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.
The Sound: 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?
Joe Hill: 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.
TS: 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?
JH: 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.
We turn to fiction because that’s a safe playground where we can explore threatening ideas, and even have some fun with them.
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.
TS: 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?
JH: 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.
I love zombie apocalypse stories, but I’d rather be on the side of the sick.
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 v