Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers
“The past,” she repeated, “it is always out there, isn’t it? I hate now. I hate that whenever you look at a clock, it shows a different time. What’s the use of knowing what time it is, if it’s always changing? And it’s always later!”
Since The Drawing Of The Dark (1979), in which King Arthur and the Fisher King are woven into the tapestry of the Crusades, Tim Powers has become the master of the secret histories, in which fantastical elements are inserted into the gaps of recorded history to remind us how strange, frightening and inexplicable the world around us sometimes is. Powers helped to pioneer steampunk in The Anubis Gates (1983), which sends body-hopping time travelling werewolves to Edwardian England, sent Blackbeard and Ponce de Leon after the Fountain of Youth in On Stranger Tides (1987) and pitted Keats, Byron and Shelly against Lamia in The Stress of Her Regard (1989).
Powers uses the fantastic to help us freshly re-engage with the strangeness of history, something which is easily forgotten when history is confined to dusty textbooks. As his books move closer to the present, they remind us that the modern world that we take for granted is built on foundations laid by the horrors and mistakes of the past, and that the legacy of the past exerts an indelible influence on the world around us today. Declare (2001) recontextualises the Cold War as a hidden conflict with Lovecraftian cosmic horrors, Three Days To Never (2006) is about Einstein and the destructive legacy of nuclear science, and the Fault Lines trilogy (1992 – 1997) uses the link between the Tarot and poker to underline how the greed and decadence of Las Vegas and Los Angeles are built on their gangster pasts. Tim Powers’ most recent novel, Medusa’s Web (2016), continues in this tradition, using a story about time travel, Hollywood’s silent film era and Rudolph Valentino to explore Hollywood’s, and to some extent America’s, fixation on a lost golden age, its obsession with youth and immortality, and the human cost of addiction.
Appropriately for a book about Hollywood’s past, the set up for Medusa’s Web is one familiar from many old films and books: Scott and Madeline Madden return to Caveat, their old and creaky family mansion in Hollywood, summoned by the death of their Aunt Amity, who has stipulated in her will that they will inherit the estate from her, rather than her son Claimayne or their cousin Ariel, providing they spend the week at the house. Powers makes sure to include all the elements you’d expect from such a story – the resentful, wheelchair-bound Claimayne, furious at being written out of the will. Ariel bearing an ancient grudge but with a heart of gold. Scott and Madeline’s parents who mysteriously disappeared years ago.
This opening, which could be from one of Amity’s beloved silent films, lulls the reader into a false sense of security before things start getting much stranger. Amity and Claymaine are both addicted to spiders, geometric designs of eight lines on paper that are really two dimensional beings from another universe that impinge on our reality by folding time, allowing the viewer to experience non-linear time between spider-viewings. The end result allows people to travel through time to their own future, or, if another person has already used that spider, switch places with them in the past or the future. When they were children, Scott and Madeline accidentally looked at a spider connected to the Medusa, the original spider from which all the others are derived and which Amity was intending to use on her deathbed so that she could continue to live in the past. Amity has left spiders for Scott and Madeline so that she can live on by swapping places with them, but meanwhile Claimayne’s spider-ravaged body is giving out, and he’s on the lookout for a new body as well. All of which might give the impression that Medusa’s Web is overcomplicated and obtuse. Thanks to Tim Powers’ tight plotting and clear prose, nothing could be further from the truth.
Powers reveals the secrets behind the spiders piece by piece, never more than the reader can take at one time, as Scott and Madeline find out more and more about the predilections of their ancestors. Although all of Powers’ books are books of ideas, they also function as thoroughly entertaining action adventure romps, and Powers doesn’t skimp on those elements here. As Madeline comes more and more under the influence of the dead Amity, Scott finds himself embroiled in rival secret societies, a desperate hunt to find a stolen film reel and a breath-taking car and motorcycle chase as he races against time to save his sister from becoming permanently possessed by their aunt. It all culminates in a wonderful sequence in which Scott must trade places with his future self in order to rescue Madeline and Ariel from Claimayne, which is told as Scott experiences it in non-linear time. In the hands of a lesser author this would be hopelessly ambitious and needlessly confusing right when momentum needs to be maintained for the climax, but in Powers’ hands it becomes a thrillingly inventive and suitably twisty conclusion to the novel.
Medusa’s Web is very much about fixation on a lost golden age. The main characters are all defined by the scars of their past. Scott and Madeline may have left Caveat as soon as they were old enough, but it’s clear that both of them have been unable to move on from the wounds caused by their parents’ disappearance, or their experience viewing the Medusa spider. Madeline in particular remains haunted by her vision of being rescued by Rudolph Valentino. Ariel similarly has been unable to get closure on Scott leaving and being trapped with the bullying and condescending Claimayne. Caveat, appropriately for a place that represents the characters’ pasts, is haunted by the past; it is even physically made up of pieces of old dismantled Hollywood sets. Reality has thinned around the house due to the number of people who have done spiders in it and its connection to the Medusa spider, meaning that the past physically manifests around the house and its grounds.
The past can be alluring and seductive; Madeline compares walking back into 1920’s Hollywood to stepping into Narnia. However Powers strips away the rosy glow of nostalgia and the faded glamour of Hollywood’s silent era to reveal something sinister beneath. The book explores Hollywood’s fascination with and canonisation of its own past, and how this dovetails weirdly with its permanent fixation on youth and vitality.
Amity and Claimayne’s obsession with youth and the past is portrayed as something unhealthy and vampiric. Amity is much older than anyone realises, her longevity gained from using the spiders to prey on younger people, a technique that Claimayne has started to use himself. Powers’ description of spider users with their unnaturally young and wrinkle-less features brings to mind Botox users. The eternity promised to spider users is one confined to the past, an eternity spent in other people’s experiences and memories that consumes the identity of the host.
Caveat’s original name, hidden by the loss of one half of the sign, is Caveat Progenies, which translates to “Let future generations beware.” Powers’ book becomes an exploration of the dangers, culturally and personally, of being unable to shake off your past. Claimayne and Amity, despite their powers, are so tethered to the past that they have no future. Indeed, for all its power to haunt and possess, the past in Medusa’s Web has no physical permanence; all the places that Scott visits in his spider visions have been demolished to build parking lots and strip malls in the present.
The other major theme of the novel is addiction. Scott is a recovering alcoholic, Amity and Claimayne are addicted to spiders, and Ariel is a spider addict who is trying to give them up. The book is unflinching in its portrayal of the physical and emotional toll of addiction, as well as its exploration of the hows and whys that lead to people turning to vices like drink in the first place. Spiders, like alcohol and other drugs, offer a moment of blessed release from your own identity. It is this, rather than the powers of time travel, that attract Ariel to them, feeling abandoned by Scott and spending all her time with Claimayne, in much the same way that alcohol offers Scott a temporary escape from his failed marriage and abandoned artistic aspirations.
Even as spider users become addicted to the fix of taking a spider, the physical punishment on their own bodies becomes more and more taxing. Claimayne’s spider addiction is so severe he is confined to a wheelchair and physically dying, despite being not much older than Scott. Powers also explores the seedy culture that has sprung up around spiders, with ‘wheelbugs’, who are spider addicts who prey on other spider addicts, and spiderbite shops, which are magical shops that change location and sell paraphernalia to recovering spider addicts like warped glasses to help them avoid seeing spiders.
Underpinning all the complex time travel mechanics and symbolism is Powers’ deft characterisation. Happy endings never come easily in Powers’ books, and Medusa’s Web is no exception; Scott and Madeline’s sibling love is so strong that Scott is driven to a terrible decision in order to save his sister, and Claimayne’s character is a fascinating study of a person who is in the process of shrugging off his last remaining vestiges of humanity.
As with his other books, Powers has meticulously researched his time period, allowing him to seamlessly blend cameos from Rudolph Valentino, Aubrey Beardsley and Alla Nazimova into the wider story. Also on display is Powers’ talent for mixing genres. The book’s setting in a crumbling ancestral mansion with estranged family members is thoroughly gothic, whilst the reveal of the spiders as time travelling two-dimensional beings is science fictional. Between its memorable characters, skilful blending of genres and sheer sense of adventurous fun, Medusa’s Web is a delightful example of everything that makes Tim Powers such a compelling writer.