The Fireman – Joe Hill

TheFiremansmIt’s always far away. It’s always someone else. The terrible thing never happens to you. The apocalypse never comes in your lifetime. It was somewhere in Russia, a story on the news. Then it was Seattle. Then it was the playground of the New Hampshire school where Harper Grayson worked as a nurse, the man staggering into sight and clutching the climbing frame before he ignited.

Harper witnessed it, but just got on with her job with forty hysterical kids and one teacher in shock. They knew of the possibility, but they didn’t think it would come to them: Draco incendia trychophyton, the spore infection commonly known as Dragonscale. With all the schools closed, she goes to work in the hospital, dressing every day in a full body biohazard suit, scrubbing down with disinfectant to prevent exposure to the incurable fungus.

Those who carry are pariahs, walking timebombs who could quite literally explode in violent conflagration at any moment, whose very presence can infect others. Fox News said it was spread by ISIS who obtained spores developed by the Russians in the eighties; MSNBC said it was Halliburton’s work, stolen by a Christian cult. But none of that matters to Harper when the first stripes appear on her legs in August; she’s already pregnant, and who knows what will happen to the baby with no research since the Centre for Disease burnt to cinders.

The fourth novel from Joe Hill, his prose remains easy to read throughout The Fireman, flowing smoothly over the increasingly sharp rocks beneath, the reader carried breathlessly through the turbulence. There is a feeling of escalating inevitability, that this is something which can’t be fought, that it’s just a matter of time until everything goes up in flames: “How are we supposed to live our lives when every day is September 11th?”

TheFireman1Having learned well from his father, Hill charts time and place precisely and concisely; these are people’s lives, but they could be our lives, so specific yet so grounded in common human experience. There is the cruelty of Harper’s husband Jakob, the suffering of others a joke to which he strives to be the punchline.

“There are no unselfish acts,” he says, blaming her for putting her life at risk by nursing the sick, scorning her for what he sees as a need for validation from others. “When people do something for someone else, it’s always for their own personal psychological reasons.”

But there is also the kindness of Harper’s patient, Renée Gilmonton, a smoking lighthouse of hope in the dark, refusing to let a disease diminish her humanity, keeping spirits up on the ward by reading short novels to the other patients. “You don’t want to start Game of Thrones when you might catch fire all of a sudden. There’s something horribly unfair about dying in the middle of a good story, before you have a chance to see how it all comes out.”

And then there is John Rookwood, the man who one day showed up in the emergency room dressed as a fireman, who later rescues Harper from her self-imposed confinement and conveys her to the relative safety of Camp Wyndham where over a hundred infected men, woman and children have been hiding out under the apparently benevolent guidance of Father Storey. They have found a way to coexist with the Dragonscale, but they are dangerously close to a cult, and to some Harper’s fiery independence is a threat.

TheFireman2Conscious of its literary heritage, beyond the naming of the refuge after the author of The Day of the Triffids, that benchmark of a world turned to ruin and the faint hope of a distant island sanctuary, there are references to Mary Poppins, Harry Potter and its gloriously unrepentant author, The Road, a sly nod to The Dark Tower, and obliquely in that they all carry the memory of books within them the story of another fireman, Fahrenheit 451, the latter reinforced by Renée’s cat Truffaut, director of the film version of Ray Bradbury’s novel of oppression and defiance.

Perhaps inevitably, being a fungal infection which moves through the body to the brain, the spreading of spores through fire, the dynamic of the isolated community ruled by a strict and intolerant regime and the break for freedom across hostile territory, it cannot help but remind of The Girl With All The Gifts, but unlike M R Carey’s novel it tends more towards the fantastical in the deliverance from the hell on Earth wrought by anger, jealousy, pettiness and fear.

The difficulties of their limited resources exacerbated by the constant threat as gangs scour the countryside summarily executing the infected and the risk of exposure with every new arrival, unlike the road trips of Heart Shaped Box or N0S-4R2, The Fireman is a largely static novel which loses momentum in the tangled friendships, rivalries and petty organised cruelties as the months pass in hiding, the brief excursions beyond the boundaries standing out before the kindling ignites in a shocking and pyrotechnic confrontation which brings the house down.

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The Fireman is available now from Gollancz

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