Joe Golem and the Drowning City opens with that dreary old literary device: a portentous dream. But it grabs the reader all the same, because the dream is more a memory than a set of convenient symbols to explain the novel’s thematic underpinnings. As a woman births something inhuman in an underwater chamber, watched by “crimson-robed figures” and chained to “Numidian marble,” we can almost sense the prose pulling at the lizard brain, switching to the logic of cosmic horror and lurid pulps. In this literary space, dream and reality are interchangeable, because here be monsters our collective subconscious has produced over centuries of storytelling.
In the grand tradition of monster fiction and myth, symbols are woven into the reality Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden have created in Joe Golem. A grief-broken heart is literalized within the creaking, sputtering chest of a man kept alive by enchanted clockwork. The terrors of a homeless teenager come to hissing life as masked bogeymen she comes to call “gas-men.” The environmental anxieties of our present age churn up in the rising waters that consume the authors’ vision of Manhattan as a post-cataclysmic “drowning city.” This is a world where the outlandish hopes and fears of humanity spring into existence under the stars. And it should be as familiar as plunging into a favourite couch for anyone who’s read Mignola’s brilliant Hellboy series or its spinoff B.P.R.D.
The story itself is simple. Molly McHugh is a fierce, intelligent 14-year-old runaway who’s grown up in the dangerous flooded ghetto of Manhattan. When Molly’s one friend and guardian, aging conjurer and spirit-medium Felix Orlov, is kidnapped by the “gas-men” of megalomaniac Dr. Cocteau, she embarks on a quest to get him back. Along the way, she meets undying detective Simon Church and his huge companion Joe, who want to get to Dr. Cocteau before he finds Lector’s Pentajulum, a heart-shaped artifact that holds the potential to communicate with Lovecraftian old gods that retreated beyond the veil of this universe aeons ago.
The straightforward story gives the novel the impression of a child’s nightmare, rife with archetypes gleaned from the darkest gems of myth, folklore, and pop culture. In the carefully shaded purple of Mignola and Golden’s prose we see the apocalyptic stylings of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen. In the gas-masked bogeymen and steampunk detectives and golems and heart-shaped McGuffins we see a myriad sources—pulp mags like Weird Tales, EC Comics, Victoriana, noir, the Kirby-esque grandeur and scale of Mignola’s own comics. This is the very definition of successful pastiche, taking as it does a varied collage of cultural elements to create a story that stands on its own, like Mignola’s own artwork and fiction.
It works because Mignola and Golden have written characters that give the tale a beating heart, animating what could have been a lifeless literary chimera. A deep melancholy underscores each of the novel’s POV characters, keeping them from adopting the simplicity of the monsters they face (elder gods are too complex and alien to understand, but their portrayal is fairly simple and recognizable in the generic context of cosmic horror). As a result, each of the “good guys”—Molly, Joe, Felix and Simon—is sympathetic and interesting, because each is powerfully invested in one or more of the other characters, exhibiting a moving loyalty and love for each other. These are people you can get behind, not shallow monster fodder. Even supervillain-monikered Dr. Cocteau reveals a certain logic and longing behind his admittedly monstrous actions, making for an engaging villain.
Fast-paced and entertaining, the novel’s an easy recommendation for fans of Mignola and Golden. YA enthusiasts will find that it doesn’t pander to the young, providing a dark, sturdy story that will appeal to teenagers and adults alike. It’s also a gorgeous tome to behold, not least because of Mignola’s always-stunning artwork. His black-and-white illustrations provide stark windows into the world of the novel, never giving away too much so the reader’s imagination has room to experiment. Interviewing Mignola and Golden, Joe Hill commented that “modern publishing [never] should’ve abandoned the pleasures of illustration.” Reading this book, one can’t help but agree. It’s a great fix for a comic-fiend like me, giving brief respite till the next Hellboy arc surfaces.
Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden’s Joe Golem and the Drowning City will be released on March 27 by St. Martin’s Press. To purchase it, click here.