“The Fireman” is only the fourth novel by Joe Hill. And two of the first three — the killer debut, “Heart-Shaped Box” (2007), and the whopping, immersive “NOS4A2” (2013) — have felt like major events on the sheer strength of Hill’s imagination.
Now he’s written another big book, “The Fireman,” that reaffirms his gifts for riveting attention and pushing genre conventions to new extremes. This may be the first horror novel to turn its heroine’s singing (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) and quoting Mary Poppins (“spit spot”) into new ways to make the skin crawl.
What ravages our world this time around? A really good-looking plague that leaves victims with a pretty gold-and-black tattoo-like marking.
Yes, it’s very lethal, and it causes victims to burst into flame. It’s wiped out whole cities and a lot of important people. George Clooney died on a doomed mission to save New York City. President Obama? Up in smoke, too. Keith Richards is thought to have survived, on the theory that he can survive anything, but nobody knows for sure.
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Our heroine, the one who sometimes sings Helen Reddy when “A Spoonful of Sugar” won’t do, is a 20-something nurse named Harper Grayson. Harper lives in Seattle, where people are jumping off the Space Needle to escape death by Draco incendia trychophyton, which is known as Dragonscale for short. Harper is compassionate enough to treat infected patients, and one of her first is a mysterious Fireman who shows a telltale sign of illness: He gives off smoke. But the Fireman brings two children for Harper to save. She then spends a tender night of lovemaking with her husband, Jakob, who turns into a raging beast when he realizes Harper has infected both of them.
A major plot point is born.
A baby is conceived, too. And Harper spends the rest of the book determined to survive for that baby’s sake. But because the gold-and-black markings make it hard for the infected to hide, there are colonies of secret camps. And the book soon loses its global scale as it zeros in on one refugee zone.
The refuge into which Harper and the Fireman stumble seems to want to be all things to all people. At least it wants to be a microcosmic survey of human behavior.
There are touchy-feely times, like when the group seems to want to buy the world a Coke: It turns out that singing and harmony can turn Dragonscale into a radiant, empowering thing. And there are times when the place feels more like the setting for a Salem witch trial. It is also problematically populated with characters who might as well have walked out of the children’s stories that Harper likes so much. The chief female villain has all the complexity of a Disney witch, although latter-day Disney witches have had better dialogue.
“The Fireman” is shot through with time-warp references like that, and they are the perfect comedic element to offset any sense of global doom. Hill takes his shots at hate-filled talk radio, at false piety, at lemming-like obedience to anyone who claims to be a leader. He also makes the Fireman a credible guy, not a superhero. When the Fireman first figures out that he can smolder and ignite at will, he doesn’t feel like a comic-book character. He feels like a rock star.
Writing graphic novels or comics runs in Hill’s family, too, but he’s a chip off the old block in realizing that being a rock star is much better.
“The Fireman” by Joe Hill; William Morrow ($28.99)