Unlike some, I have a soft spot for Heart-Shaped Box, and a lot of love for Horns, but even I’d agree that NOS4A2 is Joe Hill’s strongest novel—not least, I believe, because it’s also his longest. The larger than life-sized story it told and the complex characters explored over its engrossing course simply couldn’t have come to be without the room to breathe its length allowed, so when I found out The Fireman was similarly thick, I was pleased.
And it’s an awesome novel, naturally: an apocalyptic parable written from the perspective of an infectiously happy heroine every millimetre as meaty and memorable as Ms. Vic McQueen, and whose hellish ex gives Charles Talent Manx a run for his money. But for all that The Fireman kicks off brilliantly and ends tremendously well, the middle section of the text—an epic in and of itself—tends towards the plodding and the predictable.
It begins with the world burning. It’s been burning for months, as a matter of fact, but only “in filthy places no one wants to go,” you know. So sayeth Harper Grayson’s asshole of a husband. And it’s true that the first recorded cases of Draco Incendia Trychophyto—a spore that marks its hosts with gorgeous golden growths before causing them to suddenly combust—it’s true, at least according to the news, that the so-called ‘Scale originated elsewhere.
Some say the Russians engineered it. Others insist on the involvement of ISIS, or, failing that, fundamentalists fixated on the Book of Revelation. Truth be told, its source isn’t so important, because the thing about fire is, it spreads—and with it, this incipient sickness. Before long, “fifteen million people are infected. Maine is like Mordor now,” Harper has it: “a belt of ash and poison a hundred miles wide. Southern California is even worse. Last I heard, SoCal was on fire from Escondido to Santa Maria.”
With “her silliness and her sense of play and her belief that the kindnesses you showed other added up to something,” said school nurse is just about the sweetest human being there’s ever been, so whilst her increasingly hysterical other half hides, Harper helps, however she can. Alas, lending a hand at the local hospital leads to her developing symptoms of the ‘Scale herself—just hours after she learns she’s pregnant.
In short order, the father of the baby-to-be becomes convinced that he’s also a host of the spore, and starts banging on about a suicide pact. Harper roundly, reasonably refuses, saying that whatever she’d agreed to previously, she wants to carry her son—she’s sure it’s a son—to term. In response, Jakob gets out his gun. He’s about to blow her head off when the Fireman—a Mancunian called John Rookwood who created something of a scene in accident and emergency earlier—swoops in to save the day.
“Sometimes I think every man wants to be a writer,” Harper thinks out loud later:
“They want to invent a world with the perfect imaginary woman, someone they can boss around and undress at will. They can work out their own aggression with a few fictional rape scenes. Then they can send their fictional surrogate in to save her, a white knight—or a fireman! Someone with all the power and all the agency. Real women, on the other hand, have all these tiresome interests of their own, and won’t follow an outline.”
Imaginary though she may be, Harper reads as resoundingly real. As a woman “prone to whistling bits from 1960s musicals” who nurses “secret fantasies of being joined in song by helpful blue jays and cheeky robins,” she certainly has her interests—interests that help her stay as positive as possible while the rest of North America goes to hell in an ashen casket. She has her dreams and she has her desires, her strengths and, indeed, her weaknesses… but she’s no damned damsel in distress. She spends most of the rest of The Fireman saving the titular figure, in fact, rather than perpetuating the first phase of their relationship.
Theirs is a relationship that grows, of course, as the story goes; as they spend time together in and around the grounds of Camp Wyndham, where, hidden away from a rising tide of aggression against the affected, a community of kindly cultists have learned of a way to stay the ‘Scale. Not to control it, like the Fireman can—when he concentrates, he’s able to conjure incredible creatures made of flame from thin air—but to be one with it in a blissed-out state the blighted call the Bright.
“When you were in the Bright, everything felt good, everything felt right. You didn’t walk. You danced. The world pulsed with secret song and you were the star of your own Technicolor musical.” Which, sure, sounds lovely, especially to Disney devotees like Harper, but the sense that something of significance is amiss tempers the temptation to join the happy campers in sermon and so on. I’ll let you figure out first-hand what that something is, however Hill has already given you a few allusive clues. Note that Camp Wyndham is named after the author of The Midwich Cuckoos, and that The Fireman, in the first, was the working title of a certain classic by Ray Bradbury.
It’s all a little obvious, to be honest—and frustrating, I’m afraid. I had an idea about what was going to happen to this close-knit community well before anyone in the novel acknowledged its ill-fated nature, and even when someone does cotton on, another several hundred pages pass before any of those expectations are addressed. In the interim, we’re left to wrap our heads around a romance that often feels forced—never mind that Harper and John still have ties to their previous partners—and an attempted murder mystery that’s nowhere near as mysterious as Hill clearly means for it to be.
Yet even at its very lowest ebb, there remain a riot of reasons to recommend The Fireman. Hill’s prose is refreshingly unpretentious, as lucid as it is likeable; he builds his not-so-wonderful worlds with little discernible effort; and makes breathing all the countless complexities of life into his heroes and villains alike look obscenely easy—a trio of traits I’d be remiss not to note his work has in common with his father’s.
Happily, his endings are far more satisfying than the elder King’s, as Hill’s fourth novel shows when it eventually gets going again. The last act of the narrative has all the tension and jeopardy that made the first so fearsome: characters we care about are placed in precarious situations that could develop in almost any direction, which makes the horror that follows—and I promise you: horror follows—all the more awful.
There’s no getting away from the monotony of the extended middle section, but The Fireman‘s darkly fantastic finale sets so many wrongs right that though I may maintain NOS4A2 is still the best thing Joe Hill has written, there are some absolutely mind-blowing moments when this comes within spitting distance of eclipsing it.
The Fireman is available now in the US from HarperCollins and publishes June 7th in the UK from Gollancz.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.