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Literature / Medusa's Web

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Medusa's Web is a 2015 contemporary fantasy novel by Tim Powers.

Scott and Madeline Madden return to the strange house where they were raised by their Aunt Amity after she unexpectedly commits suicide and leaves her property to them, on condition they live there for a week. That means dealing with their cousins Claimayne and Ariel, who aren't happy about having their home unexpectedly willed away to the relatives who left years ago and never came to visit.

If they're going to live to see the end of the week, Scott and Madeline will need to uncover the truth about the house, the family's history in the underside of 1920s Hollywood, and the secret encoded in the legend of the Medusa.

Medusa's Web contains examples of:

  • Another Dimension: The plot involves other-dimensional alien beings. Invoked by two-dimensional diagrams, the beings in fact exist in only two dimensions, possessing only height and width, no depth — and no duration in time: for them, all times are the same, so if two people interact with the same spider at different times, it's in a sense the same interaction and makes it possible for the two people to also interact with each other.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: The art deco artist Aubrey Beardsley is said to have been responsible for reviving the Medusa in the modern world. Part of the plot involves the secret spiderbit subculture of 1920s Hollywood, involving Rudolph Valentino, the making of Salome (1923), and the mysterious deaths of Thomas H. Ince and William Desmond Taylor.
  • Code Name: The secret organization that's trying to find and destroy the Medusa uses code names from Greek mythology, with the one who seems to be in charge going by "Perseus", after the hero who slew Medusa in the myth.
  • Collapsing Lair: During the denouement, the house catches fire and burns to the ground. By that point, the survivors are quite happy to see it go.
  • Evil Cripple: Claimayne is wheelchair bound as a result of his spider overuse.
  • Exposition of Immortality: Scott realizes that Aunt Amity, supposedly born in the 1940s, was much older than she seemed when he sees a photo from the 1920s and realizes that not only does it depict the same room as a photo he has of his aunt as a young woman, the incidental details are exactly the same, down to the wrinkles in the curtains, suggesting that they were taken on the same occasion.
  • Familial Body Snatcher: Aunt Amity attempts to possess Madeline in order to have a healthy body with which to finish her unfinished business. In this case, the familial link is largely incidental, with the real factor that makes Madeline vulnerable being her encounter with the Medusa when she was a child, but it adds a creepiness to the fact that Amity really doesn't care how damaged Madeline might get in the process.
  • Fantastic Drug: Spider use can be addictive for some people. It's explicitly compared at several points with Scott's alcohol issues, and there are also analogies to the modern drug trade and to the other things that were being surreptitiously passed around in 1920s Hollywood.
  • Geometric Magic: The central premise of the story is the existence of "spiders", mysterious eight-spoked pictograms with a variety of arcane effects.
  • Grand Theft Me: One of the less savory ways the spiders can be used is to take control of another person's body. Usually this can only be done for a very short period of time, but there are ways to make it permanent, which are invariably bad for the person whose body it was.
  • Haunted House: The house, as a consequence of heavy spider use in one location over several generations, has an idiosyncratic relationship to time, with manifestations that get markedly more frequent and dramatic after Aunt Amity's death — one of them being that the sound of Aunt Amity's death is heard several times a day. Also, people look out windows and see the garden as it was twenty years ago, doors open into rooms that no longer exist, ...
  • Life Drinker: One of the predatory uses of the spiders is to maintain one's own youth by siphoning off youth from others. Long-term use of this method has recognizable signs, including complete baldness (which the practitioners may hide with wigs) and an unnatural smoothness of complexion (which in one case a character who's unaware of the real cause assumes, since they're in LA, is due to poorly-executed plastic surgery).
  • Literal-Minded: Madeline has trouble processing or even recognizing figures of speech and literary quotations.
  • Loony Fan: Aunt Amity's favorite actress is Alla Nazimova, the star of Salome (1923), whom she idolizes to a distinctly unhealthy degree. Her ultimate goal, even after death, is to use the power of the spiders to become Alla Nazimova.
  • Mental Time Travel: A significant use of the spiders; because of their unique relationship to time, looking at a spider somebody else has looked at enables mental time travel to those other times it's been looked at — those in the future as well as those in the past. Variations include riding along in another person's body, being able to take partial or full control, or even completely swapping places with the mind at the other end. Some people deliberately try to learn about the future by looking at a spider with the intention of keeping it safe until later and then looking at it again to provide a waypoint for their past self to visit; the novel showcases several ways this can go wrong, of which one of the less dramatic but more ominous is the one that's been increasingly happening... people looking to the future and seeing nothing.
  • My Grandson, Myself: A character who has extended her lifespan by using spiders to siphon youth fakes her death and returns as her own daughter.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Scott and cousin Ariel are attracted to each other, and end up together. It's pointed out early in the novel that they're not actually blood relatives, because Scott's father was only Ariel's father's brother by adoption.
  • On One Condition: Scott and Madeline will inherit Aunt Amity's property if they live in the house for a week. It's a trick by Aunt Amity so she can get her claws into Madeline. Also, as it turns out, the house burns to the ground before the week is up, although the survivors do end up somewhat better off than they started.
  • Portal Door: In the house, there is a corridor lined with old doors from other buildings, set into the solid wall with no openings behind them. At one point, Scott whimsically knocks on one — and it opens, revealing the house it came from seventy years earlier.
  • Psychic-Assisted Suicide: The predatory spider users who take control of others' bodies sometimes force them to kill themselves, either to stop them being a problem later or just to have the thrill of taking a lethal action without consequences. Claimayne tries it on Ariel when he realizes she's aligned herself with Scott and Madeline against him — which leads to Ariel and Scott realizing that he was responsible for his mother's "suicide" as well.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Aunt Amity's ghost has a penchant for quoting from "The Fall of the House of Usher", which offers some subtext about the house and its occupants and foreshadows the house's destruction at the end.
    • There's a passing mention of a spider addict using plaster to smooth out the angles formed by walls and ceilings to prevent any of them coincidentally forming a spiderish configuration, which is a detail from "The Hounds of Tindalos", another horror story about inimical alien geometric figures.
    • When Alla Nazimova encounters an apparation, she mutters, "Thou art a scholar, speak to it", which is what one of the guards says to Horatio in Hamlet when they encounter the ghost of the old king.
    • Scott discovers a hidden collection of documents referring to the key players of the events in the 1920s by code names taken from Commedia dell'Arte, such as "Innamorati" referring to Rudolph Valentino and his wife.