From the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box comes a chilling novel about a worldwide pandemic of spontaneous combustion that threatens to reduce civilization to ashes and a band of improbable heroes who battle to save it, led by one powerful and enigmatic man known as the Fireman. The fireman is coming. Stay cool. No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it's Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies - before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe. Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she's discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: They would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob's dismay, Harper wants to live - at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine, too...if she can live long enough to deliver the child. Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads - armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn't as alone as she fears: A mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow firefighter's jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as the Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted...and as a weapon to avenge the wronged. In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman's secrets before her life - and that of her unborn child - goes up in smoke.
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Obama is toast; George Clooney torches out on a humanitarian mission; a defiant J.K. Rowling is executed by firing squad for helping infected youth; apocalyptic visionary/conspiracy theorist Glen Beck burns to a fizzle in front of his chalkboard on camera; and Keith Richards remains among the living, because, "Nothing can kill him." A deadly plague races around the globe. Theories of origin range from an ancient alien source buried beneath Arctic ice sheets, released as the global thermometer rises, to Russian military germ warfare and various middle eastern factions, to even the evil creation of Halliburton. Beginning with scaly black patches flecked with gold veining, everything about the dragon scale-like disease is unprecedented and unpredictable. A spore inhaled into the lungs, Draco incendia trychophyton spreads across the body, culminating in the infected person's spontaneous flame-out. With no cure insight the pandemic throws the world into a planet of fire ravaged post-apocalyptic communities struggling to survive as the civilization once known blinks off: electricity, food production, law and order, Google, Coke…and how much Spam can you eat before you actually want to die?
Though horrific, you'll find yourself unashamedly laughing out loud at the tongue-in-cheek maelstrom. Joe Hill, an award winning author of horror novels and comic books (the Locke & Key series) could possibly scare you to death...but you'll die laughing. "Horror is the cousin of comedy," says Dr. Julia Wilkins, like she is labeling the branches of one of those family trees (and we all know which family tree Joseph Hillstrom King sprouts from). "Cries of terror are heard first, followed almost immediately by a wave of chuckles, giggles," in the phenomenon she calls “relief theory”…”we achieve such joy from being scared in certain situations because, while our bodies tell us that they’re dangerous, we still know deep down that we are safe." But don’t get too comfy or secure, and never doubt the horror element; Hill’s characters are the nightmarish dregs of humankind that will keep you up at night. Cremation Squads gleefully dispose of even suspected carriers, roaming the streets in hateful vigilante packs with a penchant for violence and creative extermination. The Marlboro Man is a sociopathic hate talk-jock that could squash a puppy and enjoy it.
The Fireman himself is John Rookwood, a mysterious and haunted man trying to find himself without losing his sanity to the strengthening group mentality among his pod of survivors. He meets the practically perfect in every way, Harper Grayson, a school nurse volunteering during the epidemic, when he carries a young boy into a hospital congested with scaled victims. As you can guess, her role model is Mary Poppins and she exudes the sugary wisdom to a fault. If she is saccharine enough to give you cavities, her husband is the perfect convoluted argument for "opposites attract." Jakob Grayson seems simply wonderful at first -- together, after a night of passionate lovemaking and reflection on the state of the world they decide at first sign of any scale they will drink a stashed away bottle of French *honey-moon* wine and check out of the inferno wrapped in each other's arms. A night of amoré, a bottle of wine, the slip of the Trojan...and baby Grayson is quietly gestating -- but so is the dragon scale. When the first black scales appear on Harper, Jakob goes Edward Hyde on her. And while he makes a perfect d-bag, it is a 180* so severe I can only equate it to something as fantastical as Jekyl and Hyde, and it was difficult to swallow even with a spoonful of sugar. Convinced she has condemned them both with her goddamned bleeding heart volunteering with the infected patients -- Jakob unleashes a full vitriolic, psychotic break at Harper, who cheerfully deflects the bombardment even while he confesses he plans to kill her. You’ll just have to read how hard he snaps.
In the infected refugee colony (Camp Wyndham) where Harper eventually flees for what is left of her life and her unborn child’s, with the help of The Fireman, strange things are afoot…an eerie group mentality begins. As with any good post-apocalypse colony, the cream of the cracked rises to the top of the social strata and we see how the stress of survival works. Inside this sanctuary slowly becomes where the true horrors reside. The few unaffected by the odd side effects of the scale decide they must escape. And escape is the only way out.
This is a doorstop of a book, and I love a good big book, but this one could’ve used some heavy-handed editing. Maybe some of those pages could’ve been used to develop the monster Jakob becomes overnight, build some back-story into a few of the characters to add some reference to how far they deviate from sanity. But that’s my only criticism. Hill must love and admire his mom because the guy sure writes a strong female character with brains and integrity. He even calls out the Stones for a bit of musical misogyny of sorts (Mother;s Little Helper, Under My Thumb etc.). It’s a fun book, with plenty of Easter Eggy references to play Looky with. Ex: The name of the book: Ray Bradbury’s first choice for Farenheit 451; P.L. Traver’s Mary Poppins; dozens of rock songs and show tunes, references to scores of books (especially those by father); literary references; horror movies; and some real fun punches at a few celebrities. The story itself, Hill says, “it’s my version of The Stand, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.” (I guess he finally relizes he no longer needs to hide his genealogy or wonder about his own success being attributed to his father.) There could be an attached sheet to find and enjoy all of those literary eggs.
I had a great time reading this, it was fun and it kept the personality of the author. It may have a few bumps, a few editing issues, problems with straying a bit from a well-constructed and tight plot, but that’s personality. How many authors have the chops to have the by-line: A Joe Hill (or whom ever) novel? It's a 4-5* Joe Hill (damn! I hate books that have a hanging end!). I hope writers never turn into carbon copies of each other, like auto tuned singers and computerized, pitch-perfect music. I like a little screeching feedback, the hint of a live performance, and the artist shining through. Kate Mulgrew is an outstanding narrator that breathes into the story a sense of happening that keeps the plot alive and the characters connected. Her only weakness might be trying to distinguish the many characters and their voices from each other, especially when she has to be a male Englishman, but that's splitting hairs. She is a narrator I'd consider as a selling point for any audible novel.