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Literature / The Haunting of Tram Car 015

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A haunted tram car? Or something a little more... off the rails?

“Good morning, unknown being,” he said in loud slow words, holding up his identification. “I am Agent Onsi and this is Agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. We hereby inform you that you are in breach of several regulations governing paranormal persons and sentient creatures, beginning with Article 273 of the criminal code which forbids trespass and inhabitation of public property owned by the State, Article 275 on acts of terrifying and intimidation of citizens…”
— Chapter 1, Agent Onsi Youssef performs a Ministry Standard Greeting on an unidentified spirit

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a 2019 novella written by P. Djèlí Clark, taking place in the same Alternate History Myth Punk version of Egypt as his previously published A Dead Djinn in Cairo.

The place is Cairo, the time is 1912, and the case is the apparent haunting of an aerial tram car. As the city simmers beneath the summer sun and the nation readies for a vote that could grant suffrage to half the population, two men are deployed to dispatch whatever spirit, spook, or specter is interfering with the public transportation system: Agent Hamed Nasr and his new partner Agent Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities.

But nothing is quite as it seems, and soon the case forces Agents Hamed and Onsi to explore a side of Cairo stirring with suffragettes, secret societies, smuggling rings, and sentient automatons as they a race against time to protect the city from an unknown supernatural force.

Chapter 1 of the novella is currently available as a preview on publisher Tor's website.

Tropes Found in The Haunting of Tram Car 015:

  • All Myths Are True: Several decades before the start of the narration, a wandering mystic named al-Jahiz opened a gateway to the realm of Djinn and other mythical creatures. Since then, spirits and magical beings previously relegated to the realm of myth have begun to appear more freely in the human world. Angels, Djinn, and other supernatural entities are a part of every day life.
  • Alternate History: In the world of A Dead Djinn in Cairo as in The Haunting of Tram Car 015, the sudden widespread manifestation of Djinn and other magical creatures and paranormal powers allowed Egyptian forces to resist British colonial rule in the late 1800's, establishing an independent state far earlier than in real life (where the independent Kingdom of Egypt was established in 1922, but continued to exist under a state of British occupation until 1956). Djinn, "angels", and various other mythical creatures are now part of everyday life throughout the Kingdom of Egypt and beyond — institutions like Oxford and Harvard have even set up departments dedicated to the study of the paranormal. Embracing the Magitek/ Steampunk creations of the Djinn has made Egypt a leading cultural and economic power, with Cairo being compared to London and Paris in terms of influence and importance on the world stage.
  • Banishing Ritual: Downplayed — the Zār ritual that Sheikha Nadiyaa performs is designed to placate the spirit possessing or haunting a person, with the hopes that the spirit will move on if its wishes are met. She offers to attempt the ritual on the aerial tram car but it fails because the car isn't possessed by a regular spirit with unfinished business — it's hosting an "al," which is a kind of bogeyman that doesn't want anything except to eat babies.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Inverted — Onsi is a Coptic Christian, and among the religions discussed by Hamed and Onsi (including "Pagan" worship of the Old Gods of the Egyptian pantheon, and Islam) Catholicism isn't brought up.
  • Cold Iron: The shapeshifting, baby-eating, tram-possessing al can be defeated by any sharp piece of iron, even one as small as a sewing needle. Once the spirit is wounded, it must obey the command of the one who inflicted the injury. Hamed and Onsi vanquish the al by stabbing it with a knitting needle.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Onsi expresses excitement when he learns that Hamed was in the same graduating class as Agent Fatma (the protagonist of A Dead Djinn in Cairo), and wonders over the mysterious nature of her latest case (the events of A Dead Djinn in Cairo).
    • Both the characters of Siti and Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi make an appearance. "Siti" is the codename that Abla uses, while Fatma appears at the end of the story to catch up with Hamed.
  • Disguised in Drag: Hamed and Onsi disguise themselves as heavily pregnant women with long dresses, heeled shoes, and veils in order to draw out the al haunting the tram.
  • Eats Babies: The spirit haunting the tram car is an al. Alk are evil spirits that eat babies, even going so far as to attack pregnant women to get to the fetus.
  • Electromagnetic Ghosts: The al haunting the tram car is able to affect the car's Magitek inner workings, enabling the specter to control the tram's speed and direction.
  • Fembot: Fahima is a sentient automaton who has had her chassis modified to look more feminine — this includes a custom torso and a beautiful, decidedly female faceplate.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities.
  • Grow Beyond Their Programming: As Fahima (who is herself an automaton with a measure of self-awareness) explains it, there are only a few "Boilerplate Eunuchs" who seem to contain the inherent spark of life, the awareness of their own individuality, or the desire to surpass their programming. Even so the idea of sentient automatons who might demand things like wages, time off, or the right to vote (even if they are only a tiny fragment of the total population of boilerplate eunuchs) seems to distress Hamed.
  • Haunted Technology: The titular tram car is haunted by a spirit that attacks passengers.
  • Hiding in a Hijab: The disguises Hamed and Onsi have tailored to draw out the al include fashionable hats with gauzy veils that hide their faces. These veiled hats are mentioned to be a stylish accessory for fashionable women of the city, allowing the upper classes to follow the latest Parisian trends while maintaining their modesty.
  • Magitek: The advanced technology that makes Cairo a prosperous metropolis is Steampunk on the surface, but run by magical circuitry programmed into it by the Djinns who created the systems.
  • Occult Detective: In their role as Agents of The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, Hamed and Onsi undertake investigations into crimes and misdemeanors involving supernatural entities and magical elements. The novella focuses on their attempt to identify and dispel a supernatural entity that's haunting the public transportation system.
  • One-Steve Limit: Djinn never reveal their real name when dealing with mortals, instead using the names of mountain ranges, towns, or rivers to refer to themselves. When Abla asks if the djinn named Zargos she knows is the same Zargos that works at the Ministry, Hamed tells her they're probably not the same.
  • Our Genies Are Different: Djinn are powerful, nigh-immortal beings capable of casting magic. Their realm, or the Kaf, was once separated from the realm of man — it was the first of the supernatural planes to be brought into contact with the realm of man, and Djinn have lived openly among mankind for the past 40 or so years. If Sheikha Nadiyaa's claim of her family having worked with the Djinn Jizzu for generations is true, then Djinn were present in the realm of mankind long before the Kaf was opened.
  • Ritual Magic: Downplayed — the Zār ritual that Sheikha Nadiyaa performs has certain material components to it, like the application of kohl to a possessed person (or tram car, in this case) and the inclusion of musical pieces and dance steps, but those area means to an end. The dance is meant to allow Nadiyaa and her companions to identify the type of aggrieved spirit that's doing the possessing, with each rhythm and pattern meant to "reverberate with" and draw out certain types of supernatural entities.
  • See-Thru Specs: Spectral Goggles, specialized eyewear that allows ministry agents to perceive the supernatural.
    He reached into his coat to pull out the small leather case where he kept his spectral goggles. The copper-plated instruments were standard Ministry issue. They fit like eyeglasses, though the pronounced round green lenses were far wider. Onsi had removed his spectacles to slip on his own pair. Eyesight mattered little when it came to the spectral world—which appeared the same to everyone in a haze of startlingly vivid, luminescent jade.
  • Sex Shifter: Sheikha Nadiyaa's family has close ties with Jizzu, a Djinn who shifts between presenting as an incredibly beautiful woman and a distractingly handsome man. Though Hamed is unsettled by the Djinn's fluid presentation (and by not knowing how to refer to them), Jizzu has worked closely with Nadiya's family for generations and is comfortable shifting their presentation around Nadiya and her staff. Jizzu can even inhabit an in-between state, as when they face down the al in the tram after the failed Zār ritual.
  • The Suffragette: Whole crowds of them — the story unfolds against the backdrop of a national vote to grant women suffrage. Several demonstrations by women in support of the movement take place at the tram station. Hamed and Onsi also visit the Cairo headquarters of the women's' suffrage movement (as Sheikha Nadiyaa's office is located in the same building).
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The al can be neutralized with any sharp piece of iron — be it a dagger, a pair of scissors, or even a needle. Once the al has been pricked or stabbed it must obey the commands of the person who injured it.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Although they're only mentioned briefly at the beginning of the book, the zeppelins docked at Ramses Station add to the Steampunk flavor of the work.