say the world will end in fire. If his latest book is
any indication, Joe Hill agrees.
"The Fireman," Hillís 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 ó inspired by what the affable Hill
calls "a dreadful adolescent fixation of mine"
ó can be controlled if the host stays calm. But who
can remain serene when death squads are hunting you?
setup is dark, but Hill, 43, says thatís business as
usual for a horror writer.
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. "Itís a
useful skill ó until it turns against you. God,
everything scares me in a way. I have a nervous
imagination. Iím quick to take small details and spin
upsetting scenarios out of them. Iím the kind of guy
who canít feel a lump on his skull without being sure
he has brain cancer. Though Iíve gotten better over
"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. Itís more urgent on a
global scale than are Hillís previous novels:
"Heart-Shaped Box" (in which a retired rocker
buys a dead manís 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).
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"ís 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 sheís
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.
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
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.
stories have always been popular, going back to the Book
of Revelations," says Hill, whoís also the author
of the story collection "20th Century Ghosts"
and the comic book series "Locke & Key."
"Weíve 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. Ö Every generation faces an
apocalypse. The end of the world will happen ó
eventually youíll be dead. Thatís the nature of the
remorseless march of time. But the next generation takes
its place, and good apocalyptic stories like ĎThe
Walking Deadí insist on the continuation of
Cormac McCarthyís ĎThe Road,í I love that book. Heís
10 times the writer I am. But thereís that scene where
some cannibals have a baby on a spit and are cooking it.
Itís either the most horrible scene or the funniest,
so beyond what our normal depictions of evil are. I
guess I donít completely buy that. Kindness and
affection and a sense of humor are tightly wired into
the human personality. Weíre not equipped to totally
give up when things turn bad. We donít necessarily
start biting each otherís 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 doesnít show heroism or
decency, that doesnít show how bighearted we can be,
is founded on a lie."
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.
that fear of the other was important to Hill.
have a major presidential candidate who wants to keep
out all Muslims because we donít know which ones might
be terrorists. He wants to keep out all Mexicans because
some might be rapists," he says, adding that he
wishes heíd 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:
Itíd be better if you werenít in the world because Iím
afraid of what youíll do to me. Thatís the heart of
the story. Thereís 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."
Fireman" is already drawing comparisons to such
novels as "Lord of the Flies" and Justin
Croninís "The Passage" trilogy, but
naturally the most impossible similarity to overlook is
its relationship to "The Stand," published by
Hillís dad in 1978. However, Hill says "The
Stand" ó to which he pays homage in numerous
ways, few of which will be spoiled here ó wasnít
what was on his mind when he started writing.
was thinking about the ĎHarry Potterí novels and
focused on that structure," he says. "About
two thirds of the way through, I realized ĎThe Standí
and ĎThe Firemaní 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. Itís always better to embrace it and
have fun with it. I went back through the story and made
changes. Remember Nick Andros from ĎThe Standí?
Well, my Nick was named Travis originally. I looked at
places where my dad had done interesting things in ĎThe
Standí and tried to figure out how to subvert
says he might revisit the world of "The
Fireman," possibly in comic form. Then again, he
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 youíre imagining will be better than any actual
sequel I could write."