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'Medusa's Web' Tangles The Occult And Old Hollywood

Rain is falling when siblings Scott and Madeline Madden return to Caveat — the sprawling Los Angeles estate where they grew up — at the start of Tim Powers' Medusa's Web. As it should. Powers, a versatile author who's as adept at Gothic horror as he is at science fiction, historical fantasy, and supernatural thrillers, infuses his latest novel with the kind of rain-soaked, shadow-steeped atmosphere that saturates the best works of the Gothic canon. Instead of being set in some castle in the 19th century, though, Medusa's Web takes place in the present day, amid the memories and phantoms of the Hollywood Hills.

Old Hollywood, particularly the silent film era, factors heavily into Medusa's Web. Much in the way Powers depicted time travel back to Victorian London in his seminal 1983 novel The Anubis Gates, here he imagines a method by which Scott and Madeline — along with their reclusive cousins Claimayne and Ariel, who still live at Caveat — are able to leap backward and forward in time. It involves graphic, black-and-white images on small pieces of paper, abstract figures that the four Maddens refer to as "spiders;" when viewed, they cause the consciousness of the beholder to zip to either the past or the future for a brief glimpse.

If such monochromatic images seem eerily similar to frames of black-and-white movie film, it's no accident. Scott and Madeline's Aunt Amity, who recently died in an explosively gruesome act of suicide, was an author whose once-popular series of detective novels were set in the Hollywood of the Roaring Twenties, when stars like Rudolph Valentino made cinema magic. But a different, more sinister kind of magic is at play when Scott finds one of Aunt Amity's writing tools — and it acts as if it's possessed. Underlying it all is a one-word enigma that seems minor at first, but that grows to become downright ominous: What is the noun that used to appear after "Caveat" on the lintel over the house's main entrance? Who is being warned, and against what?

Powers does more than just spin a gripping, spine-tingling yarn. He approaches fantasy and horror with the rigor of a science fiction writer.

A grand mystery ensues, one that leads into an intricate spell involving family secrets, covert societies, and the occult traditions that the decadent denizens of Hollywood's upper crust have long embraced in one form or another. But Powers does more than just spin a gripping, spine-tingling yarn. He approaches fantasy and horror with the rigor of a science fiction writer, crafting a consummate system of metaphysical magic that's far more immersive than simple abracadabra. It's fresh, thought-provoking stuff, even as Powers gleefully wallows in the most familiar of tropes, from the haunted-house motif — Caveat is a veritable graveyard for derelict bits of Hollywood, complete with hidden chambers, labyrinthine cellars, and doors that open into nothing — to loving references to bygone film culture, not to mention the vintage Gothic creak of Edgar Allan Poe.

"We're always describing the past, but we can't get to the past," laments Madeline, a professional astrologer whose own admittedly broad view of reality gets cracked open to an impossible degree as history begins to beckon to her. For all its chills and thrills, Medusa's Web is about the way the present superimposes itself on the past — and the way the past refuses to fade to black.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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Jason Heller