Blaze of gory

SFX - - Reviews -

A spore causes folks to go up in flames in Joe Hill’s lat­est novel.

The end of the world as we know it may, as Michael Stipe con­tended, start “with an earth­quake”, “birds and snakes, an aero­plane” may be in­volved, and the spirit of the late Lenny Bruce may face events with­out be­ing afraid. Nev­er­the­less, one of the con­tentions in REM’s finest pre-sta­dium-era song has al­ways seemed like an idle boast: does Stipe re­ally think he’ll “feel fine”?

A vast ar­ray of art and fic­tion ar­gues oth­er­wise, sug­gests that the end of the world will, in fact, be mag­ni­tudes worse than the greyest Sun­day. It’s a view that reached an apoth­e­o­sis in Cor­mac McCarthy’s The Road, a jour­ney through the can­ni­bal-in­fested aftermath of an ex­tinc­tion event. What could be fine about such a sce­nario?

En­ter Joe Hill, whose The Fire­man is, as he lately told SFX, “an apocalypse story for peo­ple who are sick of apocalypse sto­ries”. Rather than mag­nify the mis­ery, Hill in­stead of­fers us the per­spec­tive of char­ac­ters who take the up­beat de­ci­sion to en­dure af­ter be­com­ing in­fected by “Dragon­scale” – a spore that looks like a gor­geous tat­too on the skin (cool) but which makes vic­tims li­able to com­bust (not cool, lit­er­ally). Amer­ica crashes and burns; it’s a hope­less sit­u­a­tion.

Ex­cept preg­nant nurse Harper Grayson re­fuses to give in to hope­less­ness, at least un­til she’s given birth. In­stead, em­ploy­ing op­ti­mism bor­rowed in part from Mary Pop­pins, she looks for spoon­fuls of sugar (a com­mod­ity in in­creas­ingly short sup­ply) to help the medicine (even harder to source) go down. Sim­i­larly up­beat is Brit émi­gré John Rock­wood, who dresses (hence the ti­tle) as a fire­man and who’s learnt to turn his con­di­tion to his own ends. Both be­come residents of a makeshift com­mune, Camp Wyn­d­ham, a cosy spot to sur­vive a catas­tro­phe pro­vided that the neigh­bours, healthy peo­ple with an un­healthy in­ter­est in killing the Dragon­scale-in­fected, don’t find it. As Hill has also noted, this is a book where the he­roes are the zom­bies, while those hunt­ing them show “geno­ci­dal urges”.

Clever – but The Fire­man isn’t just clever, it’s also a book with real soul. That’s per­haps be­cause, for all that it’s a vis­ceral hor­ror novel, in key re­spects it reads like the first vol­ume of a fam­ily saga, with Harper cast as a mother fig­ure to young­sters at Camp Wyn­d­ham. As for The Fire­man, he’s less pa­tri­arch, more favourite un­cle – the kind who mys­te­ri­ously goes to Buenos Aires for six months only to turn up un­in­vited at Christ­mas smelling of whisky.

If only the rest of the residents of Camp Wyn­d­ham were as much fun. They’re a dys­func­tional lot, and grad­u­ally the sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rates thanks partly to a (fam­ily-cen­tred) power strug­gle – and the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion is grad­ual, be­cause at 600-plus pages this is a long novel. Per­haps too long: scenes at Wyn­d­ham could ar­guably have been cut, es­pe­cially as they’re ul­ti­mately a pre­lude to a jour­ney across a rav­aged land­scape of a kind fa­mil­iar to any­one who’s seen just a bit of The Walk­ing Dead.

But cut­ting scenes would also risk los­ing much of what makes The Fire­man spe­cial. The sheer hu­man she-did-this-but-he-saidthat-but-it-was-still-her-fault messi­ness of the re­la­tion­ships at Wyn­d­ham, es­pe­cially when con­trasted with the clin­i­cal chill­i­ness of Harper’s bro­ken mar­riage, don’t make for brevity.

And why should they? The deeper truths of The Fire­man lie in the way it ex­plores how we slowly build con­nec­tions with those clos­est to us. It does this, more­over, while still ac­knowl­edg­ing how fam­i­lies turn in on them­selves, be­come de­struc­tive. It’s Hill’s most am­bi­tious book yet, a brave, bold and big-hearted take on the end of the world that, yes, may just make you be­lieve it could all feel fine. Jonathan Wright

The au­dio­book of The Fire­man is read by Kate Mul­grew. Lis­ten to some ex­cerpts on Sound­cloud:­m­anau­dio.

Hill’s most am­bi­tious book yet, brave and bold

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