No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016/24: Medusa's Web -- Tim Powers

I can't stay here—spider visions, ghost cats, keyboards typing a dead woman's last-person novels! Back here at Caveat! It's my childhood, perversely served up as a living nightmare. I don't want to—I can't—walk any further into this impossibly animate decay. Vast forms, that move fantastically to a discordant melody ... [loc. 1486]

Scott and Madeline are orphans: their parents abandoned them back in 1991. They've had little to do with their cousins Ariel and Claimayne for years, but now their Aunt Amity has committed suicide (by hand-grenade, on the roof) and one of her last wishes involves the cousins spending a week together in Caveat, the decaying family mansion in Los Angeles, before the reading of the will.

Neither Scott nor Madeline is what you would call a success. Scott used to be an artist but descended into alcoholism. Madeline is an astrologer who's all too aware of the expired cosmology behind her trade. It probably doesn't help that, as children, both were exposed to 'spiders' -- in this instance, abstract multi-limbed images that can propel the beholder's awareness forward or backward into other times, seeing through the eyes of their past or future selves or of other observers.

A whole counterculture has grown up around the spiders, with 'spiderbit' shops where one can buy special glasses to protect themself against even a glimpse of a spider; tarantella MP3s, whose listeners can use the fast 18/8 beat to ward off the spiders' influence; rumours of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood which could exorcise a spider ... There's a mosaic of Medusa on the garden wall, and a lug wrench painted gold in the basement. And Aunt Amity's keyboard is still in use.

Medusa's Web is the best kind of horror story: there's a sense of growing menace which only gradually reveals its true nature and the extent of its influence. Though Powers references mythology, folklore and the occult, there's nothing supernatural about the villains of the piece. As in Declare, an assortment of unusual anecdotes and incidents -- Rudolf Valentino's last confession heard by two priests, the history of the Garden of Allah hotel, the tarantella in Ibsen's A Doll's House -- are shaped into a story that's more than the sum of its parts.

The 'old Hollywood' atmosphere reminded me strongly of something else, though I'm not sure what: perhaps Peter Delacorte's Time on my Hands, perhaps Kage Baker's Hollywood novels. (Perhaps, hmm, actual films set in prewar Los Angeles?) I expect there are a great many film references I missed, too. But Medusa's Web was a captivating and satisfactory read, a novel I finished in a day.

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