Had anyone else written The Fireman, I'd be tempted to compare it to Stephen King. We have an implausible global disaster treated as if real, tight focus on a decent and resourceful group of survivors, even a New England setting. It's a comparison I fought against making because it isn't, in the end, fair. King is King and Hill is Hill, as obvious as it is that the former influenced the latter in as many ways as possible. For the nonce, let's set comparisons aside and talk about the novel itself. Expect minor spoilers herein, but not too much to preclude your enjoyment of the book when you choose to read it (and you should. Trust me on this).
The disaster in The Fireman comes in the shape of a mysterious disease called "Dragonscale". It manifests itself in patters of black markings on a victim's skin and is perfectly harmless - with the exception of causing those infected to literally burst into flame. Our first brush with the disease comes through the eyes of Harper Grayson, a Disney-quoting elementary school nurse. Some of my favorite parts of the early chapters deal with the relationship between Harper and her husband, Jakob. Jakob is smart. He's intellectual. He's charming. His talents range from the ability to ride a unicycle to being really good at sex. However, the more we see of him the more we see an underlying self-centered-ness, a pettiness, a nastiness. When the school in which Harper works closes indefinitely due to the 'scale crisis and Harper is pressed into service at a hospital, it becomes clear that Jakon sees her patients with a pitying disdain rather than compassion. I wish we'd lingered a bit more on the positive side of the marriage before learning that it was a false-front, but learn we do and in a shocking and impactful way. Jakob can be read as every man with a feeling of entitlement, not as much intellect as he thinks he has, and a bitter disappointment with his lot in life. As civilization falls, so too does the veneer of civility Jakob has built around his rotten inner core. The horror in reading this book is not the image of a person bursting into flame: it's that we all know too many Jakobs, and that Hill is showing us what they are like inside.
One of my favorite kinds of moments in any fantastic novel is the moment in which what you think you knew proves to be wrong. We soon meet John Rockwood, the titular Fireman, a conflicted hero with a tragic past and a maddening tendency to set himself apart and attempt to be mysterious. Rockwood has found a way to control the dragonscale, not only avoiding self-immolation but even gaining control over fire itself, using it as a weapon or a tool. The entire middle third of the book takes place in a sort of hidden commune in which a small but growing infected population hides from the roving quarantine patrols who seek to eradicate the disease at gunpoint. It's little surprise to see Jakob reemerge with one of them.
I'll make a note here on language: Hill does a terrific job working ways of referring to the new infestation into the book's dialog. The quarantine patrols sometimes call themselves (and are called) cremation crews, and refer to the infected as "burners". A bargain-basement talk-radio host gives himself the moniker "Marlborough Man" because he's smoked so many burners. These are lovely touches which add to the feeling of immersion.
We also had an odd, seemingly out of left field reference to Martha Quinn, rumored to be a leaderof a safe space for the infected. Martha Quinn became an unlikely symbol through much of the book, and a source of hope. As a child of the 1980s, I found the inclusion of a literal voice from our collective past to be a tiny delight.
Anyway, the book is about how people deal with the crisis rather than the crisis itself. We have the Camp Wyndham community dealing with the threat of cremation squads. The uninfected dealing with the fear of infection. Everyone fearing fire. There are breakdowns in social order and, while there are villains, it isn't the villains which most interested - or most chilled me. It was the all-too-real way seemingly decent and reasonable people would follow them, and how quickly a community can slide from communal love to communal hatred. The book is at its best at those points. I do wish, as I said, that we'd had a tiny bit more of Jakob toward the beginning and, to be honest, a tiny bit less toward the end. His constant reappearance made absolute thematic sense, but ultimately veered into horror-fiction cliche territory.
And there's one moment in which we see a communal act of kindness toward those infected, only to see it subverted into something else. THis is a part about which I thought for a long time. Did the people know the real result of their charity? Were they deliberately fooling themselves? Did they fail morally in giving from a distance, and not following up? Or were they simply doing the best they thought they could? It was a nice, poignant, and ambiguous moment.
Comparison time again: I've stated in the past that I see an unsavory message in the works of HP Lovecraft in that his central theme - fear of the other - is a mirror of and metaphor for his racism. In one discussion on the topic, someone asked me if that is part and parcel of horror fiction in general. Clearly in my mind - and I suspect in Hill's - it is not. The horror in The Fireman was not the Dragonscale, was not even the fear of self-immolation. It was the moment that a seemingly loving husband showed us the monster within. It's the moment that a community of survivors let fear and anger twisted it into something ugly.
Horror isn't fear of the other; it's fear of ourselves, and what can let ourselves become in moments of fear as we fight for our own protection.
This book is horror. And it's good horror. I strongly recommend that you go read it.