Steampunk: The fiction equivalent of fusion cuisine. In Joe Golem and the Drowning City, Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden have prepared an engagingly eclectic literary banquet. The authors’ highly entertaining tale integrates essential ingredients of a Steampunk novel. There’s alternate history – in 1925, Lower Manhattan is submerged under more than thirty feet of water; the result of a rising sea level and earthquakes. Horror isn’t neglected: As the title indicates, a golem is a central character in the narrative. Facets of the supernatural are prominent throughout the story line. Blending together ghosts, Cthulhu, occultists, and other staples from the dark fantasy pantry, Mignola and Golden amalgamate the elements with deft hands.
Chronicling the arcane adventures of Joe Golem and feisty 14-year-old Molly McHugh, emphasis is placed on their idiosyncratic friendship and respective histories. Molly has learned to survive in the dangerous universe of the so-called Drowning City. She shares a dwelling with, and is sort of a caretaker for, a fatherly magician-necromancer. The man who communes with the dead is beautifully described in this passage: “He had settled in the remains of the Crown Theater on Twenty-ninth Street in drowned and sunken New York, like just another prop forgotten backstage, collecting more dust with every passing day. It was like living inside the ghost of his onetime ambitions.”
He gets abducted by bizarre gas mask-wearing creatures, an event which leads Molly and Joe into a maelstrom of intrigue and menace. While searching for an artifact known as “Lector’s Pentajulum,” for example, the duo uncover a revolting find: “Inside the tree, the withered, mummified corpse of Andrew Golnik lay revealed, as though it had crawled up from the grave into the trunk of the tree. Frozen in grotesque, grinning death, it did not move, only lay in the peeled interior of the tree, its skin and hair nothing but wisps on the hideous ruin of a man.”
The corpse depicted is not the kidnapped man Joe and Molly seek. There is a different transformation in store for him. In the course of their risky undertakings, Joe and Molly form an odd bond. When the girl first meets him, Golem’s appearance is daunting yet human; a giant of a man with a pugilist’s face: “He didn’t frighten her, but he did scare her.”
As the narrative progresses, Joe becomes more golem and less human. His interior of clay and stone is exposed, and his personality is also altered. He knows he must protect Molly, but the reason for that mission is blurred by faded memory. The tender and touching relationship between the hulk of a guy and the fierce and wily youngster is splendidly conveyed. The ancillary personages who populate the yarn are also intricately etched and, speaking of etchings, the illustrations by Mignola add fine dimension to the book. Resembling woodblock prints from the German expressionist school of art, they punctuate the story perfectly.
Joe Golem and the Drowning City works on many levels. It is fun, exciting, and touches the heart. Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden finely fuse attributes of Steampunk, but never allow style to take precedence over substance.