I loved Heart-Shaped Box and the reviews for this doorstop by Joe Hill all raved about it, so I couldn’t wait to read it. I bought the ebook when it was on sale last year and it sat on my kindle until November. I wanted a spooky read for Halloween, and even though I knew this one wasn’t creepy in the same way Heart-Shaped Box was, and even though I didn’t start reading it until after Halloween, it still satisfied my craving.
The Fireman is about a plague, called Dragonscale, that covers people in black and gold swirls before they eventually burst into flames and burn to death. So in addition to the usual panic associated with plagues with no cure, there’s the added fear that the infected will burn everything and everyone around them.
The main character is a woman named Harper who also happens to be a nurse. She gets infected and her less-than-stellar husband blames her for volunteering to work with the sick and thereby jeopardizing his health. To make matters worse, Harper soon finds out she’s pregnant, and they don’t know if she’ll be able to safely carry the baby to term, but she’s determined to try.
Then her husband goes crazy and becomes convinced she infected him (she didn’t). He tries to kill her, but she escapes with the help of a couple kids and a man with a British accent dressed as a firefighter. They’re all infected, but the British fireman has the ability to control his fire – he can light parts of himself on fire and even throw fireballs, then calmly put himself out and carry on without suffering any damage.
Turns out the fireman’s name is John Rookwood and the kids are Allie and Nick, who are brother and sister, but they are not John’s kids. We learn later that John was dating their mother before she burned herself up.
By the time John and the kids find Harper, society is in the process of breaking down and there are people who are actively searching out and killing people who are infected. Then they brag about it on the radio, claiming they’re doing everyone a favor by shooting the infected before they can burn everything up.
So Harper’s new friends take her to an old summer camp in the middle of the woods to meet the rest of their infected friends. They’ve set up a makeshift community in which everyone shares supplies, chores, and responsibilities. They’re actively hiding from the rest of the world by sleeping during the day and only coming out at night. When it starts to snow, they lay down planks at night and pick them up again in the morning and make sure only to walk on the planks so they won’t leave footprints that will be visible to satellite cameras.
There’s an underground bunker for the women and a separate one for the men, but Nick is young enough that he sleeps in the women’s bunk so he can be with his sister. He’s also deaf and mute, but he can read and write, and throughout the course of the book he teaches Harper sign language so they can communicate. John knows sign language and Allie only knows a little.
It turns out these people have found a way to live with Dragonscale – by singing. Once a day they gather in the chapel and sing together. It doesn’t matter what the song is, just as long as they sing it together. When they do, most people (not everyone) glow, and when they come out of it, it’s like recovering from a hangover. They call it going into the Bright. Nick is even able to participate, despite the fact that he can’t hear the music.
Harper joins them, but it takes a while for her to join the Bright. Sitting in the midst of all these people who are glowing and are kind of mentally checked out is creepy, but once she manages to join them in the Bright, she sees what all the fuss is about. She’s filled with love for everyone around her and a powerful sense of community.
John never joins them, but he doesn’t appear to need to in order to live peacefully with his Dragonscale.
Then things start disappearing from the camp. First it’s food, then supplies from the women’s bunk. No one knows who the thief is, or understands why anyone would want to steal from this very loving, supportive community.
Then John leads a bunch of them (including Harper) on a mission to rescue a couple of infected convicts so they can join them in the camp. A lot of people have reservations about bringing convicts to the camp, but John says he can vouch for them, so they set out and disaster strikes.
The community’s leader is gravely injured and falls into a coma. His daughter takes over and things only get worse from there. One of the convicts is accused of attacking her father, although he swears up and down he didn’t do it. They’re both kept in chains and Harper, as the only one with any medical experience, is made to take care of the patient. My problem with that is she was a nurse and they practically had her doing brain surgery. There’s no way she would have been able to do half the things she did to try to save his life.
This is where the book got creepy in a way I had not been expecting it to. While they manage to keep the Dragonscale at bay through the power of community, there is a price to be paid. Pretty soon they’re making all sorts of sacrifices in the name of keeping the community safe. All the cell phones had already been confiscated before Harper got there. Then teenagers on patrol duty are given rifles and anyone breaks any rules is made to carry a stone in their mouth for a predetermined amount of time. At one point children are actively asking for stones to put in their mouths because they don’t want to go unpunished – they don’t want to be left out.
Harper is kept prisoner in the makeshift infirmary until her charge either recovers or dies. If he dies, she’ll be kicked out, but they’ll keep her baby.
It was hard for me to believe that something so awful could come out of a community that lives on regular trips into “the Bright,” but at the same time, I was a little suspicious of the Bright when Hill first introduced it. There had to be a catch.
Turns out there was.
There’s a lot more book to talk about, but I’ve covered most of what I wanted to talk discuss. I’ll just add that Hill is still a phenomenal writer and I loved every minute of this book.
I also appreciate that he seems to have inherited his father’s ability to write awesome female characters. I’ve never been a fan of King, but I’ve never been able to complain about the way he writes women, and the same goes for Hill. He gets how hard it can be for women to act friendly towards men without making it seem like flirting and it’s surprisingly difficult to find male writers who understand that. So thank you, Hill, and thank you to Mr. and Mrs. King for raising your son right.
What did you guys read this week? Any other doorstops that were hard to put down?