Blaze of gory
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: http://bit.ly/firemanaudio.
Hill’s most ambitious book yet, brave and bold