Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Book Review | Medusa's Web by Tim Powers

In the wake of their Aunt Amity's suicide, Scott and Madeline Madden are summoned to Caveat, the eerie, decaying mansion in the Hollywood hills in which they were raised. But their decadent and reclusive cousins, the malicious wheelchair-bound Claimayne and his sister, Ariel, do not welcome Scott and Madeline's return to the childhood home they once shared. While Scott desperately wants to go back to their shabby south of Sunset lives, he cannot pry his sister away from this old house that is a conduit for the supernatural. 

Decorated by bits salvaged from old hotels and movie sets, Caveat hides a dark family secret that stretches back to the golden days of Rudolph Valentino and the silent film stars. A collection of hypnotic abstract images inked on paper allows the Maddens to briefly fragment and flatten time—to transport themselves into the past and future in visions that are both puzzling and terrifying. 

As Madeline falls more completely under Caveat's spell, Scott must fight to protect her. But will he unravel the mystery of the Madden family's past and finally free them... or be pulled deeper into their deadly web?


Damn near a decade since his last standalone, two-time Philip K. Dick Award winner Tim Powers paints a characteristically trippy picture of modern Hollywood in Medusa's Web, a tense time-travel thriller about addiction and the fault lines that families straddle. 

The far-from-happy family at the heart of this narrative are the Maddens, under ancient Aunt Amity—a half-mad matriarch and erstwhile author who owns the deteriorating estate where the bulk of Powers' tale takes place:
Madeline had moved out of Caveat seven years ago, leaving her aunt with Ariel and Claimayne and the solitary writing of her endless unpublishable novels. Scott had left six years before that, to get married, though when that Louise woman left him he hadn't moved back in. (p.58)
Neither Madeline, an astrologer, nor Scott, an artist, had planned to come back to the moldering mansion they left so long ago, but Amity Madden's explosive suicide necessitates a reassessment. Her hastily-written last will stipulates that this house in the Hills is theirs to do what they want with if they can stomach spending a week within its walls—so home they go, much to Ariel and Claimayne's dismay.

Although Caveat has certainly seen better days, Ariel and Claimayne see it as their hard-earned inheritance. Understandably, then, they do everything in their power to drive Scott and Madeline away... until the same secret that tore the Maddens apart to start—a stash of so-called "spiders"—resurfaces, endangering everyone in the property in the process.

In the milieu of Medusa's Web, spiders aren't the arachnids the likes of us love to hate—or rather, they are, but they're also arcane illustrations that allow their admirers to briefly swap bodies with anyone else fool enough to have looked at them. Given that these spiders "were a sort of secret fad with rich movie folks in the '20s," (p.90) this leads to a tumult of time travel, and insight into the lives of such silent film stars as Rudolph Valentino and the alluring Alla Nazimova.

Scott and Madeline had only seen a single spider between them before begrudgingly coming back to Caveat. Claimayne and Ariel, on the other hand, have become addicted to these head-spinning visions in the interim. And alas, there are others like them; other "spiderbit" prepared to do almost anything to lay hands on a stash like the one that that sets Medusa's Web's markedly more standard second movement in motion.

All the while, the estate at the heart of the narrative is coming apart, as Claimayne explains to Ariel: 
"Somebody—was it Woody Allen?—said that time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once. Well, you and me, and my mother, and Art and Irina, probably, and even their two bungling curiosi children, all of us have so often used the spiders to make separate moments combine, in this house—made an hour of one day also be an hour of a later day—that time is breaking down, here, everything is beginning to happen at once. And so 1920 or '50 or '70 leaks into 2015 sometimes, even if no spider is being quickened in either time at that moment." (p.77)
To wit, time itself is catching up with the Maddens, not to mention an army of addicts itching for their next fix. Speaking of which: the notion of a new novel by Tim Powers, which to some, after so long, will not be dissimilar to the rediscovery of a choice chemical concoction. The only real difference is that he deals in ideas. Happily for you and me, dear reader, he has a whole lot in stock.

I was particularly impressed by the complexity of the web Powers constructs around his core conceit. Where there are drugs, there are addicts, after all—hence the spiderbit; and where there are addicts, there are specific symptoms of withdrawal, such as the sudden attacks Ariel suffers, or overuse, as embodied by Claimayne in his wheelchair. Medusa's Web also takes in methods of cessation by way of warped glasses that stop their wearers from seeing spiders, in addition to digging into the business of supplying said accessories from pop-up shopfronts that relocate regularly to stay a step ahead of any potential problems.

Sadly, this depth does not extend to the narrative's central characters, each of whom seems to have a single setting: Claimayne is cruel, Ariel is calculating, Scott is suspicious, meanwhile Madeline's the poor piggy in the middle. Most of the Maddens are embellished eventually, but it's too little, too late, I'm afraid, coming as this development does after a second act that sacrifices the wonderful weird of the first for the relative mundanity of melodrama.

Between my misgivings about the middle of Medusa's Web and the pedestrian nature of the major players, Powers' new novel has its problems, but when it works—which is initially, and again when everything comes together in the end—it's positively intoxicating, and replete with the Gene Wolfe-y weirdness this awesome author has made his name purveying.


Medusa's Web
by Tim Powers

US Publication: January 2016, Corvus
US Publication: January 2016, William Morrow

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