By Joe Hill
747 pages, $28.99
By Lee Coppola
Start with Stephen King. Add a large helping of Cormac McCarthy. And, just for spice, toss in a bit of J.K. Rowling.
That literary recipe begets “The Fireman,” a tale of wondering, wandering and watching in a world where a deadly spore has invaded the populace, causing humans to ignite, their burning bodies destroying everything around them.
It’s a tale of those who have the spore trying to survive and those without the spore determined to eradicate the infected. Hill takes the side of the infected.
Especially the heroine, if you can call her that. She’s a nurse who envisions life in a fairy-tale world, who imagines herself as Julie Andrews and wants to give a spoonful of sugar with every medication.
She catches the spore – Dragonscale – early on and spends the rest of the saga searching for comfort and comforting others. Enter the fireman, who rescues her from near death at the hands of her embittered husband and takes her to a camp where others have found a way to stay alive by controlling the Dragonscale through song.
The fireman doesn’t live in the camp, he resides alone on a nearby island. He’s found a way to use the Dragonscale for protection, sending from his fingertips jets of fire that take the shape of weapons and immobilize threatening forces.
That would be Cremation Squads, government-sanctioned teams charged with ferreting out and destroying the dragonscaled. Sometimes it takes more than fire-shaped weapons to deter them. Sometimes it takes huge fiery beasts that light the night sky and send streams of flames below.
So that’s the Stephen King-like scenario, humans with glowing coils of scale, some of them capable of summoning their spore to save rather than annihilate them. McCarthy-like comes into vogue as the nurse, the fireman and a few companions wend their way to a safe haven after the camp falls apart in “Lord-of-the-Rings fashion. Fairy-tale references also dot the pages, one character resembling Dumbledore and, of course, repeated mentions of Mary Poppins.
The Stephen King comparison is appropriate. After all, author Joe Hill’s real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, the surname derived from his famous father. And it seems writing acumen is part of his DNA, as evidenced by “The Fireman” and Hill’s “NOS4A2,” a best-selling horror tale now being developed as a television series.
Citing his father doesn’t mean Hill hasn’t crafted on his own a skillfully written story with underlying themes of acceptance, spiritualism, fanaticism, repentance and salvation. And his writing, with all the violence and gore it entails, promotes imagery along the way.
Witness, for instance, his reason of why the fairy-tale nurse’s marriage was crumbling:
“Jakob had done that to her -- plunged the psychological syringe into her life and tried to suck all the simple happiness out of it.”
“South Street cemetery was a kind of a city, in which most of the residences were located underground. Nick guided them along its streets and alleys, its winding suburbs and open pastures. They continued until they reached the dirt road that ran along the back the cemetery. A second, more modest graveyard awaited in the wet grass and underbrush: a dozen cars in various stages of collapse, filthy, burnt out, sitting on their rims. Several were half-submerged in weeds, islands of rust in a shallow sea of poison sumac.”
With that literary prowess, Hill takes the docile nurse and turns her into a fighter. She fights for her patients, she fights for survival, she fights against the Jim Jones mentality that eventually destroys the camp, and she fights to keep strong the child growing inside her.
And, of course, she finds love amid all the struggling. That’s forged with the fireman, but first he must forgot his other love, whose flaming presence he keeps in a pail, always feeding it kindling so it doesn’t burn out. Wonder if the author’s father ever thought of that?
Fireman cascades from melancholy to turmoil, spinning out of control as the forces collide, then settling back into a form of normalcy (if it can be called that in a burning world) until the next crisis arrives. To enhance the tale and surprise the reader, friends turn into enemies and enemies turn out to be friends.
So how does it end? How do the nurse and her faithful companions--a deaf boy, a gritty teenage girl, a plump middle-aged woman devoted to others, and the fireman survive? Do they find a place to exist without fear of being hunted?
Hill provides the answers to some of the questions . . . but not all of them.
Lee Coppola is a former print and TV journalist, a former federal prosecutor and the former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.