Joe Hill’s work has matured greatly since early novels such as Heart-Shaped Box and even Horns: A Novel, both of which provoked a love-hate response in me. Both were clever, but wallowed self-consciously in their own cleverness. Heart-Shaped Box utilized every horror genre trope and cliche before inverting them, setting readers up for a multitude of “gotcha” moments. (For instance, a spirit uses a Ouija board to incessantly question the living protagonist.) In all fairness, Hill’s fiction is inevitably compared to his father Stephen King’s work, rather than appreciated exclusively for its own merits.
Then came NOS4A2: A Novel, which one could argue was Hill’s breakout work (and will be reviewed here later). NOS 4A2 was in many respects more nuanced and complex than his earlier novels, with greater character depth. This novel made some bold references to Stephen King’s fictional universe, and can easily stand alongside many of King’s novels.
The Fireman: A Novel continues the positive trends of NOS 4A2, and the central conceit of a contagious disease that causes the infected to spontaneously combust is deliriously creepy. However, this isn’t the novel’s scariest aspect. (Here’s where I warn for mild spoilers ahead.) The most disturbing scenes involve dysfunctional group dynamics, particularly those involving social control. The tribal mentality isn’t merely drawn along the lines of the infected vs. the uninfected, but even within the group of infected survivors who are already vulnerable to attacks from “cremation crews” as well as their own illness.
Here we have a story about an isolated and marginalized group that devolves into a murderous cult. The process is familiar to anyone who has read about real-life tragedies such as Jonestown and so many other cults. In The Fireman, an initially likable character creates an environment of of hope and trust, anchored to her own brand of religion. As the characters become more isolated from the outside world, the tone shifts to paranoia, and she grabs as much power and authority as possible. As with real life cases, it’s frustrating that so few characters call her out on her bullshit or hold her accountable. Naturally, the few dissenters are demonized through character assassination, and in some cases, subjected to physical abuse. And naturally, the followers are so desperate to maintain their in-group status that they blindly believe their leader’s lies. The protagonist’s character development arc is satisfying (even if I could have lived with fewer Mary Poppins references), because her previous relationship with her gaslighting and manipulative ex-husband immunizes her to the cult members’ manipulation. Hill creates a believable transition from passive spouse to assertive hero. Another strength of the novel is how seamlessly Hill provides a biological explanation for the toxic group dynamics that dovetails with the mechanics of the disease itself.