In Joe Hill’s new novel, an infection caused by a highly flammable spore spreads through civilization, causing the afflicted to spontaneously burst into flames. The rapidly spreading disease, known as “Dragonscale,” divides humankind into two categories — the healthy and the sick — and they don’t get along very well.
The 747-page book is called “The Fireman,” and the sci-fi horror story takes place mostly in Portsmouth. It just came out this month, and Hill will read an excerpt and engage in a live interview at The Music Hall in Portsmouth next Monday, May 16, as part of the Writers on a New England Stage series.
“The Fireman” is Hill’s fourth novel. The long-time Exeter resident has also authored a collection of short stories and two comics, including the acclaimed “Locke & Key” series. His second novel, “Horns,” was made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. Hill has never lived in the shadow of his father, Stephen King. With “The Fireman,” he has created a literary inferno that casts its own shadows.
The bestselling author recently talked to The Sound about his new book. He also discussed his thoughts on “The Walking Dead,” the horror of Donald Trump, the literary loop of his family, and why he is compelled to write every day of his life.
One of the things that’s really fun about reading the book as a local is that it takes place right here in Portsmouth and there are all these local landmarks. Why did you decide to set this story in Portsmouth?
Well, so my first three novels were supernatural novels, they were supernatural stories. The first book is about a man who buys a ghost on the Internet, so it’s a ghost story. And the second book was about a man who goes on a bender and curses God and wakes up the next morning to find he’s growing horns and has all the powers of the devil, and so that’s a novel about the devil. And then the third book, “NOS4A2,” Nosferatu, is about a kind of vampire. In fact, he’s sort of a vampire car; it’s a car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline. So I wrote these three supernatural stories, and this time I wanted to do something that was a little more like Michael Crichton, something that was a little more grounded in science and what’s actually possible.
So I created fictional towns in the other three books, fictional locations. But I felt if I was going to go with something that was a little more fixed in the world of what we know, of actual science, of actual possibility, if I was going to do a story like that I felt like I wanted to set it in the world that we know as well. So instead of creating a fictional town I decided to plop it right down in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which is where I think probably 75 percent of the story takes place. So, you do have South Street Cemetery, South Mill Pond, Portsmouth Hospital — all those local landmarks are there in the story. And that was fun, too, because it gave me an excuse to sort of wander around Portsmouth and learn about the city.
There are so many books and movies and comics that revolve around the premise of some cataclysmic event or rapidly spreading disease killing off huge segments of the population. You’ve taken a very unique and original approach to that concept here, but why do you think readers and authors find this concept so appealing as a plot vehicle, this idea of apocalyptic events transpiring?
Yeah, I mean, on the one hand, it seems like we’re living in a moment where there is a lot of apocalyptic fiction floating around out there. And I attribute that to the fact that we’re all so connected and we all have so much information, and so we know a lot more about how fragile a happy, well-put-together civilization is, that the vast majority of human experience has not been what we’re living right now. It’s been a lot uglier, and could get ugly again pretty quickly.
So there’s that, but the other thing is, I’m not actually sure stories about the end of the world are all that new, you know? Those have been kicking around in pop culture and high culture for a long time, going all the way back to the Book of Revelation. And I think that’s because every generation is actually locked into an apocalyptic scenario. Sooner or later, you’re going to have your life and you’re going to live the last day of your life and then it’s going to be over. And that will be true for every single person in your generation. Eventually — I mean, it sounds kind of grim — but eventually your entire generation will be scoured from the earth, and that will be the end of the world for that generation. When you die, that will be the end of the world for you.
And so, when we tell a story about the end of the world, what we’re really doing is examining the certainty of your own death. And that’s a stressful thing to think about. Thinking about not being here anymore is upsetting. But we turn to fiction because that’s a safe playground where we can explore threatening ideas, and even have some fun with them.
In this case, you have a disease caused by a flammable spore that essentially causes people to spontaneously combust. There’s a lot you could read into that, the idea that the whole world is on fire. Did you have any particular allegorical message in mind with Dragonscale, or is it up to reader interpretation?
Well, you know, the bad guy in the story is fear. I’ve written stories where the bad guy was a ghost or the bad guy was a vampire. But in this, the enemy is fear. So you get the Dragonscale on you, this incurable spore, and it only reacts if you feel anxiety, if you begin to stress out. And when you’re beginning to feel those stressful emotions, the Dragonscale begins to smolder and smoke, and if you can’t control your fear you burst into flame, and that’s what kills you. And so, in a very real way, anxiety is the enemy in this book. And then the heroes of the story are all infected, they’re all contaminated with this stuff. And they’re being hunted by the healthy who know if you shoot someone who’s carrying the infection, they won’t ever burst into flames, they won’t burn down your neighborhood. And so, that’s fear, that the healthy are afraid of the sick and they’re reacting defensively and hunting them down.
Some of my motive in taking that angle was I was thinking about “Walking Dead,” and I was thinking about all those zombie apocalypse stories. What are these stories really about? These stories are really about the healthy recoiling from the sick, looking at the infected and saying, “I don’t want that anywhere near me, I don’t want them touching me. The world would be better if these things — they’re not humans anymore — these grotesque things weren’t here to threaten us.” And I love zombie apocalypse stories, but I’d rather be on the side of the sick.
And isn’t this kind of in the air these days? I mean, when Donald Trump says, “I don’t want Muslims coming to this country,” isn’t that kind of “Walking Dead” thinking? Isn’t that kind of this grotesque sort of, “I’m scared of these people, I don’t want them anywhere near me.” And, you know, that seems to me a very thin costume for stupid … reactionary thought.
That partially answers my next question, which is about the “cremation crews” and quarantine patrols in the book that are just as much a threat as the disease, if not more of a threat. And there’s this radio host who’s constantly dehumanizing people with Dragonscale and boasting about killing them. With the kind of rhetoric we’re hearing out there, it’s not that difficult to imagine this type of thing happening, if Dragonscale or something like it were a reality.
So there’s this radio shock-jock in the book called the Marlboro Man, and he likes to boast about all the sick people he’s killed, and about how he’s making America safe, he’s keeping America safe for the pure and the healthy. And, you know, if I could change one thing in the book — it’s too late now, but if I could — I would stick that guy in a “Make America Great” hat. Because that’s who he is. The Marlboro Man is the guy at a Trump rally who sucker-punches a protester.
Right. The political climate does make this book seem especially timely.
Well, you know, one of the other roots of the book, I was reading something about this town that’s encircled in wildfires. And when I started the book, it was during a presidential race, and the governor of Texas was out there on record saying that he didn’t believe in manmade global warming. And President Obama mocked the guy by saying, “He doesn’t believe in global warming — his whole state’s on fire!” Because there was this great wildfire roaring through Texas at the time. And, you know, I also wanted to write about our fear of an environmental catastrophe, which would lead to the whole planet burning up on us. It’s amazing to me that America has just sort of gotten used to the idea that certain portions of the country are going to be in flames all summer. When did we accept that as normal?
That said, all this stuff is in the book, but hopefully it’s subtext as opposed to text. Because my primary goal with the book wasn’t to preach a political point of view or make an allegory. Basically, you want to write a big action-filled science-fiction horror story where the pages fly. That’s the goal. And then if some of these ideas are knocking around in there and people want to talk about them or think about them, that’s cool.
While all these extreme hazards exist in the book, at the same time there’s this central character (Harper Willowes) who’s simultaneously dealing with all these very ordinary problems — marital problems, she’s pregnant and worried about her child’s future…
She doesn’t worry that much, and that’s one of the reasons I love writing about Harper Willowes. She’s such an optimistic, big-hearted person. I had more fun writing her than I have had writing any other character that I’ve ever worked on. And I really feel like so many of the apocalyptic stories we’ve had are so grim and dire, and Harper kind of gave me a chance to explore the sunny side of the end of the world.
I’ve heard other horror writers say that creating an atmosphere of extreme cataclysm also enables you, as a writer, to kind of amplify the ordinary problems that people have.
Well, when you’re faced with the prospect of the world literally going up in smoke around you, I think the question becomes, what’s important? The planet is the house and the house is on fire. What are you going to rescue from the ruins? What do you grab on your way out the window?
It’s kind of morbidly entertaining to see the pop-culture figures that burn to death in the book. Was there any tongue-in-cheek logic to the famous people you decided to kill off here?
(Laughs.) Not really. It was whatever came to mind at the moment. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to say any more than that, because I wouldn’t want to have any spoilers. But it was certainly fun to set this thing in the real world and imagine the repercussions of this kind of apocalyptic disaster rippling across pop culture.
This is your fourth novel. Do you take a different approach when you’re writing a 750-page novel as opposed to writing a comic or a short story?
Well, it sounds a little counterintuitive, but I think in a 750-page novel it’s even more important to step on the gas. Because a reader looks at those pages, and if things are moving slowly, if things are dragging, they look at it and go, “Boy, there’s a lot of this left.” Their heart quails and they put the book down and they pick up the cell phone. There’s so much to do, there’s so much fun stuff on the cell phone, there’s always a game of solitaire or Words with Friends or Twitter to look at. So that’s the level of distraction you have to fight. And the more commitment you’re asking from the reader, the harder you have to fight.
My approach with “The Fireman” was to treat it like episodes of a premium cable series, something like “Breaking Bad” or “The American.” So it’s divided into eight or 10 parts — I forget exactly how many — but each of those parts plays like a single episode in the ongoing show. And each episode has its own beginning, middle, and end, its own climactic set piece, its own concerns. And in that way the idea is to create something that’s episodic, where each part begins to accelerate toward its own ending, and then all the pieces work together to accelerate toward the overarching ending.
It’s interesting that you mention those TV shows. Your second novel, “Horns,” was made into a movie. Once you’ve seen your work adapted to the big screen, does that consciously or subconsciously affect the way you approach your work? Do you have it in the back of your mind that maybe this will wind up being a movie?
Uhmmm, it better not. I think if you start writing for the movies or you start writing for TV, that sounds like a way to write a really crummy book. You know, “The Fireman” has been optioned by Temple Hill of 20th Century Fox, and they want to have a big to-do for it. And that’s exciting. If it comes together, that would be terrific. But, you know, in terms of doing the work and writing a book where people hopefully are going to fly through the pages, the book has to really succeed on its own terms or no one is ever going to be interested in doing it as a movie. So, it’s sort of a paradox, but if you did want something to be adapted for a film, the best way for that to happen is to stop thinking about whether it’s going to be adapted for a film, and to write something that’s hopefully really entertaining and gives people a good time.
What kind of atmosphere do you like to be in when you write? Do you like total silence or do you listen to music?
I’m a big British Invasion guy, and I used to crank up the Stones when I was working. Mostly, the last couple years, I work longhand and … usually at least a chunk of the day I’m working on a first draft with no music. It’s a little easier to hear the lines in my head. Music makes the experience more fun, but maybe less productive. So, usually I’ll do the first chunk of the day with no music and then the second chunk of the day I’ll put a record on.
I write every day. I write on weekends. I write on holidays. It’s not a 9 to 5 job, so I also have a big chunk of my day to read and maybe take a nap or something, so that’s cool. But the flipside is it’s also not a job that it’s all that great to walk away from. It’s so easy to lose the thread of the story if you take five days off or something. It can be really hard to get things started again. You really have to work every day.
The other thing is, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t write every day. … When I sit down and I do a couple hours of work, I actually feel better about myself afterwards, and I like myself more.
You know how when the kitchen is a mess — there’s plates everywhere, there’s old food laying around, pans need to be cleaned, there’s piles of newspaper — and it’s like, after you clean up the kitchen you just feel better about yourself, you know? Basically, that’s what writing is for me, only the kitchen is in my head. And after I’ve done a couple hours of work, the kitchen looks good, and I like that.
You pointed to your father as an inspiration for this book. Do you consult with him often about your work and about writing in general?
Oh yeah, I talk to my mom and dad every day. They’re the best writing teachers a guy could ever have. There was actually a point a week or two ago when one of my boys was reading “20th Century Ghosts,” which is my first collection, one of my boys was reading “The Stand” (a novel by Stephen King), I was reading “Finders Keepers” (also by King), and my dad was reading an introduction I had written for some book. And I was thinking how funny that was that we were all kind of reading each other’s stuff. But that’s actually sort of common. … I finished a short story and then a novella, and my brother (Owen) gave me great feedback on both. He responded to each of the first drafts and made page-by-page editorial comments, and it was great. And I try to do the same for him. I’m very lucky to have so many family resources to talk about the work with.
“The Fireman” may be your most ambitious work to date. Do you know what’s next? Will you be returning to comics at all?
Yeah, there’s going to be a collection of novellas next year called “Strange Weather.” That’ll probably be out in the fall of 2017. So it’s four short novels all being published together under one roof. Three of those novellas are already written and the fourth is in progress.
Joe Hill will read from “The Fireman” on Monday, May 16 at 7 p.m. at The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth, 603-436-2800. Tickets are $13.25, available here. If you order a voucher for a hardcover copy of the book for $28.99, you can meet the author backstage and get the book autographed.