No matter what critics think of his new novel, “The Fireman” (William Morrow, 768 pp., $28.99), Joe Hill is excited about one thing.
Good reviews or bad reviews, the 43-year-old author knows they will have great headlines. “It’s going to be ‘Joe Hill is on fire.’ That will be great,” Hill says during a recent phone interview from New Hampshire, where he lives. “Or ‘Joe Hill goes down in flames. A promising career turns to ash.’ ”
The latest novel from Hill, the author of “Heart-Shaped Box,” “NOS4A2” and other books, is about a world plagued by a highly contagious spore, nicknamed Dragonscale, whose symptoms include black and gold marks on the skin . . . and a propensity for spontaneously combusting. The infected are shunned by a society that is quickly devolving, while those who are not infected begin witch hunts to find and eliminate people with Dragonscale.
At the center of the story is Harper, a pregnant nurse with a sunny disposition living in New England. When she gets infected, she has to find a way to keep safe. Enter a roving man decked out like a firefighter.
The inspiration for the more flammable aspects of the story came from a fear that Hill, the son of famed author Stephen King, had as a youngster.
“I have been terrified by the idea of dying from spontaneous combustion since I was a kid,” he explains. “I read a story about spontaneous combustion when I was 12 or 13 and spent years wondering if that might happen. I’d just be walking to class or stressed out about something and smoke would begin to trickle out of my hair and suddenly I’d burst into flames. It just seems like such a phenomenally unfair way to go.”
And it proves to be unfair for the infected people in “The Fireman.” People living with the spore can be fine one minute and then start smoking and burst into flames the next.
“I was trying to imagine what would happen if a pathogen got loose and started setting people on fire,” Hill says.
But the big twist here is all about perspective. In “The Fireman,” the infected are the heroes, whereas in a lot of recent fantasy and horror, the infected are the villains.
“When you watch ‘Walking Dead,’ we’re on the side of the healthy,” Hill says. “We’re on the side of the people in the lifeboat who have a chance. And we’re against the infected. We want to see the infected die.”
Hill equates this to recent real-life situations in America where panic causes people to react rashly, as if we use these situations to justify being our worst to protect ourselves, he says.
“We had one person with Ebola in Texas and we were ready to shut down the borders and spend a trillion dollars on Ebola research and containment,” he says. “We had a horrific shooting in San Bernardino, and the response of many aspiring politicians is to say, ‘Let’s keep out all Muslims.’
“I wanted to write a book that took the side of the people we’re afraid of, the people who are sick, the people who are different,” Hill continues. “So the heroes of the book are basically the zombies. . . . What would [Donald] Trump do? Grab some guns and build a wall. Be ready to torture. . . . I think that viewpoint, the readiness to do what we have to do to shut down that threat, is alive and well in America and a little bit scary.”
But that’s not to say that the book is all doom and gloom. The lead character, Harper, is a fount of optimism with a penchant for some chipper tunes.
“Harper’s secret fantasy is that she wished the world could be like a Disney musical,” Hill says. “Something where all the important moments of life are arced by people breaking into song and synchronized.”
This is a key plot point in “The Fireman.” Music plays a crucial role in living with the spore — so Hill immersed himself in a lot of Disney music.
“I’m not really a Disney musical guy,” Hill confesses. “You’ve got to be ready to suffer for your art, and I did have to listen to a fair amount of Disney musical stuff to get this book right. I did that for readers everywhere.”