Let me start by saying that I loved Joe Hill’s book Horns. It was definitely in my top-five books for the year that I read it (2013? 2014?). It was the perfect horror novel, with all the right tropes and a few good twists and deviations in plot structure. Any time a horror/paranormal novel clocks in at over 400 pages, I expect it to be a bit too sprawling. I think the best spooky novels are oftentimes fairly short-and-sweet. But Horns had just that right amount of ‘sprawl’ to it. It bounced back and forth through some classic coming-of-age flashbacks; established a good mystery with some solid red-herrings; established a great, unique villain; and set up the reader for some devastatingly heartbreaking moments. Awesome.
On the other hand, Hill’s latest horror novel, The Fireman, left me with mixed emotions. It’s over 700 pages long, so I can definitely say it felt too long. There’s a lot of stuff stuffed into this book. (OK, not my most well-crafted sentence.) A plague, a near-apocalyptic setting, a psycho ex, escaped convicts, a ghost, a potential psychic, sci-fi exposition involving brain chemistry, a religious cult, a murder mystery, two or three secondary mysteries, a budding romance, car chases and gun fights, whew!
Here’s the basic premise (which definitely drew me in): humanity is being decimated by a plague of spontaneous combustion. The plague is caused by a fungal spore called Dragonscale. The Dragonscale grows on skin in glittering black patterns, like tattoos, but those pretty tattoo patterns can burst into flame when the infected feel stressed. The story follows a recently infected (and recently impregnated) nurse named Harper Grayson.
In the first act of the novel, we follow Harper, seeing the beginnings of the outbreak through her eyes. Hill establishes another great villain in Harper’s husband. He starts off seeming fairly nice, but quickly we see how self-centered, misogynistic, and brittle he can be, especially once Harper becomes infected. Harper makes like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy, and we’re off to ‘Act Two!’
This is where the story became too bloated, in my mind. Harper falls in with a tight-knit community of Dragonscalers who have found a way to tame their infection—to stave off a fiery death. I wanted to skim through parts of this section, which introduced over a dozen characters. Too benign, too boring. Too many corny references to Mary Poppins, 80’s music, and MTV VJ Martha Quinn (Martha Quinn?!? Really?) But of course this is Hill building up a sense of complacency. Just as Harper’s husband revealed his dark side, eventually her new friends show their ugly sides.
My favorite part of this section is Hill’s sci-fi explanations of how the spore interacts with the minds of its hosts, how it has a biological imperative to punish stress and to encourage a harmonious ‘group-think.’ Hill relates this to oxytocin, which is a real-life hormone, and a pretty scary concept in its own right.
The Dragonscalers are being hunted by ‘Cremation Squads,’ who want to end the contamination with a holocaust of their own. So Hill sets up a interesting conflict where we get to see both sides of a mob mentality. The Cremation Squad are xenophobes (violently rejecting outsiders), and yet the people who are supposedly on Harper’s side are too prone to cultishness (tightly controlling insiders).
I love books where close-knit or desperate communities devolve into totalitarianism. The Beach, Lord of the Flies (sort of), Walking Dead, even Watership Down (which is mentioned a few times in this novel). But once again, there’s maybe a few too many scenes, and few too many story elements, and there are points where it seemed like the plot might collapse under its own weight.
I think part of the reason I felt restless was because I expected the xenophobes vs. zealots storyline to play out and climax at the very end of the book. So when I was about 80% through the book, I was thinking, ‘Whoa, I have a long way to go before all this stuff is resolved.’ But no, Hill surprised me by changing the status quo earlier than expected.
I won’t talk too much about ‘Act Three’ to avoid spoilers, but I will say I enjoyed it. I could definitely understand why some people might find it slow, or a bit anticlimactic, but I appreciated the change in structure, as a sort of thoughtful, hopeful denouement. Also, I truly didn’t see the last twist coming, and I liked that part very much.
So, overall, I think I’m finding that I like the book more than I thought I did. Just one last comment: Hill tries that trope of taking a fairly banal lyric or rhyme and framing it in a horror context so that it comes off as creepy or bad-ass. But I’m sorry… there’s nothing creepy or bad-ass about Mary Poppins quotes. ‘Spoonful of sugar.’ ‘Chim-chim-cher-ee.’ Ugh. It just reminds me of being forced to watch 60s Disney movies on the last day of school. Although there is a scene that used the Christmas carol, ‘Old Come All Ye Faithful,’ and that scene was very creepy.