"Writers are like cultural sponges."

Ranging from J.K. Rowling to Ray Bradbury, Joe Hill is talking about the numerous authors whose works have inspired his latest novel, The Fireman.

"Most of my work has been a conversation about the books, movies, comics and music that I love," Hill says. "It's like I've managed to work in a question about The Beatles v The Rolling Stones into every single book, because that's one of my fascinations, and it's a cultural landmark that I keep returning to again and again."

The Fireman is set in a post-apocalyptic America devastated by Dragonscale, a pandemic that involves people randomly bursting into flames. It represents a departure from the more horror-themed subject matter of his three previous efforts, 2007 debut Heart-Shaped Box, 2013's NOS4R2 (pronounced Nosferatu) and 2010's Horns, which he describes as "a satirical work of magic realism".


"I love ghosts and stories about monsters under the bed but I wanted to go in a different direction with this book," he says. "I wanted to write something that was more Michael Crichton-esque, where everything is underpinned by at least vaguely plausible science. There's nothing in nature like Dragonscale, but all of its constituent parts can be found somewhere in the world of spores, so it has a more concrete base to it than the other books."

When I ask, "can you tell me if there have ever actually been any cases of it?" Hill is dismissive of any suggestion that spontaneous combustion is an actual phenomenon.

"There are stories but it's probably because their clothes had some kind of fuel on them," he admits. "When I was 12, I was convinced I was going to die after bursting into flames for no reason, which is where the book comes from. This fear I had for years that my own body chemistry would turn against me, and one day I would just ignite, which is a fascinating thing for someone going through puberty to believe; that your own hormones may set you on fire. Freud would have had a field day with that!"

The son of the so-called Master of Horror, Stephen King, the 44-year-old -- whose full name is Joseph Hillstrom King -- reveals his mother, Tabitha King, provided some invaluable input into the precise nature of Dragonscale.

"She can go into the woods and come back with a basket of mushrooms and throw them into an omelette or a tomato sauce, and she hasn't poisoned anyone yet!" says Hill, laughing. "She knows a lot about spores and fungal colonies, so I was able to mine some of that knowledge and then seed it through the book."

"In one sense, The Fireman is a response to Firestarter, which was about the idea of pyrokinesis," he says, referring to King's 1980 novel, and revealing it is also a reaction to 1978's The Stand. "I've joked a couple of times that The Fireman is my version of The Stand but soaked in petrol and set on fire."

In contrast to The Stand's harsher tone or Cormac McCarthy's relentlessly bleak The Road, Hill wanted The Fireman to offer a more optimistic vision. He wanted to argue against the idea that if the structure of civilisation collapses, people will give up on empathy and kindness. "That really is the message of most apocalyptic fiction; that at the moment of collapse we're all going to be at each other's throats for that last can of beans. I don't buy it, and I don't think it's true, as love, decency and a sense of humour are hardwired into humanity."

Indeed, according to Hill, The Fireman has more in common with the fantastical adventures of a certain boy wizard than it does with the grim scenarios of the likes of The Walking Dead.

"It may not be immediately obvious on the surface of the book but in the Potter novels, you have someone living in an unhappy domestic situation -- Harry -- who discovers that he is uniquely special, that there's something that makes him different to everyone else around him," he explains.

"In Harry Potter, it's magic and in the case of The Fireman, it's the fact that the lead character, Harper Willowes, is infected with Dragonscale. The hero then goes off to a secret community where everyone is different and strange, where they make friends and enemies and are confronted by a series of mysteries as they begin to learn about their own powers."

by Joe Hill
Hachette, $38