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Literature / The Fireman

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"It was a pleasure to burn."

The Fireman is a novel written by Joe Hill. A deadly spore called 'Dragonscale' that causes Spontaneous Human Combustion has infected most of the world. Civilization descends into chaos as ruthless 'Cremation Squads' murder those who are afflicted.

When Harper, a pregnant nurse, finds herself infected, she vows to bring her baby to term before dying. She eventually finds refuge with a community of infected people led by the enigmatic Fireman, who knows not only how to survive the fire but to control it against those who would harm them...


The novel provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Don speaks glowingly of his old (male) fishing partner, and refuses to let the Bright take away his memories of him. While he speaks in friendship terms, his tone is tender enough to interpret they may have also been lovers.
  • Apocalypse How: Of the "societal disruption" variety. The world's infrastructures are still hanging on by a thread as the story closes, but fanaticism and violence are running rampant. Meanwhile, since Dragonscale is spread by ash and fires are still burning, the infection cycle is likely permanent. John points out that soon all of humanity will be affected by it, and the only choices are to learn to cope with the condition or perish from fear and ignorance.
  • Badass Bookworm: John Rookwood, the titular Fireman, turns out to be one. He was a mycologist at a state college prior to the Dragonscale outbreak, and has continued studying it even as he builds a reputation as a fearless, awesomely crazy hero with fire powers.
  • Baldness Means Sickness: Variation. Allie Storey sports a shaved head; it's later revealed that she did it after contracting Dragonscale, to embrace her rebellious side.
    • played straighter with Allie's aunt Carol, who also shaves her head (except for a small forelock on her forehead). Carol also has Dragonscale, but is often starving and overtired from trying to control the camp, leaving her looking more like a standard plague victim.
  • Beneficial Disease: Dragonscale is revealed to be this if one knows how to properly control it. Those who master it can generate fire without burning themselves, create weapons and constructs from pure flame, and nearly eliminate the chance of spontaneous combustion. Even those who don't learn pyromancy can join in the Bright, a telepathic harmony between Dragonscale victims, which creates a feeling of unity (and apparently gives one hell of a high).
  • Bittersweet Ending: The world is still going to hell in a handcart, but Harper, Allie, Nick, Renée, Don, and baby Ashley manage to escape on Don's boat. John takes down the remnants of the cremation crew that are targeting refugees heading for Martha Quinn's Island, but sacrifices himself in the process. However, the "post-credits" ending shows the group arrive at the Ireland coast, where other Dragonscale victims are mastering pyromancy, and it's heavily implied that John still accompanies them as a Phoenix.
  • Celebrity Casualty: Quite a few real celebrities are mentioned. Radio host Glenn Beck burns up during a broadcast and J. K. Rowling is mentioned as being gunned down for using her wealth to give refuge to those afflicted with the plague. Martha Quinn (one of the original MTV VJ's) is heard over the Internet as a spokesperson for an island where Dragonscale victims can seek safety and medical treatment. By the time Harper learns about the island, it's been shut down and Martha has been dead for some time.
  • Cool Old Guy: Don Lewiston, an elderly fisherman living at Camp Wyndham, who remains completely unfazed no matter what situation is thrown his way, and whose sailing skills come in VERY handy.
    • Deconstructed with "Father" Tom Storey. Although he's an intelligent, caring, funny, and kindhearted man, his big heart comes back to bite him when it keeps him from foreseeing the two biggest threats in the camp: His own daughter, Carol, and her conniving lover Michael. This ends up with Father Storey getting his skull fractured by Michael. Twice.
  • Country Matters:
    • The Fireman repeatedly uses the C-word to taunt Jakob.
    • The Marlboro Man also uses the word after being injured by Renée.
  • Cruel Mercy: Rather than kill the Marlboro Man, the Fireman instead infects him with the Dragonscale.
  • Determinator: Harper will survive long enough to deliver her baby. And no Jerkass ex-husband, cultists, cremation squads, or fiery pandemic will stop her from doing so.
  • Disability Superpower: Played with. Over the course of the story, it's established that one can control their own Dragonscale and use it to create flaming constructs if one has A) been infected long enough, B) can concentrate hard enough, and C) has formed an almost telepathic and silent bond with the spore. The first one to master all three conditions is Nick, a deaf boy (who has spent his life communicating silently). However, John Rookwood is not far behind, as he is also used to silent communication (using sign language with his mother).
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Ben Patchett, the Bright community's unofficial sheriff, clearly crushes on Harper and showers her with clumsy displays of affection. Harper, two decades younger than Ben and focusing on her survival, grows tired of it quickly, and that's even before he starts showing some fascist and sexist tendencies.
  • Doorstopper: The hardcover edition runs a whopping 768 pages.
  • Double-Meaning Title: John Rookwood operates in a traditional Fireman's uniform, hence his nickname (and the book's title). However, he's also a Fireman in the Bradburian sense, as in a man who starts fires instead of putting them out.
  • Easter Eggs: Quite a few. Given the apparent similarities to The Stand, Hill renamed the character of a deaf kid to Nick (after Nick Andros) and an antisocial loner to Harold Cross (a portmanteau of Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross). Other mentions include forgetting the face of one's father and a place being nicknamed "Christmasland".
    • Don't forget Nozz-a-la, an off-brand cola enjoyed on many levels of The Dark Tower.
    • There are so many references: an echo of "My life for you", Harper's middle name turning out to be Frances ("May I call you Frannie?" "No."), and even a character called "Father Storey" — get it?
  • Firefighter Arsonist: A rare heroic example in the titular Fireman, John Rookwood. Infected with the incendiary Dragonscale spore, John disguises himself as a firefighter to help rescue other infected. He has mastered his own Dragonscale and become a full-fledged pyromancer, able to make fiery constructs and hurl fireballs while staying unburned.
  • Gasshole: Harold Cross, Camp Wyndham's rude and crass medical student, was afflicted with chronic flatulence that literally smoked. It sure as hell didn't improve his disposition.
  • Just Before the End: Society is still functioning when the novel takes place, but it's slowly breaking down, with more and more people becoming infected with Dragonscale and the Internet being reduced to a shadow of itself.
  • Karmic Transformation: The Marlboro Man, who lead "Cremation Squads" to murder infected people, becomes infected himself.
  • Last Day of Normalcy: The story begins with Harper working her job as a school nurse, treating a child's minor injury, just before the Dragonscale disease enters her life (via a man spontaneously combusting on the school playground). Later, a flashback shows John Rookwood and his lover's family enjoying a backyard barbecue and swimming the day of an ash fall that infects almost all of them with Dragonscale.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Hill lifted the title from the original draft of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Both stories are about firemen who start fires rather than put them out.
  • Meaningful Name: Ashley Rookwood - "Rookwood" because John and Harper had by the end considered themselves married and John to be the baby's real father, "Ashley" because of her baptism in her father's ashes right after birth.
    • As possible Genius Bonus: the name "Ashley" is more popular as a girl's name in the USA, but used more often as a boy's name in the UK, so it's a pretty suitable name for the child of a transatlantic couple whose gender came as a surprise to her mother.
  • Memento MacGuffin: When John leaves his island for the last time, he takes along a bucket of coals from the furnace that houses Sarah's spirit. She later emerges from that bucket to kill Jakob when he tries to murder Harper on the road through Maine.
  • The Phoenix: This is one of the Fireman's favorite things to create.
  • The Plague: Dragonscale manages to infect most of the world by the novel's end.
  • Playing with Fire: It's possible for those affected with Dragonscale to produce and control fire to use as a weapon. The Fireman has become skilled at this, having learned it from Nick, and Harper develops the ability as well.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Marlboro Man is highly racist and sexist, joking that Obama is now even blacker than he already was after he succumbed to Dragonscale and proclaiming that every man has the right to "germ-free titties".
    • After going Ax-Crazy from isolation and (falsely) believing Harper infected him, Jakob shows his true colors by lecturing her about how he doesn't believe women can be as intellectual as men.
  • Posthumous Character: Harold Cross has already been dead for some time when Harper learns about him, but she finds his notebook hidden in the camp infirmary and learns about both his Dragonscale studies and grotesque personality.
  • Pregnant Badass: Harper reasons that she and her baby have a much better chance of survival if she does everything in her power to actively protect herself; therefore, she's still climbing around and generally doing everything that doesn't physically drop her, even well into her final trimester.
  • Recycled INSPACE: Hill has referred to The Fireman as being "The Stand soaked in gasoline".
  • Redemption Equals Death: Though he's fully complicit in Carol's cult of personality, Ben's very last act is to run into a firefight and grab an unconscious Nick, carrying him back to safety even as he's torn apart by bullets. Even when one takes off the top of Ben's skull he makes sure Nick is safe before finally collapsing.
  • Self-Harm: Jakob becomes obsessed with the notion he has the 'scale (even though he never catches it), and takes to scratching, cutting, or sanding any mark on his skin. By the end he's a roadmap of scars.
  • Shout-Out: One of the items stolen in the camp is a large coffee mug with stars painted on it; it's referred to several times as a "cup of stars"
  • Sir Swearsalot: John has a massive arsenal of colorful swears and employs them with abandon. Harper has no qualms about cursing either.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Though Ash is Jakob's baby, rather than John's, Harper gives her the surname "Rookwood" and allows her (already infected) newborn to inhale the ash from John's phoenix, underscoring the idea that Ash is spiritually John's daughter, if not biologically.
  • Soul Jar: The Fireman's girlfriend is killed in a fire but a part of her still exists in the fire itself - first in John's furnace, then in a bucket of coals that he salvages from it upon leaving his island.
  • The Stinger: Similar to NOS4A2, The Fireman features an "after-credits" scene: a young woman and her son see the survivors' boat approach, accompanied by a phoenix that may be a surviving part of John; the son demonstrates his ability to control his Dragonscale the way John and Nick could, suggesting that the group may have found real refuge at last.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: A refuge where the infected survivors can receive treatment and be taken care of is spoken of throughout the novel. While it did exist, it turns out to have burned down months before, and is now used as a ruse meant to draw in the infected as a way to kill them.