It should be no secret that one of my favorite books of all time is The Stand, written by The Master.
I have read this particular book more times than I can count (and seen the movie, too.)
The themes resonate with me, and I just love the story line. I also love the characters, as they are unforgettable. Stu Redman, Tom Cullen, Nick Andros, Nadine Cross, Harold Lauder…they are forever etched into my brain. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So imagine my excitement when I heard about a “new” The Stand. Not better or anything like that (as if, right?) but another re-imagining, if you will. The same kind of story, just told in a new way.
Sign me up, I said! I’m there, no questions asked!
Well, after the months of anticipation, I finally got the “new” The Stand, aka The Fireman. And The Fireman is written by none other than The Master 2.0, aka Joe Hill.
I have read everything that Joe Hill (the son of The Master, aka Stephen King) has ever written. And he has quickly established himself as one of my favorite writers. He comes by the moniker The Master 2.0 honestly. Joe is certainly a chip off the old block, and may (gasp) even do some things better than the old block, although only time will tell on that statement.
So, without further ado, here is my recap and review of Joe Hill’s latest novel, The Fireman.
And, as always:
At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to a young woman named Harper Grayson. Harper is a school nurse, and loves her job. We also learn that there is a massive epidemic that is slowing taking over Harper’s world. The doctors and scientists refer to this plague as Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To the general public, it is known as Dragonscale. Anyone afflicted with Dragonscale first develops black and gold marks across his/her body. At some point, the person afflicted with Dragonscale bursts into flame, dying an agonizing death. There is no known cure for Dragonscale.
One day, Harper and several of her students witness a man burst into flames, due to the effects of Dragonscale. This is a traumatic experience for Harper. She returns home later that night and speaks to her husband, Jakob, who insists that she not continue working at the school, as Jakob is deathly afraid of becoming infected with Dragonscale.
Some months later, we learn that Harper is volunteering at a local hospital that mainly houses patients with Dragonscale. The job is hard, as so many have died from the effects of Dragonscale, but Harper sticks with it.
One day, a man in a fireman’s suit brings in a little boy who is very ill. The man becomes belligerent, stating that the boy’s case is an emergency. After some arguments with the head nurse, the boy is examined and found to have a ruptured appendix. It is also discovered that the boy’s name is Nick, and he is deaf. The doctors operate on the boy, and he stays in the hospital for three days. On the fourth day, the boy has disappeared. The staff at the hospital is puzzled over this, as his room was located on an upper floor, and there are no signs of any forced entry.
While volunteering at the hospital, Harper meets a woman named Renee. Renee is positive and upbeat, doing her best to make sure that those afflicted with Dragonscale get some happiness during their last days. Renee reads to the children, and is not afraid to comfort the dying. Harper becomes friends with Renee, and is devastated to learn that Renee is infected with Dragonscale. One day, while reading to the children, Renee realizes that she will be overcome by the Dragonscale, and makes an exit from the hospital. It is presumed that Renee passes away from the disease, but her body is never found.
Shortly after Renee’s death, the hospital where Harper is volunteering burns down. Her husband, Jakob, offers her comfort, and tells her that he is determined to enjoy life, even if there is not much of that remaining for them. That night, Harper and Jakob make love, and conceive their first child.
Harper soon finds out that she is pregnant. Shortly afterwards, she she also finds out that she has somehow contracted Dragonscale. Upon learning this news, Jakob becomes hysterical and leaves their home. Jakob also begins to pressure Harper to end her life, even though Harper is opposed to this, as she is pregnant.
As the weeks pass by, the hysteria mounts. Infected people are rounded up and put into concentration camps. Some people take it upon themselves to rid the world of infected people, and resort to violence to do so. Harper even receives a visit from some mysterious people in Halloween costumes, who somehow know that she is pregnant and offer prenatal vitamins to her. Harper sees a man in a fireman costume when she sees these people.
One day, Harper makes the call to her brother Conor to let him know that she is pregnant and also infected with Dragonscale. Conor and his wife become very upset at the news, but Harper begs them to take care of her baby, as she is convinced that she can still deliver a healthy baby.
Shortly after the conversation with her brother, Harper receives a visit from Jakob. Jakob is hysterical and is convinced that he has contracted Dragonscale, even though Harper is not convinced of this. Harper is frightened of Jakob, as he has come armed with a gun.
Jakob attacks Harper, but she retaliates by attacking him with a wine glass and is able to escape. She then encounters the mysterious fireman she first met at the hospital, along with a woman named Allie who is wearing a Captain America costume. The fireman fends off Jakob, and Harper realizes that he is also infected with Dragonscale. However, the fireman appears to be able to control the effects of Dragonscale, and is even able to use the affliction as a sort of weapon.
The fireman and Allie lead Harper to a refugee camp that has been set up for those afflicted with Dragonscale. There, Harper encounters Renee, the nurse who she thought had died from the effects of Dragonscale. She also meets a man named Tom Storey, who is referred to as Father Story. We also learn that the fireman’s name is John. Harper is treated for her fractured ankle at the camp, and others also tell her that the Dragonscale can be controlled, and that death is not automatic. Harper also learns that Nick, the deaf boy who was suffering from appendicitis at the hospital, is also a resident at the camp. She also meets a woman named Carol, who is the daughter of Father Storey.
Later on, Harper speaks to Renee, who tells her the story of how she survived the Dragonscale and learned to control it, as opposed to letting it control her. It appears that the Dragonscale responds negatively to distress and positively to happier emotions.
As the months go by, Harper struggles to adjust to life at the camp. The camp begins to run low on supplies, and begins rationing food. Harper also learns that the members of the camp were forced to kill another member, Harold Cross, who was going to betray them to the outside world. This would allow the Cremation Squads, a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to destroy those who are infected with the Dragonscale, to find the camp. Harper also begins to exhibit signs of infection, such as smoke coming from her skin, but still is not able to control the effects of the Dragonscale.
One morning, Harper awakens. Her clothes are burning and she begins to feel that she is going to succumb to the Dragonscale. She heads outside for a walk, and thinks that she hears John, the fireman who secludes himself from the rest of the camp, telling her not to give up. This encourages Harper, and she returns to the camp, feeling somewhat at peace with herself.
Harper volunteers for kitchen duty the first day the rationing comes into effect. She feels a joy when she realizes that people are volunteering to skip a meal so that others may eat. She begins to sing a song from Mary Poppins, and feels a sort of euphoria that is so intense that she even temporarily forgets her own name. At this point, Harper has learned how to control the effects of the Dragonscale, and begins to feel more optimistic.
It is soon revealed that someone is stealing items from women’s dormitory. Father Storey makes a plea for that person to come forward, but no one does. Harper becomes a victim of the thief, who steals the care package that she has made for her unborn child. However, Harper momentarily forgets about the thief, when the fireman, John, makes his way into the camp and tells Harper that he needs her assistance, as there are two more refugees who have made their way into the camp.
While searching for medical supplies to assist the refugees, Harper finds a notebook that had been kept by Harold, the traitor who was killed a few months earlier. Harper puts the notebook aside for the moment, and makes her to the rescue mission.
The rescue mission proves to be difficult, as the group is attacked by a Cremation Squad, which is a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to kill anyone who they believe is infected with Dragonscale. John the fireman is able to distract the squad, and is able to escape with Harper’s help, even though he is injured. Harper notices her husband Jakob on the squad, but he does not recognize her.
Harper helps John back to his cottage, and does her best to tend to his injuries. She is summoned back to the main camp, however, because Tom Storey has also been badly injured. Harper attempts to save Father Storey with her makeshift equipment. He does not die, but does slip into a coma for two months.
The two convicts are accused of attempting to kill Father Storey, despite the lack of evidence. Harper and Renee speak out against this, stating that keeping the men as prisoners in inhumane conditions is wrong.
Harper then heads back to her house, as she needs supplies. She is surprised by the appearance of her husband, Jakob, and two fellow members of his Cremation Squad. One of these men is the Marlboro Man, who is also a conservative radio talk show host. Harper is able to hide from the men, and heads back to the camp several hours later.
After she returns to the camp, Harper heads over to John the fireman’s house. She treats him for his injuries to the best of her ability, and learns the story of how he came to know Carol’s sister Sarah, who was the mother to Allie and Nick. Harper begs John to teach her how to control the Dragonscale, but he refuses. John tells Harper that he can use the Dragonscale to provide a distraction, so that she can obtain some desperately needed medical supplies.
When Harper returns to the camp, she finds out the other residents are angry with her, as they feel she could have betrayed their secrets. Carol has punished Allie for neglecting her duties and letting Harper leave by placing a stone in her mouth so that she cannot speak. Harper tells Allie that she will not accept the punishment, and Allie doesn’t have to either. However, Allie ignores Harper and continues to play martyr.
Harper speaks to Renee, and the two worry about the direction that the group is taking, as they feel that Carol has become a dictator.
The next day, Harper is brought to Carol. She also encounters one of the convicts who was previously rescued, named Gil, in Carol’s quarters. Gil tells the story of how he and his friend Mazz escaped from prison, as they realized that people who were claiming to help them actually intended on killing them, as they witnessed several infected prisoners being shot. Carol tells Gil that he still must remain in the camp’s prison, as she believes that Mazz was actually responsible for injuring her father and that Gil was an accomplice. Harper also outlines John’s plan for obtaining medical supplies. Carol is reluctant, but still tells Harper to put the plan in motion as soon as possible.
After the confrontation with Carol, Harper is attacked by group of girls, who pelt her with snowballs and force a stone into her mouth as punishment. Allie is among the group, but does nothing to stop the attack.
The attempt to obtain medical supplies turns violent when the group hijacks an ambulance. Several people are murdered and injured. Harper attempts to help the injured, but is rebuffed by other members of the group. Harper and her group are then attacked by a group led by Jakob and his friend the Marlboro Man. Several members are killed, but Harper and a few others manage to escape, as what appears to be a phoenix shows up at the right time.
When Harper returns to the camp, she finds out that Father Storey has a close call with death but is still alive. Carol is distraught, and tells Harper that she is only allowed to stay at the camp to care for her father. Carol tells Harper that if Father Storey passes away, she will be forced to leave the camp.
Harper then receives a letter from Allie apologizing for her actions. She speaks with another member of the camp, Michael, and learns that it was Allie who told the John the fireman what was happening when the group hijacked the ambulance, and that John sent over the phoenix to distract the Cremation Squad. Michael talks of leaving the camp with Harper, Allie and other members who are unhappy with Carol’s rules.
Harper then visits John, and finds out that he has pneumonia. She talks of leaving the camp, but tells John that he should lead that group, as she feels that she needs to stay to give birth to her baby. Harper administers what treatment she can to John, and learns the story of how John, Allie, Nick and Tom learned to control the effects of the Dragonscale through singing. However, John does not give any details as to how Sarah, who was never infected with the Dragonscale, died.
Back at the infirmary, Harper reads the journal of Harold Cross, the man who was thought to be a traitor. She learns that there is an island for those infected with Dragonscale, known as Martha Quinn Island. An internet search on a contraband cell phone confirms that this island is real. Shortly after Harper digests this news, she receives another surprise: it appears that Tom Storey has awakened from his coma. However, Harper is not able to get any information from Tom, as he appears to go back to sleep.
John, Harper and several other members meet at John’s cottage one night to discuss plans for a possible escape from the camp. Harper is chosen to be the leader of the group, due to her calm manner. Harper stays behind when the others leave. She shares a kiss with John, and learns the full story behind Sarah’s death. Apparently, Nick had figured out how to fully control the Dragonscale, and taught John how to do so. Sarah deliberately infected herself with Dragonscale, as she considered it a blessing, and not a curse. However, Sarah did not allow for the infection to be in her body for a long enough time (according to Harold Cross’ notes, one needed to be infected for at least six weeks before the Dragonscale spread to the brain) and burned to death before she could control the infection. However, not all of Sarah burned, as a part of essence remains in John’s cottage.
When Harper awakens the next morning, she finds out that Tom Storey has regained full consciousness. And Tom has news to share: he tells Harper that Carol, his daughter, deliberately set up Harold Cross to be murdered by a Cremation Squad, in order to make an example of him. Father Storey asks that John be brought back to the camp, along with Allie, Nick and Carol, so that he may have his family by his side.
After receiving this information, Harper pays a visit to John’s cottage, and brings him back to the camp, so that he can speak to Tom Storey. However, they are attacked by Michael, who actually is on the side of Carol and is not interested in fleeing the camp. Michael also set up Harold Cross to be murdered by the cremation squad. Michael also attempted to have Harper killed, as he was the one who set the Cremation Squad upon her when she returned to her home for medical supplies. Michael has killed Tom, and plans on framing Harper for the murder. He forces Harper to inject herself with insulin, to make it look like a murder and attempted suicide.
When Harper awakens, she faces Carol, along with an angry mob. Harper, John and their followers are accused of conspiring to kill Tom Storey with intent of turning the camp into a prison camp. Mazz, one of the rescued prisoners, also comes forward as a double agent. The mob then begins to pelt John with stones.
Harper begins to fight, and finds that she can use the Dragonscale to do so. She is able to rescue John, and she, Allie and John attempt to escape. They realize that Nick, the young deaf boy, is also helping them, as Nick uses the Dragonscale to create a giant hand that is termed the Hand of God.
However, all is not well, as Nelson Heinrich, thought to have been killed in the heist of the ambulance and medical supplies, has led a Cremation Crew to the camp. Harper, John, Allie and the rest of the members take shelter in the empty church. There, Carol and her followers commit a sort of mass suicide, going up in flames while singing.
Renee and Gil find a firetruck, and use that to defeat the Cremation Squad, which includes Harper’s ex husband Jakob, and the Marlboro Man. However, Gil is shot in the process and loses his life. Nick leads Harper and the rest of the survivors to a sandy pit, and confesses that he was the thief who had been stealing supplies. John does not come along, but promises Harper and the others that he will meet up with them in a day or two.
At the hideout, Nick tells the story of how Michael tricked him into stealing the items. Shortly afterwards, John the fireman returns. John makes another trip to gather food and supplies, and the survivors also hold a funeral for Gil. John and Harper make plans to leave for Maine for Martha Quinn Island, as there are still Cremation Squads hunting the group.
The next morning, John, Harper and the rest of the survivors head for Maine via a truck, in an attempt to get to Martha Quinn Island. Renee sees a cat that she thinks to be her cat, Mr. Truffles, and the group votes to bring the cat along, although John is not happy about this, as he feels the cat may be a danger to them. After a tense inspection, the group passes a checkpoint and arrives in Maine, which has been destroyed by the Dragonscale.
The survivors are then attacked by Harper’s ex-husband, Jakob, who has tracked them down to Maine. Harper battles her ex-husband, and is saved by a woman of flames, who is the essence of Sarah, Nick and Allie’s mother. Jakob is literally burned alive. John also survives the attack, but is badly hurt. The essence of Sarah bids her goodbyes to John, Nick and Allie, and then literally winks out of existence.
Harper and her friends continue on their way to Martha Quinn Island. However, Harper grows increasingly worried about John, who contracts pneumonia in addition to the rest of his injuries.
As the group makes its way to Martha Quinn Island, they find supplies and provisions along the way. However, the healthy people greet them with mistrust, and do their best not to make any contact with those infected with Dragonscale. Someone also leaves antibiotics for John, who then begins to show signs of recovery.
Finally, the group makes it to Martha Quinn Island. However, on the boat ride to the island, Harper finds out that they have been tricked: there is no island for survivors. Instead, the infected are euthanized, in attempt to rid the world of Dragonscale. John confronts Jim, the captain of the boat, and is shot in the stomach. However, John uses the power of the Dragonscale to burn the boat and their attackers, saving Harper and the others. The group is then rescued by Don Lewiston, another survivor from Carol’s camp who had previously gotten a head start to Martha Quinn Island. Once they are on Don’s boat, Harper gives birth to a baby girl. The baby is also infected with Dragonscale. Harper names her Ashley.
Don speaks of other islands for those infected with Dragonscale, and Harper and her friends agree to set sail for them, in the hopes that they will be able to survive in the new world they now inhabit.
Well, let me just say this much:
Joe Hill, you are on fire!
Seriously, this book was smoking, and fanned the flames of my love for Joe Hill and his writing!
Ok, we got that out of the way, aka the obligatory fire puns that I intended to burn you with (see what I did there.)
So, let’s get something else out of the way…
As I have said before, Joe Hill may be the son of The Master, but he is definitely his own man. And I love that about him.
However, there were so many nods to The Master, and I had so many fan girl moments…
So let’s talk about those…
First of all, the homage to The Stand. My favorite King book of all time. So of course, the fan girling was intense.
For instance, a deaf kid who just happened to be named…Nick?! You bet! My number one book boo exists on the Joe Hill level of The Tower…who knew???
The many references to Watership Down!, and the guy who claimed he couldn’t get into into a book about rabbits, but loved the book anyway…sound like our favorite redneck from East Texas, anyone?
A character named Harold Cross? Is he the unfortunate lovechild of the couple we loved to hate in The Stand?
And the homage went way beyond even The Stand…
Nozza-la, anyone? Hey, you gotta take what you can get, you can’t be picky about soda in the post apocalyptic world. Now excuse me while I take a look at my Takuro Spirit, can’t seem to find anyone to service this particular vehicle for some reason…
Oh, and a scary guy with a croquet mallet? Now I’m craving “red rum”…hope that’s something you can “overlook!”
The mention of Tom Gordon…a girl can love him, right?
Ok, enough with the bad jokes…time to take a stand against them…haha!
I also loved the references to pop culture in this book, along with the humor. Someone is definitely a chip off the old block.
I mean, he had Glenn Beck catch fire and burn to death…giggle snort…this brought a much needed smile to me that day!
Although he was bit harsh on JK Rowling. But somehow, it’s fitting that the masses would turn on her for trying to help those who contracted the ‘scale…
And the pod people had taste in music…they sang U2’s One…swoon!
Time to talk about Harper Willowes, our main character.
This book may be titled The Fireman, but make no mistake about it: this is Harper’s book (sorry John, you are still awesome anyway!)
We have Arya Stark. We have Beverly Marsh. We have Robin Martine, from Malus Domestica by SA Hunt.
And now we have Harper Willowes.
In other words, Harper is a bad ass woman. Extremely bad ass. And she did most of this bad assery while she was pregnant…mind = blown!
Anyone who escapes from an abusive relationship is a bad ass, in my book. And Harper did that, relatively early in the story, when she got away from Jakob (really, this guy should top a list of book douches. Beats women and listens to conservate talk radio…real winner right there!)
While John the Fireman may be the camp’s X Factor, Harper Willowes is really the camp’s heart. Her fellow survivors come to depend on her, and not just for her nursing skills. Harper is able to remain calm and rational, when most people are not. She is even able to remain calm and rational in regards to her child, whom she considers turning over to adoptive parents once he/she is born, so she does not pass the ‘scale on to her child.
Harper is someone you want on your side at any time (although I will skip the Mary Poppins, thanks), but especially in a time of crisis. There is something to be said for someone of that nature, as I can think of few people that I know personally whom I could trust in a time of crisis…makes me actually wish Harper was real.
Joe Hill did a good job with his previous female characters, such as Georgia (Heart Shaped Box), Vic (N0S4A2), Merrin (Horns) and now Harper (The Fireman.) Finding a good female character in any book can be a problem, but so far, Joe Hill is stepping up to the plate nicely in this regard.
So, let’s talk about the structure of this book, and the ending.
Especially about the ending, but more on that later.
A prevailing theme in this book was the fact that our greatest enemy is…well…us. I was constantly reminded of that old Pogo cartoon, where one character tells another that he has met the enemy, and the enemy is us.
This book did not need an evil wizard (although there is nothing wrong with those) in order to be scary. Nor did it need need an infectious horrible disease that kills people in horrible ways (nothing wrong with that though, either, natch.)
Instead, humans were the bad guys in this book. We had the members of The Cremation Squads. Just the name of that is horrible enough. They also carried out that first word, burning those believed to be infected with Dragonscale, in the name of keeping everyone else safe. So definitely pretty horrible.
But we also had fanaticism, aka “Mother” Carol and her band of zealots. And these guys were supposed to be on the side of the good! However, their treatment of those who had the nerve to disagree with them was almost as bad as what the Cremation Squad did those infected with the ‘scale.
Fanaticism is something that comes up often in the works of Papa King, and Mr. Hill seems to be a chip off the old block in that regard as well. I was constantly reminded of Ms. Carmody in The Mist, and how her religious fanaticism was almost as big a threat as the inter-dimensional monsters. Her fanaticism was also about as useful as Carol’s fanaticism when the big showdown came, and both women ultimately proved themselves useless in the fight against the greater enemy.
Joe Hill spent a great deal of time discussing how those infected with Dragonscale were treated, and the parallels I drew were disturbing, to say the least.
Throughout time, there has always been some sort of threat. At least, we are led to believe we need to be afraid of something. After all, if there is not someone or something to fear and persecute, then what good is being human, right?
We have had Ebola virus. The internet gets really interesting, when it finally becomes public knowledge that there have been people infected with Ebola who have been traveling in and out of our country (and others) for decades. Suddenly, everyone becomes an expert in biology and obtains medical license, and knows the best way to handle those infected (hint: it usually involves something much more inhumane than offering the sick chicken noodle soup.)
There is the Islamo-phobia that Glenn Beck, Donald Trump and the rest of the Faux News crowd is intent on perpetuating. After all, if I am not in constant fear of a terrorist attack by Muslims (since white Christians never commit those, natch), then I am just not a good American!
Way back when, we had the Jewish refugees. Many requested refugee status when things started to go south in Germany, and were denied. Or if they did manage to migrate here, they were shunned, almost as if they had a disease that people feared because most did not understand it.
Sounds pretty familiar, huh? I have said it before and I will say it again: human fuckery is the worst kind of horror there is. And Joe Hill drives home that point again and again, in The Fireman.
Ok, let’s talk about the ending to this one.
I admit it, I grew complacent.
What can I say, it was last week…I was naive back then!
This ending has left me to conclude that Joe Hill is a genius. Seriously, he needs to win a Pulitzer prize!
Now, I should have had a clue. They were calling the so-called sanctuary “Martha Quinn Island”, after all. Not that there’s anything wrong with Martha Quinn, but she is sort of a relic (gah, I just got old.)
Joe Hill was born in 1972, and is only six years older than I am. In other words, we are of the same generation.
And my generation tends to idealize the 1980’s, in much the same way that my parents continue to idealize the 1960’s.
So naming the so-called sanctuary after an 80’s icon is just somehow fitting. We want to believe that the 1980’s were a simpler time, in much the same way that we want to believe that there just has to be a sanctuary somewhere that will take care of in our time of need. How could there not be?
I was struck by how easy it was to lull (most) of the survivors, once they had escaped Carol, along with the defeat of the Cremation Squad. It reminded of the rabbits in Watership Down! who are actually captives of a farmer who raises them for food, but they don’t know they are captives. Like Harper and the other survivors, they become complacent. And of course, they don’t come to a good end.
Honestly, the ending shocked me a bit, but in the end (see what I did there), I was not entirely surprised by this ending. And I believe that this ending was the only ending and therefore the right ending.
Unfortunately, nothing is ever so cut and dried in “real life.” We want to believe that there is still good out there, and that there are people who have our best interests at heart. Oftentimes, we allow ourselves to be fooled, even though we know that we should be more aware. We don’t want to believe that we will lose that job that we have had for years. We get married, and think that we will live happily ever after. We don’t want to believe that anyone we love can die, much less die before their time. And we would like to believe that if there was a plague that resulted in us contracting a disease that could potentially result in a painful death, that there would be people out there dedicated to possibly curing the disease, as opposed to simply eradicating those afflicted with the disease.
But again, human fuckery rears its ugly head. It probably started with human fuckery, and then it ends with human fuckery. Joe Hill reminds us this yet again.
But with this ending, Joe Hill also gives us something else: hope. After all, Harper safely delivers her baby. And she will keep her baby, as the baby is also infected with Dragonscale. Harper may have lost John, but Nick, Renee, Allie and the others survive. And if they survived, along with their rescuer Don, there may well other survivors. And maybe, just maybe, there will be a chance to rebuild.
Fire can be used to destroy. But like almost everything, fire has a dual nature. Fire can be used to create as well. And sometimes, everything must be destroyed, if we are ever to have a chance to emerge from the ashes, much like a phoenix, and attempt to rebuild.
Stephen King has said that if he passes away and leaves any unfinished manuscripts, he is not worried because he knows that Joe Hill is more than capable of finishing those manuscripts. And this is a comforting thought, indeed.
And it’s also a comforting thought that Joe Hill is just getting started, and that we are only at the beginning of a great writing career. And I can’t wait to find out where that career will lead.