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Smokin' Numbers: A Soundtrack for Joe Hill's "The Fireman"

The Fireman-Amazon Book ReviewJoe Hill's The Fireman is one of our picks for the best books of the month for May.

While writing The Fireman, Joe Hill listened to a number of songs, and he's compiled his playlist below. See how they inspired him during the writing of this twisty, engrossing read.


Smokin' Numbers: A Soundtrack for The Fireman

The way we did it when I was a kid, we used lighters.

The lead singer would take the mic; the lights on the stage would shift to blue; the band would play the first chords of their hit ballad; and all the lighters would come out. A stadium would fill with thousands of little flames, reflecting five thousand shining eyes.

In our modern day of no-smoking public facilities, people lift their cell phones instead, a sight I find eerie. Once, full hearts were represented by fire. Now, we express our deepest feelings with the cold glare of a raised LCD screen, suggesting a droid army worshipping their technocratic Gods.

You think you're an individual, until all those phones come out—yours too—and you discover you're merely part of a flock.

In my new novel, The Fireman, a deadly pathogen gets loose and infects millions. The medical term is Draco incendia trychophyton, but most people call it Dragonscale. Those contaminated with it develop black stripes with gold flecks on their bodies, oddly beautiful. When the sick feel stress or anxiety, the stripes begin to smoke. If the host is unable to control his terror, he'll ignite, burning to death where he stands. In short order, wildfires are roaring out of control all over the world. Fortunately, there's a way to suppress the symptoms of Dragonscale. My heroine, Harper Willowes, infected and pregnant, finds her way to a place called Camp Wyndham, where a small community of the ill have gone into hiding together. There she learns that when the sick gather to sing in a group, they shine. They don't need to raise their lighters to celebrate their shared song; they are the lighters, the Dragonscale on their bodies glowing like fluorescent paint. And this act of social bonding switches off the danger of spontaneous combustion…at least for a little while.

It's no surprise that music plays a central role in the narrative. But then, every story I've ever written has found its own soundtrack, and The Fireman was no exception. Writing is solitary, isolating work, and since the beginning I have used music to feel less alone. I work with Keith Richards chain-smoking on the couch behind me, sprawled out in that louche way of his. Ray Davies paces back and forth behind my chair, cracking his knuckles and restlessly tossing off wild, hilarious, unworkable ideas. Liam and Noel Gallagher cast vile insults at each other in the bathroom. Robert Plant has the giggles in the stairwell. They play and I light up and the work is easier.

Here are the songs that lit my way to the end of this particular book…a dozen tracks to sing around the vast bonfire of a burning Earth.

  1. "Chim-Chim Cher-ee" — Adrian H and the Wounds. Harper Willowes, the young nurse who drives the action in The Fireman, is a woman of boundless optimism and indefatigable decency. She also has a secret fetish for the soppy, sentimental musicals of the 1950s and 1960s. Not long after I started writing her I realized I was going to have to binge on old Disney soundtracks, which is proof I will suffer anything for my art. But YOU don't have to suffer through it. Instead, listen to this goth reimagining of Bert's song from Mary Poppins, as good as anything off a My Chemical Romance album. The cinders and smoke of the chimneysweep's life have never sounded so ominous.
  2. "The Kids From Yesterday" — My Chemical Romance. If there's one song in all of rock and roll that does what I always hope my books will do, it might be this one, with its relentless crunching beat, its unbearable sense of suspense, and its emotional vulnerability. This song thunders along like a two-ton, out-of-control Freightliner, coming to run you down.
  3. "Survivalism" — Nine Inch Nails. This is the ending we all fear, isn't it? That when faced with an unthinkable catastrophe, we will be reduced to the animals we always were, shoving down the weak and trampling over them in a frantic, panicked rush to get out of the burning building. In a crisis, living can be as hideous as dying.
  4. "Out of Time" – The Rolling Stones. For those who are stained with the Dragonscale, tomorrow is always an unlikely proposition. Everyone is out of time in this book.
  5. "Burning Love" — Elvis Presley. I'm not sure I really think love burns. Outrage and fear… that's what turns a person to human kindling. Still, no song has ever said "I'm hot for you, baby," as well as this one.
  6. "Fire" — Bruce Springsteen. Bruce does Elvis doing "Burning Love."
  7. "Romeo and Juliet" — Dire Straits. Mark Knopfler says here that he can't do a love song the way one's meant to be and I relate. If The Fireman is a love song (and I think it is) it's a damned peculiar one, and it was necessary to burn the whole world down to tell it.
  8. "Oh! You Pretty Things" — David Bowie. The children of Camp Wyndham, with their eyes like lamps, their mastery of Dragonscale, and their dreadful groupthink are, just possibly, the next rung on the evolutionary ladder. Make way for the Homo superior.
  9. "Save It For Later" — The English Beat. In the final days, wild rumors pass up and down the New England coast…rumors of an island ruled by original MTV VJ Martha Quinn, a place where the sick may find refuge. On Martha Quinn's Island, the suffering are comforted, the hungry are fed, and the local radio station plays nothing but the sunniest pop confections from the 1980s, all day and all night. Who knew the sounds of the English Beat, coming through a haze of static, could provide so much terrible hope?
  10. "Play With Fire" — The Rolling Stones. Mess around, you're bound to get burned.
  11. "No Good" — Kaleo. Of all the many threats Harper finds herself facing, the paranoid and fixated husband she left behind might be the worst, even more dangerous than the infection crawling on her skin. He's got a hate-on for her and a two-and-a-half ton truck with blood on the grille and believe me when I tell you he is no good at all.
  12. "Fire" — Jake Bugg. The musical equivalent of a last few embers pulsing in the darkness…and then fading away.


Here's hoping you find some stuff here to shake it to… and that you'll take a dance with The Fireman.

You and me, babe. How 'bout it?

Fire Truck credit Jen Salt-400


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