Horror Book Review: The Fireman (Joe Hill)

The World Will Burn! How about that for an eye catching statement on the front cover of a book? It certainly caught my eye but it doesn’t give much away. A book called The Fireman and something about the world burning, I mean I know it is going to have fire in it, but it could have been an autobiography from a heroic fireman or something if it wasn’t for knowing who the author was. In case you aren’t aware, the author of this book is Joe Hill. Joe Hill is the pen name of Joe Hillstrom King. Joe Hillstrom King is the son of Stephen King and Tabitha King (son of Stephen, may it please ya).

I am a big fan of Stephen King and I would be misleading you to suggest Joe’s lineage didn’t influence me when choosing a new book to start. I don’t want to harp on too much about their family ties as I am sure Joe wrote under a pen name for those exact reasons. He has stated the desire to be judged as an author in his own right rather than to achieve book sales through being part of the Stephen King brand and that is admirable. I think in his early years of writing he had managed to keep his true identity a secret though one look at a picture of him should have been enough for everyone to know who his father was. They look very alike.

The Fireman

Still, whatever the reasons for me choosing this book, I am very glad I did. I had a wonderful time reading The Fireman and Joe has proved to me that he is a very, very capable writer and that he has a real knack for creating long lasting images with his words. Importantly, and not unlike his father, he has a real ability to make you care deeply about his characters to the point where you find yourself laughing with them, crying with them, getting frustrated with them, and at them, and praying for them.

Man do they need some prayers too. The Fireman is a pre, during and post-apocalyptic, fantasy horror set in the real world, not some mad dystopian future, but a real world that quickly descends into chaos. We pick the story up following lead character Harper Grayson, soon to be going by her maiden name Harper Willowes.

Harper is instantly portrayed as kind, considerate and caring but also a little bit too soft. She is a nurse and she not only loves Mary Poppins but also kind of models herself on her too which is a good insight into her character I guess. Harper is married to a controlling, arrogant buffoon called Jakob Grayson. She doesn’t see it though and she seems to be satisfied in trying to just be a good person and a good wife. Harper really is a good person and Joe Hill puts a lot of focus on making sure we realise this in the early stages. She is a beacon of light in a pretty grim world. While there are loads of characters explored deeply within The Fireman, it is all seen through Harper’s eyes and we bear witness through her whole horrific and eventually enlightening ordeal.

The story starts simply enough with a look at Harper’s timid life and awkward marriage as she lives her life blissfully unaware of how stale it may have become. There are small stories of a virus/infection that is affecting a few people here and there. The early affects are that these people are marked by the infection with patterns of black and gold lines.

To my mind, I imagined them being like tribal tattoos.

The markings have even been given a pet name in Dragonscale. Events take a turn for the worse pretty rapidly though as it turns out that people affected by Dragonscale have a tendency to spontaneously combust. They literally just burst into flames until there is nothing left but ashes. As the disease spreads, humanity does what it does best and starts to shun the infected. Not Harper though. She is a nurse and every day she goes into work and tries to help those who are infected. We are told how her cheerful demeanour and compassion alone makes her a heroine in the eyes of those she nurses. She makes friends with many of the patients and suffers their losses deeply. Harper’s story grows at pace as she soon finds out she is pregnant.

Jakob handles this news pretty badly as he loves himself far too much to consider raising a child though it isn’t something he needs to concern himself with for long. Harper becomes infected and at the same time, Jakob’s true colours are finally on show for Harper to see as he lambasts her for being selfish and helping others before leaving their home for good. Not long after Jakob gets a bruise and assumes he is also infected (he isn’t) and he decides the only thing for it is to kill himself, his wife and his unborn child while blaming it all on Harper.

Trust me, this guy is nuts and very dangerous. Harper escapes him, barely, thanks to the intervention of a strange little group. Two children, Allie and Nick, and a man known as The Fireman who we eventually learn is named John Rockwood. They lead Harper to the safety of a hidden camp full of infected people but one where they claim to have found a way to live with the Dragonscale and never burn up. Harper is a welcome addition to their family, being a nurse, and stays with them in their safe zone, Camp Wyndham.

the-fireman-hill

John, The Fireman, is a really brilliant character to read about and I instantly liked him. He helps the camp but doesn’t stay there as he is a loner but a compassionate one. John has also learned to do something that others haven’t where he can work with the Dragonscale to utilise the flames while not burning. He can light a cigarette with his finger. He can also create a huge fire phoenix that can swoop down and attack those who threaten John’s family and friends. His abilities have given him an almost magical, even mythical, status in the world. John keeps the bad guys at bay, mainly the Cremation Crews which are a very real representation of humanities inability to accept anyone slightly different to them.

Cremation crews are militias of people who are armed and travel through the cities hunting those with Dragonscale. When they find them, well, the name says it all. Guess what job Jakob took up? Yep, he now runs a cremation crew with his heart set on finding and destroying Harper though he isn’t against killing any man, woman or child he happens upon while searching. John watches over the camp like a sentry and there is an instant attraction between him and Harper and eventually John’s standoffishness regarding other people is explained through a heart wrenching back story and as much as I love Harper, it is John’s tale that I was most enamoured with.

The Fireman, the story, is deep and quite beautiful at times but also manages to be equally horrific and depressing. At its heart it is the story of an expecting mother’s battle to survive in a world where death and despair are the easy options. It is a story of tenacity and will in a horrific world where it would be simpler to just give up and it is also a story that shows the strength of love and friendship in the most horrible situations and in the most terrifying of scenarios. In these instances, Joe Hill explores and showcases the very best of humanity but he also shows us the worst. We explore the dark pits that exist in the real world, not just this beautifully crafted fictional one.

We see the horror of mass extermination due to not being able to accept that people can be different and we also see the same large scale destruction through fear. Is it better to kill thousands to save yourself or are you killing every last bit of you by doing so? We explore mental abuse, suicide and extreme violence and delve into the stories of those who have lost mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and lovers. We also see good people at their worst as Joe explores the dangers of blind faith and religious herd mentality.

All in all, this book bravely tackles some very dark subjects but it tackles them well and is very thought provoking and emotional. I know I won’t be thanked for it but I couldn’t help thinking of this book as a kind of The Stand and it is, but on a more intimate scale. Whereas The Stand takes a view on the whole world’s destruction, this is kind of like if it just concentrated on one tiny element. A small family amid the chaos all around. For me, this book has so much going for it. I was never bored and felt completely connected to the characters. I felt the horror of their situations and the hope, when there was any. Any book that pulls you in and makes you care that much is worth its weight in gold.

Joe Hill is a talent. Yes, there are very definite influences from Stephen King in there but, well, how could there not be? The thing is this is very much not a Stephen King book despite those influences. I really enjoyed the writing style and like the depth each character and location was given. The Fireman, to me, is everything I look for in a story with well-developed and interesting characters that you will care for, love and others that you will hate. There are twists and turns aplenty and Harper’s quest to survive just long enough to save her child against a desperately grim backdrop is exciting and horrifying in equal measure. I loved it and will definitely be picking up another Joe Hill book right away.

The Fireman (Joe Hill)
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