By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.
One of the great joys of reading Joe Hill is that his stories seem to exist in the same literary world created by his father, Stephen King. So when Hill’s masterful fourth novel, The Fireman (2016), calls upon, and often directly incorporates, ideas from King benchmarks like The Shining (1977) it doesn’t just summon a smirk. Instead, it seems natural and even expected. This sensibility is so strong that I often even silently anticipate Hill’s antagonists running into those who populated King’s tales at any given interval.
With this in mind, it should not be a shock that throughout Hill’s latest eight ‘book’ epic he also slyly references other King works. For example, the novella which was first made available in King’s short story collection Different Seasons, Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption (1982). There is also an undeniable parallel to The Stand (1978). This is most evident in the end of the world theme, scale and ambition. It is also comparable in the sheer length of Hill’s massive seven hundred and fifty two page tome. Hill also shares King’s knack for effortlessly entertaining his audience through the pure readability of his terrifically written sheets alone.
There is also an intimate character-focus and various pop-culture mentions. We are also amended statements concerning Maine and the state’s surrounding spots. All of these further align Hill to King. Yet, there is a noticeable inspiration from J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury and, of all things, Julie Andrews. Mary Poppins (1964) is a personal favorite of Hill’s heroine, Harper Willowes. Likewise, the Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman composed song, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, is constantly mentioned. It is also creatively mixed into the proceedings. There is also a direct comparison to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and the trials which occur within the confines of Hill’s most recent opus itself. This creates a direct arrangement to the measures of Hill’s fiction sewn into the fabric. It also seems to be modeling itself after The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Chrichton in many respects.
True of all the talents of the authors mentioned above, Hill has an affinity to make us deeply care for our leads. He keeps a sense of urgency, a quiet intensity, lurking at every turn. This is present even in the numerous exposition heavy stretches which take up much of the mid-section. Yet, such makes every tragic, unexpectedly poignant and occasionally comic item all the more pivotal, intimate and immediate. This makes the adventure Harper, a nurse, takes with John Rookwood, a likable Englishman whose own dreams are alluded to in the title all the more jarring, exciting and spectacular. Helping matters is the singular, expertly developed personalities Harper meets along the way. For example, a vindictive radio personality dubbed ‘The Marlboro Man’ is among Hill’s more interesting antagonists. This only enhances the credibility and quality of the undertaking stupendously.
The story itself is set in modern day New Hampshire. It concerns an outbreak of Draco Incendia Trychophyton or, as it is commonly dubbed throughout this meticulously detailed affair, Dragonscale. This is a lethal spore which evokes spontaneous combustion in those who have not learned how to control it. Those who do find the beauty in this microorganism. Such activities, taught to Harper by The Fireman himself, bring about a sense of time slowed down. Among the benefits of such a control is the ability to create blazes without a match. But, how long will it be before this power is corrupted?
Once Harper unveils that she is a carrier of Dragonscale, early in the undertaking, we follow her on a continually mesmerizing journey. She narrowly escapes her husband, Jakob. He is a self-proposed ‘intellectual’ and amateur writer. One that is slowly becoming unhinged and increasingly more fascinated with a suicide pact he made with Harper before she found out she was pregnant. She is fearful. This is until she finds a presumed safety at a place for those who are infected. The name of this area is Camp Wyndham. It is run by the ever-intriguing Father Storey.
Here she becomes more familiar with the title entity. It also gives her a sense of temporary safety. She thinks this will be a haven. One which will ensure that her unborn child will be protected from her increasingly violence prone spouse. This is until the pleasantries of those at Camp Wyndham are unveiled to be a ruse. It is than she must fight to survive for the sake of herself, those around her and the babe within her.
The result of this struggle, the pushing force of the entire narrative, is fully satisfying on all fronts. This is sprawling, suspenseful and smartly paced in equal doses. All the more admirably, these attributes often appears to transpire simultaneously. Hill’s structure throughout is meticulous and always fascinating. He also evokes crisp imagery. It is as spectacularly visual and unforgettable as the most haunting and harrowing mainstream blockbuster. This is especially true in the first and last hundred pages.
What is just as admirable is the magnificent way he ties up as many loose ends as possible in the concluding stretches. This makes the rare predictable element, such as a chain of events brought forth by the hierarchy in Camp Wyndham, easily forgettable. This is also true of the last 1/3 of the hardcover. Here Hill follows a generally formulaic pattern for tales of this variety. Still, he breaks new ground and dismantles expectations at nearly every turn. Thus, these small familiarities are made all the more trivial in comparison.
The volume triumphs as action. There are plenty of scenes so rigorously detailed you can often hear the crack of the shots fired and the clash of fictional vehicles. It succeeds just as well as science-fiction, horror and drama. There’s terror, poignancy, life lessons and wisdom in abundance. Just as prevalent is Hill’s rich prose. It is as grand as the plethora of authors who served as the muse for this astonishing tour de force.
Hill wants to teach us the importance of a song and unveiling moments of splendor amid an ever-blackening backdrop. Furthermore, he wants to instruct us on how everyday people can turn into heroes under the most horrific circumstances. There is also a strong emphasis on kindness and humanity amid insurmountable odds. Such, along with a tremendously realized and deservedly poetic finale, will produce tears from even the sourest of hearts. To its further credit, there is also an active imagination vividly alive here. It also easily aligns Hill with those who he specifically notes as his muse early on. These are but a few of the many numerous achievements visible in The Fireman.
Hill’s latest is endlessly engaging and meditative. It showcases the remarkable talent he demonstrated in his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts (2005), and in the Bram Stoker Award for Best Debut Novel winning, Heart Shaped Box (2007), as continuing to blossom and take flight. Though the overall content may not be as horrific as that exhibited in NOS4A2 (2013), whose Christmasland is also cleverly referenced here, it is every bit as magnificent. The William Morrow and Company published piece certainly towers over Hill’s uneven Horns (2010). What’s best is that the comic book series Locke and Key (2008-2014) scribe continues to exhibit growth, further potential and brilliance.
There’s a lot of Hill’s dad in him. This much is true. Admittedly, this connection is what drew me initially to his material. But, with every new labor turned in Hill proves that his voice is exceptional and distinctly his own. The Fireman is no exception. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most striking novels I’ve read in years. For those of us who like many genres triumphantly put together into one compulsively readable digest: this is an absolutely mandatory experience.