REVIEW SUMMARY: As in his novel Last Call with poker and tarot cards, and Hide Me Among The Graves with vampirism and malevolent spirits, in Medusa’s Web Tim Powers creates a unique “history”, this time around “spiders” that can transport one mentally through time, and wraps ordinary people into the discovery of and coping with the effects of that secret history.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Brother and sister Scott and Madeline return to their childhood home after the apparent suicide of their Aunt Amity and are thrust into the world of “spiders”, diagrams on paper that can transport one into the past.
PROS: Yet another in-depth “secret history” created by Powers that would be worth thorough and enjoyable exploration; believable flawed characters; the 1920s and Rudolph Valentino.
CONS: More Rudolph Valentino!
BOTTOM LINE: Blending old Hollywood, an occult obsession with time travel and possession with a maladjusted family, Powers provides a fast-paced vehicle for introducing a believable secret history.
There are several authors on my ‘must read’ list whose writing combines historical fact with some fiction or alternative view – Dan Simmons notably comes to mind with his recent works blending of history with fiction. But nobody succeeds at filling in the blanks in history with occult-ish secret histories like Tim Powers. His latest, Medusa’s Web, creates a world where abstract spider images can transport their viewer backwards and forwards in time, allowing them to view those times for longer periods than the few seconds they are “out” in their current time.
Scott and Madeline, a brother and sister with little success or happiness in their lives, have returned to their childhood home after the apparent suicide of their Aunt Amity to hear the reading of the will. For some reason their Aunt had requested they stay for a week, which is uncomfortable to them given that their parents disappeared from the same house, leaving their Aunt to take them in. They are greeted by their cousin Claimayne and his cousin Ariel. Claimayne is wheelchair-bound since they last saw him, and Ariel is alternately warm and hostile. Claimayne and Ariel are worried that Amity (Claimayne’s mother) left the house to Scott and Madeline and not to themselves.
Their Aunt has left them envelopes and as Scott opens his he is thrust into and out of body experience, caused by looking at the spider like drawing on a slip of paper.
“He tried to fling it away, but he couldn’t move. Inked on the paper was a jaggedly eight-limbed abstract figure, and he could feel a strong alien reciprocity between it and it’s reversed image on his retinas; the figures seemed to rotate, or to be about to, and the corners of the limbs were suddenly bristly with finer lines, and now it appeared to consist of a dozen fissipating legs, curling and spinning.” (Page 15)
Scott is thrust into the past, seeming to inhabit his Aunt…and learns that either his Aunt truly was crazy (or perhaps he is) or things at the old house are not what they seem.
The mystery of their Aunt’s death, and the renewal of the mystery of their parents disappearance from the same house interweave with Scott and Madeline learning and reliving the time transportation effects of the spiders (which they had stumbled upon as kids). There’s a power there than many might pursue, including Madeline, who remembers their childhood exposure to the one “spider” somewhat fondly, as a figure from the 1920s who may have been Rudolph Valentino and helped her cope…or it may have been just an imagined moment during a hallucination. Madeline’s obsession with this memory forces her brother Scott to stick around and try to solve the mystery of the spiders, of their Aunt’s suicide and of their parent’s disappearance.
Powers’ characters stumble through the plot trying to make sense of the warped reality they find themselves in, sometimes skeptical, sometimes accepting…always mirroring the reader. There is a dichotomy of addictions – the addiction and pursuit of many to the “spiders” and the time travel/possession that they provide (no matter the after affects), and Scott’s real addiction battle with alcohol, which ruined his potential marriage and his art career…and may have been brought on by his childhood exposure to the power of the spider drawings…which he spurns as he tries to spurn the bottle.
Every Powers’ book I have read prompts me to research the historical and occult/secret histories he interweaves to determine what is real, what is fiction…and what lies on the hazy borders in between. (This time my research included the “tarantella”- a dance out of Italian legend where people bitten by a local spider would dance in a feverish spastic manner to ward off the poisons now in their bodies, and Rudolph Valentino’s dalliances with “Spiritualism” (great article here, which even mentions a few of the other characters Powers’ weaves into the mix.)
The world he creates around the spider drawings is vast, with a long history, theories and secret organizations that are just lightly touched, hopefully setting up other Powers’ tomes in this universe.