On the surface, it may appear that Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola are trying to please too many audiences with their latest collaboration, taking an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that all too often results in art that is watered down and ineffective. There is, after all, a lot going on in Joe Golem and the Drowning City, including elements of steampunk, sci-fi, horror, post-apocalyptic fiction, and even a dash of Lovecraft for good measure.
However, once you take a look at the body of work these two prolific gentlemen have produced over the years, you realize that something like this book is the kind of thing these guys write to amuse themselves first and the audience second. Those are the circumstances under which good art is produced, and while Drowning City may not be a museum-quality masterpiece it's definitely one hell of a good time.
The titular "Drowning City" is lower Manhattan, now under water thanks to a series of earthquakes and floods in 1925. Despite the inherent difficulties of staying in a city where everything below the third story is now below sea level, people still live there. They get around by motor boats and catwalks; they scavenge and steal and scrape out a living while the "Uptown" portion of New York looks down its nose at them from its still-standing (and still dry) skyscrapers.
But this is more than a world of natural disasters. It's also a world where science and magic meet at mysterious crossroads. It's a world where a man mends his own broken heart with strange clockwork contraptions that keep him alive decades beyond a normal lifespan; where men in rubber suits and gas masks pursue magical talismans; and where a guy named Joe plies his trade as a detective while trying to deduce the origins of the dreams – or memories – that haunt him: visions of his own stone-carved hands plunging witches into the icy river waters of a long-ago village.
We're guided through this world largely by Molly McHugh, a scrappy 14-year-old who makes her living as an assistant to a psychic named Orlov the Conjuror. While presiding over a séance, Orlov is kidnapped by a strange contingent of men that Molly dubs the "gas men." These men work for the decidedly mad Dr. Cocteau, who has been watching Orlov in the hopes of getting his hands on a mysterious object Orlov possesses called the Pentajulum. Why does he want it, and how do Joe and his mentor, Mr. Church, get involved? I'll leave that for you to discover.
Mignola and Golden have crafted an alternate reality that's got plenty of bite and substance, and populated it with characters that are rich in motivation. Everybody is chasing something, whether it's Molly trying to recapture the closest thing to a father figure she has, or Joe trying to gain some semblance of peace and understanding about what he was and what he's become, or Cocteau and Church pursuing their own twisted versions of immortality. And all of this is set against a backdrop of corpses, ancient gods, angry spirits and giant slugs, lest things get too serious.
The prose is sharp and clean, always pushing the story forward even as it fills us in on important details from the past. The book is seasoned with plenty of illustrations, some in the margins and some taking full pages, in which Mignola breathes life into his and Golden's creations. Best of all, the door is kicked wide open for a sequel, which I'm going to start demanding now. More novels would be great, or Joe Golem and company could follow the lead of Mignola and Golden's Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire and live on in comics. Or both! We could have Joe's time as a witch hunter told in comics, and the books could follow the aftermath of Drowning City. Just as long as the stories keep coming, I'll take them in any format.
Reading Joe Golem and the Drowning City is an experience that's hard to come by these days, a pure adrenaline rush of pulp fiction and B-movie magic. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, then Joe Golem is your man.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.