NOT EVEN A PANDEMIC of spontaneous combustion can make me stop raving about Joe Hill's Locke & Key. The horror comic-book series followed the Locke family, who moved to their ancestral home, the magical Key House, after the brutal murder of their father. For its nearly six-year run, readers pored over the story's huge central mystery, which was filled with stomach-dropping scares and fear of bodily harm for beloved characters. So when I spoke with Hill from his home in Exeter, New Hampshire, I couldn't help but immediately ask him about the completed series, leaving the apocalypse of his great new novel, The Fireman, for second.
"That's the thing about Locke & Key ending. It did end, but it has a chance to live again in different forms, whether that's on TV or as an audiobook performance. There may be a chance in the future to do some comics about the earlier days of Key House and other families who have lived there and I look forward to doing that," Hill says. To know that artist Gabriel Rodriguez and Hill will unlock more doors in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, is a great comfort.
"It's as much his story as it is mine," Hill says. "We got to know each other over the years of working on the comic and we sorta wound up like an old married couple, finishing each other's sentences. As we began to work, I started to learn about the characters from the way Gabe drew them. I felt like whatever I was telling him about the characters, then he was turning around and telling me new things with his drawings."
While we wait for Locke & Key to reappear in comics or on TV (there's already been one thwarted attempt, but Hill is writing a new pilot as we speak), we have The Fireman to tide us over. "My first three novels were supernatural thrillers," Hill says. "This is more of a Michael Crichton science-fiction thriller type thing. Everything has a fairly concrete scientific explanation."
In the book, an infectious spore named Draco incendia trichophyton, or Dragonscale, is spreading like wildfire. Once the pathogen takes hold, people who experience stress start to smoke and smolder from the inside. The more tightly wound they are, the more likely it is that they'll burst into flame. Hospitals are burning, vigilantes are hunting the sick, and an enigmatic figure named the Fireman seems to be able to control his case of Dragonscale. Meanwhile, a young nurse named Harper learns she's pregnant and that her husband might be a raging asshole, right around the same time the spore's tattoo-like rash shows up on her skin.
In The Fireman, Hill is like a magpie with an eye for shiny stories—it's packed with allusions to Fahrenheit 451, Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, and some of his famous father's best work—Stephen King's The Stand.
"I don't think many people will see it, but structurally The Fireman is very similar to the first six Harry Potter novels," says Hill. "It uses a lot of the same scaffolding that JK Rowling used to construct her stories. When I was two-thirds of the way through I realized the book also carried a lot of echoes of The Stand, which is a book that I love. I decided to embrace it because that just seemed like it would be a lot more fun."
But while his new novel wears its influences proudly, it's very much a Hill creation. His characters are rich and funny and full of heart, like the Mary Poppins-loving Harper, who finds that the apocalypse brings out the best in her. Or Dumbledore-esque Father Storey, a benevolent religious leader in charge of a ragtag refugee camp. Or the British street punk figure of the Fireman, who might be the silliest, most likeable mythical figure in recent history. The Fireman shines with Hill's excellent grasp of story and suspense—it's a genre novel that's by turns horrifying, kind, and smart, teeming with themes of prejudice, anti-intellectualism, and social isolation. And like all of Joe Hill's work, it's also incredibly fun to read—the 750 pages flew by like a firecracker exploding. Why does all the good stuff have to end? And now we must wait for more.