It would be so, so easy (and so unfair) to dismiss Joe Hill as operating in the shadow of his father, Stephen King. In many ways, Hill has felt like he’s been more and more consciously following in his father’s footsteps as of late, with aspects of NOS4A2 echoing the horrific mystical powers of It, and now with The Fireman calling back to elements of The Stand and The Mist. And I’m sure that in some corners of the internet, you’ll find people complaining about that very thing.
And those people couldn’t be more wrong if they tried, because to say that Hill is just copying his father is to ignore the boundless imagination on display, the willingness to push boundaries, to constantly let his stories evolve and change in front of your eyes. Because, sure, The Fireman is a piece of horror about the end of the world and the communities that spring up as a way of staying alive and maintaining hope. But that’s about where the similarities end, and where Hill’s astonishing creativity comes into play.
The Fireman is about a horrific plague spreading across the country, one that causes people to burst into flames spontaneously, and only seems to be spreading unabated. Exactly what causes this, as well as the more…unusual…effects will become clear over the course of the book; indeed, part of what makes the book great is the way Hill constantly lets our understanding of the illness evolve over the course of the book, all while never letting us forget about the nightmarish death that awaits those infected. But as the novel opens, the disease is just getting started; before long, the country is falling apart, people are in a panic, and the infected are hiding in an effort to stay alive.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot of the novel; one of the great joys of the book is the way that Hill is constantly reinventing it, changing it from one type of a story to another. It’s a horror story, and then a survival tale, and then it’s a community tale, and then a Shirley Jackson-esque tale of paranoia (and I love the nods to Jackson throughout the book, including a great reference to The Haunting of Hill House), and then…well, you’ll see. Whatever the case, The Fireman isn’t what you expect it to be, and every time you get settled into one kind of story, Hill’s going to toss you a curveball and put you somewhere else.
That willingness to blow up the story and change directions makes The Fireman incredibly engaging, absolutely riveting, and astonishingly intense. There’s a constant sense of danger running throughout the book, an awareness that Hill doesn’t seem to play by the rules, and we could lose anything at any point. It gives every scene, every showdown, an added menace and unease, and keeps the reader guessing as to what’s next. It also makes his villains truly dangerous and horrifying; it’s worth noting here that The Firemancontains one of the characters I’ve hated more than any character in recent memory, and whose death I couldn’t have rooted for more.
And yet, even those villains are given complex stories, detailed personalities, and come to life wholly. Hill makes every character come to life, no matter how minor, and creates a vivid world out of these personalities, letting the story be driven by his characters, not the machinations of the author. Whether it’s a sneering talk-radio host, a benevolent father figure, a religious zealot, or our protagonist’s husband, Hill gives every character depth, shading, nuance, and shades of gray, to where even that detestable villain is almost pathetic with psychological damage.
More than anything else, though, there’s Harper, our heroine. An elementary school nurse turned expectant mother, Harper is a rich female character, something that Hill seems to do a better job with than most. In a genre where women either become cannon fodder or the “Final Girl,” Hill brings his heroines to vivid, fully realized life, letting them be people as capable of agency as any other, and letting their gender inform the story while rarely making it pure text. Indeed, Hill avoids easy dichotomies; for every MRA-type villain, he tosses in a genuinely good man; for every religious zealot, there’s a reminder of what church and religion should be.
It all makes for satisfying fiction, not only as a reader who appreciates depth and complexity, but one who loves horror and thrills. Because trust me – when things start going bad, Hill more than delivers, with an extended showdown ending up as one of the most intense and riveting showpieces in recent memory, one that rivals the famed “Halloween Night” section of his father’s 11/22/63. How good is it? I needed a break after reading it just to catch my breath and calm down. Seriously.
The short version is, The Fireman is incredible. It’s absolutely riveting, constantly imaginative, filled with rich characters, written beautifully, and surprisingly emotionally complex, all while still being a solid piece of apocalyptic fiction with elements of horror in it. In short, it’s the best thing Joe Hill has written yet – and when your works include NOS4A2, Locke and Key, and 20th Century Ghosts, that’s no small feat. Miss this one at your own peril, people.
- Josh Mauthe