Joe Hill's The Fireman
Joe Hill’s The Fireman

The Fireman, Joe Hill’s latest opus, is a big, rambling, post-apocalyptic horror novel that is fast-moving and entertaining but, for me, ultimately unsatisfying. I was never engaged enough to suspend my disbelief or to be even remotely scared by the goings-on. This was a distinct impediment to my full enjoyment of a promising feast. So while I found the novel action-packed, reasonably fun to plow through, and a good enough way to spend a couple of days, I could not in the end take it seriously.

The Fireman begins with the world in the throes of a new plague known as Dragonscale—a highly contagious fungus that causes most infected people to burn alive, and to burn the world down with them as they go. A lucky few, however, have learned to make a chemical peace with the infection. Some can even use their fire as a tool, or a weapon. These fire-users become the novel’s main characters, fighting to get to a safe place rumored to be off the Maine coast.

This, for me, is where The Fireman’s problems start. I didn’t find these characters believable as real people, and so it didn’t matter to me if they succeeded.

Hill’s POV character is Harper Willowes, a twenty-six year old nurse infected with Dragonscale, pregnant, and fleeing what she has just now discovered is an abusive marriage. To me, she comes across as both trite and cutesy. Her main character traits seem to be her weirdly optimistic affect, unlikely medical knowledge, and obsession with Mary Poppins. The last highlights the inconsistencies in her personal frame of reference. Harper is supposed to be in her twenties, but Hill’s timeline of her experiences and life events (as well as her taste in music and children’s films) all skew at least a decade older. She is a collection of quirks that never quite gel into a convincing person.

The main male character is John Rockwood—exhibitionist British mycologist, romantic lead, Dragonscale master, possessor of a 1935 hook and ladder rig, and so the Fireman of the title. He also suffers from an abundance of odd traits. He is somewhat more realistic than Harper, but he still ends up being presented as an assemblage of eccentric details rather than a fully-developed character.

I also found the secondary characters weak in The Fireman. Hill uses a lot of stereotypes in the peopling of his novel, from the calm, wise black woman to the grandfatherly old man and from the evil conspiracy theorists to the pseudo-religious cultists gone bad. Profanity and lascivious chatter are thrown in at random and attributed to various characters without regard for who they are supposed to be, giving the racy dialogue a toneless quality and a distinct lack of impact. Teens are largely portrayed as Lord of the Flies-style savages. The bad guys are single-dimensional at best, cartoonish at worst, and consequently not particularly frightening. None are truly individuals—they are tropes and plot devices which act without personality. I couldn’t find anything about them to genuinely care about.

Joe Hill as a fireman
Joe Hill as a fireman

The Fireman may be intended as homage or at least a pastiche, but the literary and cultural references are so in-your-face it is hard to take them as other than too-clever name-dropping. We get the direct naming of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, and Harper Lee. We get obvious allusions to Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, King’s The Stand, Pet Semetary, Firestarter, and more.  At one point Hill uses his father’s technique of detailing a sudden disaster’s effects on minor characters. But the trick falls flat when there is no relationship with or between the people he suddenly throws into the story.

As with the references, so many of the details feel disconnected, as if Hill were focused more on moving the plot along (which he does, extremely effectively) than building a convincing end-of-the-world scenario. I was distracted by too many technical questions that stood out more clearly than the characters themselves. For example: Where do all the big trucks and construction vehicles gas up when they are driven for hundreds of miles? How do the overweight characters stay that way for months on end if the survivors are on short rations and skipping meals? And why are there always canned peaches?

So, to sum it up: despite the undeniably compelling pacing I found the characters poorly drawn, the cultural and literary references overdone, and the post-apocalypse details unconvincing. I can’t recommend The Fireman as more than a lightweight beach book. It is a glossy, compelling, in-joke of a novel with unlikely nonstop action, deus ex machina plotting at every turn, and an additional scene dropped off after the credits that teases a sequel. It will fall apart if you look too deeply. But if you don’t look, and don’t really expect too much, The Fireman can still be fun.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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The Loney
The Loney

The Loney is Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel, and it is a wonder. As literary horror it is gothic and gorgeous, not so much frightening as vastly uneasy. It has been a long time since I’ve read a book in one long gulp, and I am tempted to open it and start again. Hurley’s use of language is hypnotic, and he is relentless in setting and keeping the dim, wet mood of the novel.

“If it had another name I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney—that strange nowhere between the Wyre and Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time…and look[ed] for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter” (3)

First published in Great Britain by Tartarus Press in 2014, The Loney’s first American edition came in May 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In between those dates, the novel collected a number of awards and recognitions, with Britain’s Sunday Telegraph already declaring it “a modern classic”.

They may be on to something.

The unnamed narrator is almost absent from the story, even though it is told in first person as his own experience. His reactions and feelings are left mostly a blank, described but not dwelt on. This creates an emptiness at the heart of the story, rendering it as an almost clinical, if poetic, observation that results in very few answers.

Set primarily during a religious retreat in 1975, The Loney recalls the trend in sixties and seventies horror toward pagan witchcraft and Satanism as the root cause of terror. In many ways the novel shares the same thematic landscape as The Great God Pan, The Wicker Man, and assorted Hammer films like The Devil Rides Out. Here, though, Hurley uses the familiar horror tropes of witches, demonic infants, hostile locals, and ancient, secret religions as background rather than primary plot devices.

An ancient yew
An ancient yew

The Loney is filled with many portentous allusions and subtle misdirections. There are random, muddy hints that the narrator’s rigidly Catholic mother may be quite familiar with the undefined old ways. The storyunfolds during Easter, a Christian holiday with particularly strong ties to pagan rites. There are frequent mentions of yew trees, with their ancient connection to rebirth and immortality and astounding longevity, and ubiquitous place in churchyards. A troupe of Pace Eggers makes an appearance, whose performance varies from the norm and suggests uglier, older customs. There is a church chained shut, a decayed shrine, the mystery of a priest’s death. A nearby estate called Coldbarrow is said to be haunted by a witch, and its manor house, Thessaly, seems named after the battlefield where Greece’s old gods fought the new. The references are enough to bury a reader in history both real and mythological.

“I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along, It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way” (31)

Details and characters are introduced but not resolved, left hanging to intrude at intervals without confirming explanation. Striking and suggestive imagery is used but not integrated. Any sense of understanding is necessarily incomplete, because the fear The Loney generates is not from monstrousness but from uncertainty.

The Loney's uncertain terrain
The Loney’s uncertain terrain

And uncertainty becomes a moral and a mortal danger. Hurley’s real theme, as I understood it, is faith—its blindness, its loss, and its absence. The oppressive religiosity of the characters adds to the joyless proceedings, reinforcing the bleakness and alienation of the setting and the mood.

The narrator’s mother demonstrates a slavish, near fanatical adherence to ritual, to the point that ritual seems all that gives her faith. There are slippery narrative whispers that she and the other characters have lost their way, with their stubborn adherence to a faith that is not so pure as they would have it.

“The shrine seemed much further than everyone remembered, but eventually we arrived at a small gravel car park, deserted apart from a matress and some old car tyres. The little booth where an elderly attendant had once sold penny information leaflets was gone and there was only the wind and the sound of sheep far away on the hills” (209)

They do not want to admit the syncretic merging of a newer religion with an older, or that a religion changes at all. And that refusal to accept the uncertainty of changes–that God or no God is not so cut and dried, that there may also be a matter of God or Other Gods–makes the possibility of a loss of faith truly devastating.

Hurley does a compelling job at weaving all his many threads into a story that retains its mystery even after it ends. The Loney is convoluted, but without any coherent resolution—a puzzle with too many pieces gone. Yet it is so gorgeous, so evocative, that the incompleteness of it acts as a spur rather than a disappointment. I was left sated but wanting just one more bite. Time will tell if The Loney is truly a modern classic. But judging by the effect it has on me, I think it will be.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Preacher, the comic book-inspired series that debuted on May 22 on AMC, is so far a cautiously-paced, blackly funny critical darling of a show. I am not familiar with the original Vertigo comic book, so I can’t compare the adaptation to its source material. But three episodes in to a ten episode run I am enjoying Preacher immensely. There is a catchy if still-murky premise, a sly wink to its unavoidable irreverence, and a great attention to character details that I hope the show will sustain.

The Preacher himself
The Preacher himself

Preacher takes place in the dusty Texas town of Annville, where Jesse Custer has returned from a life roughly lived to serve (unsuccessfully) a shrinking flock at the failing All Saints Congregational Church. He still drinks heavily, still smokes like a chimney, and cannot quite abandon his ability (and willingness) to beat the crap out of deserving people. He refuses the bait when his ex, Tulip, shows up to try to persuade him to take on another “job”. She won’t take his no as a final answer. The vampire Cassidy literally falls from the sky into the middle of Jesse’s fight with his past. Then the mysterious alien force comes knocking and finds a home in Jesse, and the series can rightly begin.

That summary brings us to the end of the pilot. It isn’t until halfway through episode 3 that Jesse begins to explore the power he only discovered at the end of episode 2. Cautiously paced, indeed.

The charming Tulip O'Hare
The charming Tulip O’Hare

The main characters are likeable in a really bad decision kind of way. Dominic Cooper broods with charm as the rumpled, doubting Jesse Custer, Ruth Negga is sweet, wickedly sarcastic, and dangerous as Tulip O’Hare, and Joseph Gilgun is cheerfully deranged as Cassidy (So far, the dissolute, 119 year old vampire Cassidy is my favorite character. His accent is almost impenetrable and his habits are disgusting. Blood may be the life but booze is more fun, and boredom appears to be his primary enemy. And somehow, improbably, he is Jesse’s best friend).

Because of the strength of the casting the characters all have surprising depth to them, considering how little information we actually have about them and what drives them. Even the secondary and supporting players are rounded out, written with a great deal of intelligence, sympathy, and cutting wit.

And Cassidy, the resident vampire
And Cassidy, the resident vampire

But then, Preacher’s dominant trait seems to be its dark, sharp humor—which ranges from panicky Russian Satanists to news reports of Tom Cruise exploding, and from a frequently referenced “bunny sound” to a cocktail of “rubbing alcohol, coffee machine descaler, and a bit of the stuff dripping off the back of the air conditioning unit”. There are several…invigorating…fight scenes, perversions, fetishes, and debauchery, struggles with faith, and a strong moral center who is not actually our hero. Sunglasses are used to great effect. And there is an exceptional soundtrack, with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash leading the way.

Since the tangled past is already well known to the characters, they don’t spend any time rehashing it for the audience’s benefit. What is referenced is not well-explained, but there is a distinct air of Big Mysteries to be revealed somewhere down the line. It takes a little work to keep up, but the show is interesting, and not knowing the context is not such a big deal. Yet. But it will be.

It’s that cautious pacing. At this point, it’s beginning to feel nearly soap-opera slow—like the first season of True Detective, but funny. We are still finishing the set-up. Many things are beginning, but the threads are not connected, yet, and the writers aren’t tipping their hand. Right now there are many questions and many hints as to what may be coming, but the story arc hasn’t truly begun to bend. The first three episodes have been laying a lot of groundwork without filling in too many details. They have given us a fascinating peepshow of abilities, potentials, and motivations, with enough quirks and jokes to make us care.

But now I think Preacher’s plot needs to speed up and dabble a little more deeply in exposition to keep the audience fully involved. Going into episode 4, I am hoping for some serious, plot-making action. Three weeks is a long time to go without it.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!