a review of MEDUSA'S WEB by Tim Powers
For me, few literary activities are more satisfying than the reading of a new Tim Powers book, except perhaps the reading a new Tim Powers book several months before publication. (Full disclosure: I found an Advance Reading Copy on Ebay).
Powers doesn't crank them out. His last standalone novel was Three Days to Never in 2006. His last novel, Hide Me Among the Graves in 2012, continued a revivification of the vampire genre begun in 1989 with The Stress of Her Regard, and in addition to being a wham-bang horror novel it was a splendid portrait of pre-Raphaelite London. It should have won the World Fantasy Award. Equally powerful was the 2013 novella Salvage and Demolition, a dazzling farrago of Beat Poets, pulp SF and ancient Sumerian anti-Gods, wrapped up in a time travel tale to rival Heinlein's “By His Bootstraps.” His latest, Medusa's Web, delivers a high octane dose of Powersian weirdness and secret history, set in a modern-day Hollywood given to chrono-seismic upheavals from Hollywoodland of the 1920's, with Powers tackling spectral cinema in general and the Old Dark House Tale in particular.
The novel's first half concerns the reunion of four typically-wounded Powers protagonists, a brother and sister, and a pair of cousins, reuniting in the crumbling Hollywood mansion where they grew up. In line with the old chestnut, they're forced to spend a week in residence per the last will and testament of a recently departed relative (out of line with the old chestnut, she blew herself up with a grenade on the mansion's roof).
Aunt Amity was a novelist who spent her earnings making odd renovations to the house, fusing the structure with bits and pieces of old Hollywood landmarks. The resulting edifice is appropriately spooky and weird, with doorways fixed to walls, a prop UFO in the basement, and an abandoned apiary receiving much screen time. Poe is heavily foregrounded, with a character named Madeline and the crumbling estate referred to as the “House of Usher in the Hollywood Hills”, but it's the Poe of Roger Corman and other horror movie iterations that I was most reminded of, with Powers' pale and ageless Claimayne (though bald) a stand-in for Ernest Thesiger from James Whale's classic 1932 The Old Dark House (“It's only gin, you know. I like gin.”), as well as more questionable properties like House on Haunted Hill (1959), or the 1966 Don Knotts vehicle The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (Instead of a haunted pipe organ, Powers gives us a computer keyboard clacking away to ghostly fingers, transcribing the aunt's final tome, written, Powers tells us, not in first or third person but last person). Perhaps there's even something of the 1966 theatrical release Munster, Go Home!, where Herman, Lily and the gang inherit a lavish estate in Shroudshire, England and must battle jealous relatives trying to scare them out of hallowed Munster Hall. Then again, this might reflect my own dubious tastes in entertainment.
Needless to say, as always with Powers, there's a gonzo MacGuffin—here a lost film containing the essence of the Spiders, two-dimensional creatures that are graphical doorways into a dimension beyond Time. Copies of Spider-signs are black market fodder among the cognoscenti in La La land, and a mere glimpse of them on a slip of paper will jolt the user into Non-Being and Non-Time, where they can experience the Before and After of other addicts, feeding on their experiences and living, theoretically, forever. As one character explains, the Spiders see “every event here as the same event—and they impose that discontinuous experience on anyone foolish enough to participate in their perspective.” It's a conceit that Powers pursues in head-spinning ways. Addicts can wear warped glasses to remain immune to the Spider-signs; 'Spiderbit' stores crop up randomly along obscure L.A. streets, offering accoutrements to those in recovery; the rhythms of the tarantella—18/8—is one of the only ways to free yourself from an overdose (this last morsel delivered up by Rudolph Valentino, no less). Like the bottled ghosts in 1996's Expiration Date, Spiders are a potent metaphor for uber-rarified addictions, and a great enabler of complex and recomplicated plotting, better dramatized than synopsized (“When you lay it all out that way, it sounds—insane,” a protagonist states at one point).
The latter half of the book swaps out the Old Dark House chassis for that of a paranoid 'Seventies thriller, complete with a motorcycle chase along the L.A. river that Don Siegel or John Frankenheimer might have staged. Throughout, drama veers into melodrama and parody and back, with a healthy dose of humor and silliness, and a bittersweet core that grounds it. And all this is heightened by Powers' vivid sense of place. He's always been especially good at depicting Los Angeles and its environs, past and present, and here he lays it all out with the obsessiveness of, well, a Powers protagonist.
For me the first half, where we're dropped pell-mell into recomplicated complications without a net—shades of Powers' brilliant “Pat Moore” and “Itinerary”—overshadowed the second which, while entertaining, seemed the more conventional. But the finale crackles with genuine frisson as all the Spiders come home to roost, Past and Present duke it out, and a character is perhaps lost forever to the siren song of the silver screen.