fireman-theJoe hill
William Morrow & Company

No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe. Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine too. . . if she can live long enough to deliver the child. Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads—armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow fire fighter’s jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted . . . and as a weapon to avenge the wronged. In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman’s secrets before her life—and that of her unborn child—goes up in smoke.

There’s maybe a handful of authors that qualify for my Buy Immediately Upon Release list. In case you haven’t deducted it yet, Joe Hill is on that list. Ironically, he has actually supplanted his own father from that list (if you have no idea who his father is, feel free to Google it); usually I’m very much on top of the publishing schedule. With this particular release, The Fireman, the release itself managed to get past me until a few months after the fact. Let’s just say, I was a bit busy around that time. Nephew/Godson graduating High School and all that. Family wackiness. Anyway, once I realized a new novel came out back in May, I stopped by the local Barnes & Noble to remedy this oversight as soon as I possibly could

The one thing I admire about author Joe Hill is his ability to not get stuck in just one genre mold. While Heart Shaped Box was straight horror, the followup Horns was more dark urban fantasy, while NOS4A2 was a whimsical dark fantasy; The Fireman continues in the whole genre-bending in that it’s a post apocalyptic sci-fi tale where the horror is found within humanity and stuff.

There’s an outbreak of something called Dragonscale, an airborne disease of rather ambiguous origin (was it a dormant strain reactivated by global warming? Is it a terrorist bioweapon? Is it the result of a science disaster that couldn’t be contained? You never really know), which covers the victim with black scale-like lesions that bond on a cellular level, and can immolate the victim if stress levels get too high. It spreads rather quickly, and faster than you can say “Among The Living” it’s spread to global proportions.

Enter, then, a former elementary school nurse that has decided to volunteer in the hospital where they’re housing the locals infected with the Dragonscale. This is where she first encounters the titular Fireman, who disrupts an afternoon by demanding that the young boy he’s brought with him be treated for his appendicitis. She intervenes to help the boy, and she thinks that’s the last she’s seen of this mysterious man in firefighting duds. That is, of course, until she herself starts to develop Dragonscale, right after she discovers she’s pregnant. This makes her husband freak out, causing him to leave and, in the course of time, go bonkers. She’s determined to bring the baby to term, while he decides the best thing to do is to go the Romeo and Juliet route. Or something like that. Remember, bonkers now. Anyway, she manages to escape via the help of the mysterious Fireman, who brings her to a secret encampment of others inflicted with the Dragonscale, but have learned how to not only live with it, but also commune with it. Almost like a religious experience. Which, of course, leads to the obvious outcome, with the Fireman and several others–including our former nurse–having to escape with their lives to the north, where a sanctuary is rumored to exist for those infected. On their tale is a posse of normals who want to exterminate all the infected, a group that includes the nurse’s insane husband, all while coming to grips with the new abilities the Dragonscale is granting them.

The Fireman once again proved why Joe Hill is so high on my list. The concept of what is Dragonscale and what it does to the human physiology is intriguing; but like all good post-apocalyptic stories, it’s not about the disease or the disaster, but the journey of the people who find themselves in the midst of the end of the world as they know it. And the journeys taken by the main characters in this story are not only memorable, but also brought forth this rare thing inside of me called “emotion” and “empathy for the characters”. The story itself doesn’t take any easy ways out, and can get rather gruesome at times (especially when the camp goes all Lord of the Flies on our cast), but the result was a 745 page hardcover novel going by faster than a 250 page dimestore novel. Highly recommended.