Fear is underrated by most people. Fearlessness is what gets lauded. But fear is an essential part of a healthy perspective on life. If we don’t fear a hot stove, we may get burned; if we don’t fear wild animals, we may end up like one of those sentimental wilderness lovers eaten by Alaskan bears.
But nowhere is fear more absent these days than in regard to spirituality. Current writers and filmmakers (with rare exceptions) depict demonic and occult themes as being fascinating topics for fiction, but with no bearing on reality. This means that many of their efforts come off as curiously lightweight, if not dangerously blasé. But apart from the seriousness of evil on a moral plane, this lack of regard for spiritual danger results in works that are often artistically inert.
This is what makes the works of Tim Powers stand out. As a believing Catholic, his fiction straddles the eerie line between the real and unreal. Most of his books involve the occult, and the message is always the same: here be dragons. Do not touch. In Powers’ novels the unknown chaos of the occult may be seductive at first, but it always exacts a price, and often consumes what is human about those who are attracted to it.
His newest novel, Medusa’s Web, is a heady mix of Hollywood ghost story—describing long-lost neighborhoods and places as well as people—and an inventive revisionist take on familiar myths. Powers’ historical research is, as always, impeccable. As when I’ve read his other books, I occasionally came across some factoid or another that seemed just too far-fetched. “Oh come on, Powers is making stuff up now,” I think, and pull up the web to search for the incident—which invariably really happened.
Powers is known for this. In constructing his novels, he becomes a human Wikipedia: stumbling across some interesting incident or person from history and then cross-referencing it with other events and people. After building up an intricate web of facts, he weaves a theory around it and begins writing a plot. His geography and cultural research is also exhaustive, lending even more verisimilitude to his stories, as they all have a very coherent and solid sense of place.
In Medusa’s Web the plot threads together places such as Italy, Greece, and Los Angeles; and includes references to real-life people such as glamorous silent-film stars Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino, eccentric illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and even a brief appearance from Frank Sinatra.
A big part of the twisty enjoyment of reading a Powers novel are the surprises and mysteries that slowly make their shapes known as you read the book. So I’ll try not to spoil things for you when giving a summary of the plot:
Scott and Madeline Madden are returning to their Aunt Amity’s ramshackle estate, Caveat, in the Hollywood hills. They haven’t been there since the early 2000s. Summoned back after their eccentric aunt’s suicide, they are required by a clause in Amity’s will to stay for a time at Caveat with their reclusive and strange cousins, the beautiful but hostile Ariel and wheelchair-bound Claimayne. The return to Caveat begins to reawaken traumatic memories that Scott and Madeline had long attempted to forget, including the mysterious disappearance of their parents when they were children, as well as a strange eight-legged symbol on a piece of paper that both of them once glimpsed—a symbol that caused them both to have strange visions of another time and place.
After the symbols begin to reappear, the eccentricity of Caveat begins to make sense. Why are doors from long-demolished buildings lining the halls? Why did Aunt Amity obsessively watch the 1923 silent film, Salome? Pieces begin to fall into place.
The villains in Medusa’s Web turn out to be people just a few steps further along the road to oblivion than our heroes. Without spoiling things here: the eight-legged symbols provide a means of escape from self; but it is an escape that profoundly damages the humanity of those who use it. The more it destroys, the more the user craves the escape. Much like addiction to drugs or sexual excess, the only end-point is annihilation of self and of soul.
Powers’ previous novel set in Hollywood, Three Days to Never, was a novel that felt like a minor addition to his impressive body of work. Although his next, Hide Me Among the Graves (a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard), is one of his best, I was a little apprehensive about Medusa’s Web. Would it be just an enjoyable diversion, like Three Days to Never, or something more? After having read it and mulled it over a few times, I think it’s solidly in the “something more” column.
Medusa’s Web: A Novel
by Tim Powers
William Morrow, 2016
Hardcover, 368 pages
This review originally appeared in Catholic World Report. Reprinted with permission.