Joe Hill’s “Fireman,” Apocalyptic Terror | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, apocalyptic terrors lead me down a winding path.


Hill, Joe. The Fireman. Morrow. May 2016. 768p. ISBN 9780062200631. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062200655. HORROR
There are many routes to the apocalypse. Hill elects to take readers on a path that treads two lines: that humans have the intellectual and creative capacity to live with and manage any number of afflictions—in this case a spore that infects its human host and then sets it ablaze, and, in keeping with many other takes on the end times, that people are basically rotten. On one side of this divide are a small band of survivors who literally seek the light. On the other are a range of characters who use the dystopian moment to dominate, punish, and murder. With engrossing, stay-up-all-night pacing, stock characters worth cheering for, spellbinding worldbuilding, and a well-balanced mix of outrage, mourning, and hope, Hill’s novel places his fellowship into one troubling incident after another, while still deftly allowing them room to react to more than the death around them. These elements fill the page with characters trying to live as much as survive; it is their thoughts, action, longings, and memories that make this blend of horror, thriller, and fantasy such rich reading.


Cronin, Justin. The Passage. Ballantine. (Passage Trilogy, Bk. 1). May 2011. 800p. ISBN 9780345504975. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780345516862. SF/FANTASY
thepassage.jpg51616This dark, despairing genre blend, the first book in the “Passage Trilogy,” is a solid pairing for Hill’s work, as both novels feature comparable types of characters, lush settings, and a similarly addictive mix of road-trip/quest/survival story. Fans of intrepid kids will be happy with both picks, as will readers who appreciate the stalwart and smart characteristics of some adults. Those who delight in big books powered by a muscular pacing that pulls readers in its wake like a riptide will also be pleased. Cronin uses a broad frame to tell his apocalyptic tale of military-generated supercreatures that consume everything in their path—and turn the United States into a wasteland. And while Hill constantly reminds us that there is much more happening in any moment than can fit on the page, that is doubly true for this novel that traverses times periods and surviving clusters of humans. Note: the last book in the trilogy, The City of Mirrors, releases May 24.

Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars. 2013. Vintage. May 2013. 336p. ISBN 9780307950475. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780307960931. F
dogstars.jpg51616For readers who enjoyed the deep humanity of The Fireman, as well as its stress on possibility and its elegiac edge, Heller’s debut novel might be a strong next choice. Told in the first person, it features Hig, a pilot and fisherman trying to survive in a postapocalyptic world. As companions Hig has his beloved dog and the barely sane survivalist Bangley. The three reside in an airfield that they defend with ruthless and haunting efficiency. Those facts, as intriguing as they are, are not the most important aspects of the story. Rather, it is the ways in which Hig lives, and his courage to cast his mind to the future and build upon whatever shaky ground he can imagine there, that make this tale of solace and hope so resonant. A satisfying read written with grace and blunt lyricism.


Wellington, David. Positive. Harper Voyager. Nov. 2015. 576p. ISBN 9780062315397. pap. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062315380. THRILLER
positive.jpg51616Another immersive reading experience for Hill’s many fans is this zombie-apocalyptic thriller that puts a second-generation survivor on a desperate “stay-alive-while-traveling” road trip. The vividly set novel traces Finn’s odyssey from the security of a walled New York City across the vast plains of the Midwest toward some kind of refuge. The realm beyond the dubious safety of fortified cities recalls that of the film Mad Max, with bands of pirates, looters, and cult figures out for the kill—not to mention the zombies. Finn, very young and green when the narrative begins, must adapt and learn if he is to make it. The teachers he meets, for good and ill, are various and add texture to the tale’s coming-of-age elements. Like Hill, Wellington crafts a wonderful combination of pacing and high-anxiety plot. He similarly offers readers a character who is determined to become who he wants to be even as every action of the world demands capitulation.


Quammen, David. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Norton. Sept. 2013.spillover.jpg51616 592p. ISBN 9780393346619. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393239225. SCI
No one really knows where the arsonist spores come from that indiscriminately incinerate the population of Hill’s novel, but Quammen knows where the next pandemic is likely to be sourced—through animal infection. The Zika virus is in the headlines now, but Ebola, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) are examples of ailments that begin in other animals and terrifyingly reach the point of “spillover,” jumping to human hosts. In this globe-trotting tour, field researchers learn the process of spillover and pinpoint the places where it occurs as Quammen explains how humans are participating in their own infection through habitat encroachment, ever-growing populations, travel, and shipping. His account is reasoned, scientifically based, and deeply compelling, even as it prompts grave concern.

Shah, Sonia. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. Sarah Crichton: Farrar. Feb. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780374122881. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374708740. SCI
pandemic.jpg51616In The Fireman, Hill nods to the breakdown of society and early stages of the planet’s doom. In this nonfiction account, Shah looks back to history, specifically the age of cholera, to observe what happened when humans were dying in great numbers across the globe. She follows cholera from its 19th-century emergence in the South Asian waters of Bangladesh through the world’s major cities, where millions perished, to its most current reemergence in contemporary Haiti. Woven into that background are tales of other killers, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), and the West Nile virus, as Shah pens chapter by chapter the evolution of disease, from the bloom of infection until its end. She further traces how human societies respond to pandemic breakouts, for it is their actions that determine those who die and those who live. An excellent choice for Fireman enthusiasts who finish the novel wondering what could have been.


Brooks, Max. World War Z. Books on Tape. 10 CDs. 12.05 hrs. 2013. ISBN 9780449807897. $40. SF/FANTASY
worldwarZ.jpg51616Brooks’s reconception of the global zombie wars, narrated by a large-scale cast, has won multiple audiobook awards and well-deserved honors for its wonderfully achieved effects of story, characterization, and tone. Structured around interviews and testimony from the survivors, Brooks’s oral history examines the state of the world a decade after the zombie horde, millions upon millions strong, was finally pushed back. Sections also cover World War Z itself. The retrospective documentary frame of the story grounds listeners in the moment while producing a sorrowful take on the near annihilation of humanity. This audio version is simply stellar, presenting an atmosphere that is at once creepy and absorbing.

Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story. 10 CDs. 11 hrs. Recorded Books. 1995. ISBN 9781402553721. $111.37. SCI
Preston’s sensationalized 1994 best seller about viral outbreaks was one of the first popular nonfiction books to address pandemic threats and have a lingering effect on the public conversation around such possibilities. It became buzzy again when Ebola struck anew, sending the book back into readers’ hands, and doctors, nurses, and scientists into heroic action, while politicians flew into a kind of Salem witch hunt–level frenzy. The featured chilling, true-life thriller reports demonstrate how easily a spillover event could occur. Indeed, as Preston recounts, one near miss arose in Reston, VA, involving monkeys bound for science labs. Preston supports his horrific tale with grisly detail. Narrator Richard M. Davidson reads in a straightforward manner, emphasizing clarity with a pace that pulls readers along.


28 Days Later. color. 113 min. Danny Boyle, 20th Century Fox. 2003. DVD UPC 00024543475590. $14.98. HORROR
28dayslater.jpg51616For viewers who prefer a full-length feature film to an ongoing TV series, this modern classic of the postapocalyptic horror genre might serve. This smart, edgy movie considers what occurs after an animal-borne virus is unleashed on a population of the UK: a disease that turns humans into rampaging zombie killers. In the wake of this disaster and resulting social collapse, a group of survivors tries to find salvation and are led into even deeper danger. Like Hill’s novel, the film offers a stay-alive-while-on-the-move feel and all the tension fans want, while also reflecting on the fine edge of which society is knit. The quirky characters are more fleshed out than is typical in flicks of this genre, and a distinct cinematic style adds on layers of interest. If this works and patrons want more, point them to the sequel, 28 Weeks Later.

The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season. color. 292 min. Frank Darabont, et al, Anchor Bay. 2011. Blu-ray UPC 00013132264790. $16.99. SF/FANTASY
walkingdead.jpg51616The Fireman (itself already the subject of a film project) is likely to cause readers to desire additional end-of-times action. For that, there is little more in keeping with Hill’s attention to detail and voice than the ongoing AMC adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comics. Viewers will find the postapocalyptic zombie series takes a far more brutal approach than Hill’s work, which, while not lessening the threat, keeps the actual gore to a minimum. Still, this is a good pairing to Hill’s book for those who can tolerate the “death of the day” mentality of the show, the action, political tensions, moral dilemmas, and intricate worldbuilding. Readers and viewers will notice a few comparable events and myths between book and TV series, as Hill cleverly steers his journey of survival past the most common tropes in the subgenre.


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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at