The Fireman

Joe Hill's great strength as a horror writer has always been his ability to play out finely observed interpersonal and emotional conflicts within the constructs of the genre. His fourth novel, The Fireman, expands the scope of his worldbuilding, but maintains his near-perverse level of compassion for characters that Hill (Nos4a2) constructs only to relentlessly pull apart.

It is an apocalyptic epic that depicts modern society falling apart in the face of a devastating plague. The culprit is Draco Incendia Trychophyton, a fungal infection that characters colloquially refer to as Dragonscale for the oddly beautiful scale-like patterns the fungus forms on infected skin. The 'scale also has the unfortunate side effect of burning the host alive. Harper is a young nurse as eager to help Dragonscale victims in the early days of the plague as she is to escape her domineering husband, Jakob. When she becomes infected, Jakob is--let's say--less than supportive, leading to the first of many exceptionally staged, utterly frightening scenes that lend The Fireman the nerve-jangling urgency of great horror.

Hill's knack for dark, offbeat humor also makes an occasional appearance. For example, Jakob, who becomes an enduring villain for Harper to tackle, is a failed novelist with a hilariously pretentious manuscript called Desolation's Plough. Harper models herself after Mary Poppins and sings her favorite Disney tunes to calm herself in moments of crisis. And then there are the many, many fire-based puns that characters employ as gallows humor.

The Fireman is a dark and grueling novel, but likable characters and sparks of humor give it a warm, humane core. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

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