The novels of dark fantasist Tim Powers often flow out of weird, grim moments in real history: the strange encounter of a fox and an English spy; the long lit matches burning in a bloodthirsty pirate’s beard. Powers’s latest book, Medusa’s Web, got its start when Powers encountered one of these disturbing little bits of trivia: Rudolph Valentino received Last Rites twice. Why? To answer that question, Powers spins a tale of family secrets and Hollywood ghosts–and an otherworldly, addictive substance, a kind of weaponized nostalgia.
Powers starts with the classic horror image of the crumbling old house. Caveat, the estate inhabited by cousins Claimayne and Ariel, is a rambling warren. The garages are filled with boxes of cast-off film props and possessions; a hallway is paneled with doors taken from other buildings–most notably the Garden of Allah, the apartment complex made out of silent star and producer Alla Nazimova’s home. The house seems to damage the characters’ psyches, keeping them strangely childish. Claimayne and Ariel are trapped in childish narcissism or adolescent pique. Madeleine, who escaped the house but now returns with her brother Scott to fulfill the terms of their Aunt Amity’s will, is capable of sudden bursts of childlike bravery and even the occasional act of adult acceptance. But she’s stuck in a kind of puppy love–for a man who died decades before she was even born.
Scott is the exception, a guilt-ridden grown-up. He’s the standard Powers hero, and if you liked the variations of him in at least eight of Powers’s other novels you’ll like him here: traumatized and slightly numbed, miserably prepared for self-sacrifice, semi-alcoholic, unshaved. Not civic-minded. Feeling mostly regret and protectiveness.
These four people have all, at some point in the past, used “spiders”: eight-legged designs on paper, which through an eldritch physics hook into your brain and drag you into a dimension inhabited by 2D beings. Through contact with these creatures you lose your own identity–only for a moment, but what a sweet moment!–and you can travel in time, according to rules I eventually gave up trying to fully understand. Imagine Flatland as a horror story; imagine time travel as alcohol. In their childhood Madeleine and Scott saw a “big spider,” the mother of all spiders, and the novel’s plot involves the conflict between factions that want to use the big spider to disappear into an endlessly-fragmenting past, and those who want to destroy it and close the pathway through time.
I’m an intensely nostalgic person (and, full disclosure, Tim Powers has done me several personal kindnesses) so everything in this novel about the dark downward pull of the past resonated deeply with me.
I live in my hometown, but it’s unrecognizable. The D.C. I grew up in, the Chocolate City abandoned to crack and the crime wave, is almost completely gone now. Replaced by vape bars and asana yoga. Outside the churches on Sunday mornings the cars with Maryland plates line up along the curb to take the grandmas who got priced out of their parishes back to the suburbs.
So too in Medusa’s Web characters are always trying to find the locations they visited in their visions of the past–only to find that the house was torn down to build the freeway. Or they think they’re looking for a hillside home, but Bunker Hill was flattened long ago. You can only see it now in the movies.
Medusa’s Web plays with Hollywood’s own sweet tooth for its past, for the Golden Age. The “spiders” are another kind of dream factory: They offer movie-like experiences, chances to live and relive a thousand lives. To live as a thousand somebody elses, and lose yourself.
These characters hate the clock, the hands that move “intolerabl[y] forward.” They long to go back to the world where parents were trustworthy, where every day was much like the day before, where everyone was still alive.
That longing for the vanished world is a longing for childhood, but also for death; and for an escape from responsibility. As a child you’re thrown into the world. You navigate it as a given. It isn’t something you bear responsibility for, something you created. Over time your own responses to the world shape more and more of your life. You begin to dwell in the consequences of your own choices. And so you have to accept guilt.
Medusa’s Web gleams with references to older horror tales: Salome, both the Wilde play and the Nazimova film; “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But it’s unmistakably Powers’s work. It has all those weird, knobby details he throws in–he never forgets that humans don’t just take otherworldly experiences on their own terms. We repurpose them and find their loopholes. We turn even aliens or magic into technology. So here we get the use of cell phone cameras in extradimensional travel; grenades, glasses with rippled lenses, computer keyboards that write on their own like a player piano.
The prose is in some ways clunky. Actions and driving directions are described in unnecessary detail. The mechanics of the spiders are sufficiently complex that characters have to re-explain them several times to one another, but even these repetitions didn’t get me all the way there in terms of understanding what these things do. Powers goes heavy on the italics for my taste. Most of this stuff I got used to by the halfway point of the book.
A deeper problem is that most of the climax can be seen from far off. Sometimes that’s satisfying–when you know what’s going to happen but you can’t imagine how–but in this case too much of the “how” involved especially abstruse descriptions of extradimensional space. New rules were introduced at the last minute in order to engineer the right ending. The characters make real sacrifices (though not enough for my taste! Powers is usually more brutal than this) but the biggest loss is left as an open question, which did not really work for me.
But Powers is always so terrifying when he’s depicting all the things we can long for, ache for, hunger for. His new book is a poignant look at the immorality of rejecting time, choice, and responsibility in favor of the amber glow of the past.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.