When the apocalypse comes, it will be accompanied by Mark Knopfler’s guitar.
At least according to Joe Hill.
The horror and comic-book author's latest novel, The Fireman, is a fresh take on the end times mixed with 1980s nostalgia and a spoonful of sugar. The novel follows Harper, a Mary Poppins-loving nurse trying to survive a global pandemic that causes its victims to spontaneously combust. When she comes down with the disease herself, she is befriended by John, an English fireman and Dire Straits fan who has somehow learned to control the disease, called Dragonscale, and channel its destructive power outward. Harper joins a commune of other Dragonscale victims before embarking on a journey to find a mythical refuge for the victims, run by '80s MTV veejay Martha Quinn.
“It’s not your typical zombie apocalypse. It’s sort of a sunnier look at the end times,” Hill says in a recent phone conversation with New Times. “Fundamentally, I wanted to write about an optimist during the end-times, and the '80s were pretty optimistic at that time.”
Hill, who is coming to Changing Hands Phoenix on Tuesday, May 24, deliberately turned other 21st-century apocalyptic tropes on their heads in the novel. A lengthy section, with Harper leading the survivors along an abandoned highway to Quinn’s sanctuary off the coast of Maine, nods back to Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing The Road, only instead of facing cannibals barbecuing babies, the healthy people along the way give Harper and her friends food and encouragement to reach their goal.
At a distance, of course.
The biggest difference, however, is the focus of the novel. Harper and John and their fellow Dragonscale victims are the heroes, while the healthy survivors of the outbreak are the enemy, including Harper’s ex-husband, Jakob, who leads a cremation squad, hunting down the infected and executing them.
“I love The Walking Dead, and I love zombie apocalypse stories; Dawn of the Dead was one of the first movies to make a mark on me," Hill says. "But those stories often focus on healthy people who are terrified of being touched by the sick. You can’t treat the sick, they are hideous and have to be put down. And that Walking Dead fear is manifesting in real life. Look at a certain presidential candidate talking about building a wall to keep out Mexicans and Muslims.
"I wanted to write from the point of view of the infected," he continues. "Harper and John, they’re the zombies. They’re the underdogs, and if I had to choose sides, I'll choose the underdogs. I’d be on the side of the zombies,” he says. “It would be very easy to write it differently. If I’d written The Fireman like The Walking Dead, Jakob would be the hero. He would be Rick, fighting to save humanity.”
He also wanted to pay homage to the doorstop apocalypses that topped the bestseller lists in the '80s.
“Everything was bigger in the '80s. And The Fireman is a big doorstop of a book that recalls those big Armageddon-type books like [Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s] Lucifer’s Hammer, or [Stephen King’s] The Stand,” he says. “Books that were in vogue when Dire Straits was in vogue. And if the book is recalling the stories of that time, it seemed only appropriate to recall the music of that time as well.”
The Stand particularly resonates throughout The Fireman.
“I really wasn’t thinking of The Stand when I started The Fireman. If any Stephen King book was at the forefront, it was Firestarter, being able to psychically manipulate fire,” Hill says. “But when I was halfway, I started seeing the similarities. And when I saw there were these echoes, I needed to make a decision. I could run away from it, or I could embrace it, which seemed more fun. So I decided to have a little fun with it.”
So readers will encounter pregnant heroines in both, as well as deaf characters named Nick.
“He was originally Travis in mine, actually. I changed him to amplify those echoes,” says Hill. “But I also tried to subvert and undercut the similarities in other ways. So The Stand has a generous, matronly figure named Mother Abigail, and I have Mother Carol, looking after the infected. She’s very different though; she’s edgy, dangerous and afraid and more than capable of taking people’s lives.”
His homage to The Stand shouldn’t be surprising, however. Although he doesn’t make a big deal about it, Hill is Stephen King’s son.
“In truth, I think my mother’s writing has been a bigger influence on me,” he says. "But writing was all I knew growing up. Every dinner table conversation revolved around books, publishers, and bookstores. It was all we talked about. My whole family writes, and now we’re each other’s first critics.”
But Hill has intentionally avoided nepotism while forging his own career. He deliberately avoided mentioning his family connections when he started publishing short stories in the early 2000s; indeed, his identity didn’t come out until his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, was in stores.
“I wanted to establish myself on my own terms, so I didn’t make much hay out of my name, but Variety spilled the beans,” he says.
Ten years later, he is respected on his own. Hill recently guest-edited the inaugural edition of the prestigious America’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology, and has earned multiple awards for his novels. Additionally, his Eisner Award-winning haunted-house comic Locke and Key was picked up for a TV show earlier this month.
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And despite the accolades and bestselling books, Hill’s not-so-secret identity still isn’t that widely known.
“I constantly hear from people who picked up one of my novels, like NOS4A2 or Horns, because they saw it on the shelf and thought it looked interesting. They only discover who my father is when they saw the photo on the back. Or even better, when they Google me to find more of my books,” he says.
“It’s been a good pen name, and it’s cool when people know who I am. But it’s cooler when they don’t.”
The Fireman is available in hardcover for $28.99. Hill will be signing at Changing Hands Phoenix on Tuesday, May 24. Tickets are required, one free (admits two) with purchase of The Fireman.