Some say the world will end in fire. If his latest book is any indication, Joe Hill agrees.
In The Fireman, Hill’s fourth novel, a pandemic threatens to wipe out the human race. But instead of viruses or vampires, this apocalypse is caused by a mysterious spore that infects its hosts and causes them to spontaneously combust. The self immolation — inspired by what the affable Hill calls “a dreadful adolescent fixation of mine” — can be controlled if the host stays calm. But who can remain serene when death squads are hunting you?
The setup is dark, but Hill, 43, who appears May 20 at Books & Books in Coral Gables, says that’s business as usual for a horror writer.
“I think a lot of writers of thrillers and scary fiction will take almost any situation and spin it into the worst-case scenario,” he says. “It’s a useful skill — until it turns against you. God, everything scares me in a way. I have a nervous imagination. I’m quick to take small details and spin upsetting scenarios out of them. I’m the kind of guy who can’t feel a lump on his skull without being sure he has brain cancer. Though I’ve gotten better over the years.”
Yet The Fireman (Morrow, $28.99) indicates a continuing fascination with the bad things that can happen to good people when humankind is under attack. With its sprawling cast of characters, the novel is large in size, scope and depth. It’s more urgent on a global scale than are Hill’s previous novels: Heart-Shaped Box (in which a retired rocker buys a dead man’s suit and is subsequently haunted by its murderous ghost) or Horns (in which a guy wakes up one day with horns on his forehead) or NOS482 (in which a soul-sucking fiend driving a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith kidnaps children and transports them to Christmasland, which is not exactly a happy land of enchantment).
But for all its carnage, The Fireman is deeply concerned with its people (Hill may have picked up his knack of creating multidimensional characters from his dad, Stephen King; mom Tabitha and brother Owen are also writers). The Fireman’s protagonist, nurse Harper Grayson, watches in horror as her New England community succumbs to the explosive threat. She tries to help the sick at the hospital. Then she discovers she’s pregnant and infected and finds herself fighting for her life against her husband, who prefers the relative peace of a double suicide to living in a terrifying new world.
Harper escapes with the help of a shadowy, smoldering (quite literally) figure who calls himself The Fireman, who introduces her to a group of the infected hiding out at a summer camp. But religious fanaticism begins to pervade the enclave, and a homicidal madman who calls himself the Marlboro Man is scouring the countryside with his crews, searching for the sick and murdering them.
Any depiction of a crisis or the end that doesn’t show heroism or decency, that doesn’t show how bighearted we can be, is founded on a lie.
Horror novelist Joe Hill, author of ‘The Fireman’
Hill is dealing here with the end of the world as we know it, but the book also displays an insouciant sense of humor, an affection for pop culture, especially music, and an admiration for human resilience, something Hill believes must exist in any dystopian fantasy.
“Apocalyptic stories have always been popular, going back to the Book of Revelations,” says Hill, who’s also the author of the story collection 20th Century Ghosts and the comic book series Locke & Key. “We’ve become as a culture increasingly aware of how fragile our happiness and contentment is. The apocalyptic story makes you look at how easily it all can be swept away. … Every generation faces an apocalypse. The end of the world will happen — eventually you’ll be dead. That’s the nature of the remorseless march of time. But the next generation takes its place, and good apocalyptic stories like The Walking Dead insist on the continuation of life.
“Now, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I love that book. He’s 10 times the writer I am. But there’s that scene where some cannibals have a baby on a spit and are cooking it. It’s either the most horrible scene or the funniest, so beyond what our normal depictions of evil are. I guess I don’t completely buy that. Kindness and affection and a sense of humor are tightly wired into the human personality. We’re not equipped to totally give up when things turn bad. We don’t necessarily start biting each other’s throats out for the last can of beans. When the Twin Towers caught fire some people ran upstairs to see if they could help. Any depiction of a crisis or the end that doesn’t show heroism or decency, that doesn’t show how big-hearted we can be, is founded on a lie.”
Still, the allegories Hill plays with in The Fireman are impossible to miss. Growing religious fanaticism in the face of fear. The fact that anxiety and stress ignite and doom the infected. The way the remaining population falls into one of two camps: the sick and those who are afraid of them and vow to wipe them off the earth.
Discussing that fear of the other was important to Hill.
“We have a major presidential candidate who wants to keep out all Muslims because we don’t know which ones might be terrorists. He wants to keep out all Mexicans because some might be rapists,” he says, adding that he wishes he’d put a “Make America Great Again” cap on the Marlboro Man. “I wanted to write something about the danger of looking at people who were different, who are not you, and responding with fear and rage instead of empathy and understanding. That idea of: It’d be better if you weren’t in the world because I’m afraid of what you’ll do to me. That’s the heart of the story. There’s a version of The Fireman that would be easy to write where the heroes are the healthy people. But I wanted to be on the side of people who are ill and contaminated.”
The Fireman is already drawing comparisons to such novels as Lord of the Flies and Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, but naturally the most impossible similarity to overlook is its relationship to The Stand, published by Hill’s dad in 1978. However, Hill says The Stand — to which he pays homage in numerous ways, few of which will be spoiled here — wasn’t what was on his mind when he started writing.
“I was thinking about the Harry Potter novels and focused on that structure,” he says. “About two thirds of the way through, I realized The Stand and The Fireman had similarities. You have two choices when you see an influence casting its shadow on your own work. You can try to run away or turn around and embrace it. It’s always better to embrace it and have fun with it. I went back through the story and made changes. Remember Nick Andros from The Stand? Well, my Nick was named Travis originally. I looked at places where my dad had done interesting things in The Stand and tried to figure out how to subvert them.”
Hill says he might revisit the world of The Fireman, possibly in comic form. Then again, he may not.
“There’s something to be said for letting the reader tell their own story,” he says. “Give them the big, long ride and leave them with the toys to play with. Any sequel you’re imagining will be better than any actual sequel I could write.”
Meet the author
Who: Joe Hill
When: 8 p.m. May 20
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-442-4408 or http://www.booksandbooks.com/