Hill juxtaposes his indefatigable nurse Harper Grayson’s personal apocalypse with the world’s fiery fungal demise. There’s a refreshing and realistic self-awareness his characters possess as society literally goes up in smoke. They’ve paid attention to the 21st-century zeitgeist and so they know the pop-culture rules of the end of the world. Hill knows you know the rules too, and he plays with readers’ expectations in a way that makes The Fireman uniquely suspenseful and a totally fresh take on the apocalyptic novel.
Unlike the zombies of The Walking Dead or the insidious atomic devastation of The Road or the government designed superflu, Captain Trips, of The Stand, Hill’s Dragonscale fungus has no element of human design, no malice aforethought. The Dragonscale fungus is only the agent or accelerant of our end. Humanity makes for good kindling here, as heroism and the novel’s most insidious evil spring from the same source: our best intentions, what we are willing to do to protect our individualized and idealized versions of community. The bad guys are none of us and all of us. Throughout The Fireman, Harper wades through rings of a distinctly Sartre-esque hell: other people attempting to enforce what they think is best for her and the community. The darkest and most disturbing moments are as recognizable as online comment sections and social media shamings. Yet Harper and Hill never lose the spark of what makes community and humanity worth (maybe) saving.
PAUL TREMBLAY: The Dragonscale fungus and how it reacts with its host(s) is a wonderful metaphor for social media and how it has changed and continues to change us as a society and individuals. As someone who has a large social media presence and following, did you initially set out to write a novel about our digital anxieties? Were those parallels within your fungus taxonomy a happy discovery?
JOE HILL: So if you’re contaminated with Dragonscale and you can’t control your feelings of stress or anxiety, you’re in danger of erupting into flames and dying of spontaneous combustion. My heroine Harper, who is carrying the ’scale, finds her way to a place called Camp Wyndham, where a small community of the infected have learned to suppress the illness. It turns out that feelings of closeness and social approval neutralize the spore. So a group sing-along or a cuddle with your significant other or a crowd of friends laughing at one of your jokes are all things that could help keep you alive.
But there’s a danger in literally living or dying by social approval. If you cross the group — if you offend your personal tribe — you lose that protection and things can get toasty pretty quickly. So yeah, the Dragonscale wound up serving as a good metaphor for our increasingly networked lives. When you write something that gets a thousand retweets or a thousand likes, it’s a natural high. On the other hand, we’ve all seen these daily online shamings, which are, really, the 21st-century equivalent of bolting someone in the stocks. When you see someone being shamed online, you’re witness to someone’s ego and self-image being burned at the stake. Maybe they have it coming. But then, like Clint Eastwood said in that western a few years back, maybe we all got it coming.
In the dedication you cite your mother as one of The Fireman’s many inspirations and write that she introduced you to most of the mycology (“and mythology”) necessary for the novel. Are there fungi in nature that behave like the Dragonscale? Do we need to be worried? I’m asking for a friend …
[Coughing] … I recently read a quite moving horror novel called Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by someone — I’m blanking on the author’s name — and that book included a rather good sketch of O. Unilateralis, the fungus that can hijack the brains of ants. And recently there’s been some good journalism on “the fungus internet.” Apparently vast families of trees in the northwest can pass along rudimentary signals using a widespread fungus that connects their roots. So we know spores can merge themselves with other life forms in remarkable and inventive ways.
A lot of the other characteristics of the Dragonscale can be found somewhere in mycology. There isn’t a fungus that will make you burst into flames but anyone who has had Athlete’s Foot knows that a nasty spore can cause your skin to heat up and blister. Many spores also have an extraordinary heat resistance and spread via contaminated ash, which is how the ’scale gets around.
My last three novels leaned heavily on the supernatural. With The Fireman I wanted to move in a more Michael Crichton–esque direction. So my spore is fabulous and unlikely, but there’s at least vaguely plausible science behind 75 percent of what it can do. Harper encounters a man named John Rookwood (a.k.a. “The Fireman” of the title), and John has figured out how to “hack” the Dragonscale to make it do some things that might be a bit beyond the limits of actual biology.
For an apocalyptic novel in which horror and human-on-human cruelty is unavoidable, I thought it was a compelling choice to also focus on relationships and have the novel ultimately be a story that was positive and earnest, summed up nicely with one character saying, “But we need kindness like we need to eat. It satisfies something in us we can’t do without.” Was The Fireman’s apocalypse a purposeful reaction to say, McCarthy’s unrelenting bleakness in The Road (which you reference in the novel)?
Yes, and also a reaction to The Walking Dead, and a whole host of other apocalyptic stories that have been bubbling up just lately. Harper has a kind of sturdy, indefatigable optimism; a little thing like the end of the world doesn’t have a chance in the face of her good humor and goodwill. Crisis doesn’t always bring out the worst in people. Sometimes it brings out the best.
It’s also sort of an anti-apocalyptic novel. Every generation secretly suspects it might be the last. History suggests that a lot of human existence has taken place against a backdrop of chaos and collapse. The world is always ending for some people and beginning for some others. William Gibson once said the future is here, but it isn’t evenly distributed. The apocalypse is always with us, but it isn’t evenly distributed.
The Fireman is told exclusively from Harper Grayson’s perspective. That you’re able to tell such an epic story and juggle so many characters from her singular point of view is remarkable. Did you initially start with multiple points of view or was it clear early on that the story would be Harper’s to tell?
I joke sometimes that The Fireman is my version of The Stand, soaked in gasoline and set on fire. It certainly plays with some of the ideas in The Stand, bending some of those concepts in different (hopefully interesting) directions.
What’s less obvious is how much The Fireman echoes the Harry Potter novels. As in Harry Potter, Harper is a person in a distressing family situation, who is liberated by the discovery that she is somehow different (in this case, infected). And she goes off to a new community where everyone is special like her (Camp Wyndham instead of Hogwarts) where she makes both friends and enemies and is faced with a series of baffling mysteries. The mysteries are resolved in a series of escalating confrontations, while Harper discovers the full range of her powers. Anyone familiar with the Harry Potter stories will see the similarities in structure. And the Harry Potter novels, while epic in scope, are written almost entirely from a fixed, singular point of view. By the time I finished the first 100 pages, I knew I was anchored in Harper’s head for the duration.
Sometimes I wished I could get out of her head and show things from another POV but it wasn’t an option. Once or twice I cheated by resorting to the omniscient “novelist’s” voice. J. K. Rowling must’ve sometimes desperately wished she could’ve jumped into Hermione’s head.
Given your critical and commercial successes in comics and fiction, I imagine there’s pressure from many fronts to continue to follow and one-up those successes. How different is the writer who wrote The Fireman from the one who wrote the short stories comprising 20th Century Ghosts?
I think I’m a lot less neurotic. The relentless, unforgiving pace of working on a monthly comic book taught me to think less, relax more. The guy who wrote 20th Century Ghosts was awfully desperate to persuade other people he wasn’t a no-talent.
I’m still too slow and too fussy, but I’m getting better.
I won’t tell anyone, but do people know that you wrote a science fiction novel? I’m kidding (mostly) but your collection and previous three novels were more recognizably horror and employed heavy doses of the supernatural. The Fireman is more difficult to classify. A stumbling lead into the dreaded genre question: Does genre or the genre label have any meaning to you in your work?
I hate when someone directs a horror movie, and then tries to act like it’s an art film. Show us the chainsaw. Be loud and proud. Don’t be ashamed. I love exploring genre tropes and upending genre expectations; I don’t feel any compulsion to disguise what I’m up to.
The Fireman is a hopefully fun, big, semi-apocalyptic, action-filmy sci-fi romp. There’s plenty of scary stuff in it. I don’t think people who liked the outright horror novels, Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, will be disappointed. But I also want to tell lots of kinds of stories, and experiment with different kinds of suspense. I don’t think anything would be more grim than spending the rest of my career trying to write Square-Shaped Box and NOS4A3.
Have you ever met Martha Quinn? If not, and if you were to meet, what are you going to tell her about her role in The Fireman?
Oh, man, I had the world’s biggest crush on Martha Quinn when I was a kid. I liked her skinny ties! Women in skinny ties slay me. Some people have blabbed to her on Twitter about there being a heroic Martha Quinn figure in the novel. Hopefully if she ever gets around to reading the book she digs it. She can have me on her Sirius/XM show and we can play our favorite ’80s tunes. I’d want to open with The Fireman’s theme song, “Romeo and Juliet,” from 1980; I must’ve listened to that song a thousand times while I was working on the novel.
Paul Tremblay is the author of the novels A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Little Sleep, and No Sleep Till Wonderland.