, particularly in how Hill wrote Harper. For instance, there are a couple of instances where sweetness and light Harper gets a bit raunchy and crude, which, I get it, is actually meant to be a contrast with her usual MO. But she sounded nothing like a woman. And to be clear, I'm not saying women can't be crude (I'd be an absolute hypocrite if I did), it's just that her crudeness felt very male-gazey, such as when she said something about someone wanting to plunge balls-deep into a hot piece of ass. That sounded really off to me.

I was also pretty meh about the ending. I don't want to say too much about it, but I got the feeling it was supposed to be surprising, but it really wasn't.

So, not a great one, but not one that puts me off Hill completely. I might try another by him. I hear his latest collection of short stories is actually pretty good, and I get the feeling he could be good at that format.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I actually started by listening to the audiobook, but I returned it after a while and bought the ebook. Not great, particularly the supposedly British Fireman character, who (kind of appropriately, in a weird way) sounded like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, rather than the Northerner he was supposed to be.


meljean brook 30 July 2018 at 03:10  

I liked the collection of short stories and thought they were really well done, if a few were somewhat depressing (one in particular stayed with me in a really good/harrowing way, but I won't spoil here). He's definitely writes in the "not everything will always end happily for the good guys" mode of horror, I think—which is not always bad but somewhat easier to swallow in that short form.

I read The Fireman when it first came out, and I think I wrote a short Goodreads review. I'm too lazy to go look, but a year or two later, my impression is that it was kind of like the Stand meets The Girl With All The Gifts but also a light version of both. I thought it was totally odd that the titular character was in bed for so much of the book. I want to know so much more about him (although I thought the heroine was fine). And although some parts were incredibly visceral and affecting (like I still remember that stone in her mouth) other parts were underwhelming.

So far, I think I've read most or all of Hill's work and I've enjoyed it but it also isn't super memorable.

Rosario 4 August 2018 at 06:09  

Thanks, Meljean! I might try those short stories, then. It seems like Hill has a lot of ideas, and that can be better in short form as well (rather than just jumping from one to the other in a longer book!).

Ohh, I do see the comparison with The Stand and TGWATG. Maybe with a touch of The Road as well. But just pick one, man! All of the bits and pieces had excellent elements (and I think he's great at creating particular scenes which punch you in the gut), he just needed to commit.

And yes, having John basically out of commission for so much of the book felt a bit frustrating. I also wanted to know a lot more about him as a character, but a lot of the questions were left unanswered.

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