The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a delightful and engaging read; a spellbinding ghost story in an alternate timeline filled with djinn, and automatons. Wit and humor, magic and science, secrets and revelations, tradition and upheaval; all combine in this investigative mystery novella by P. DjèlÍ Clark that will leave you craving for more.
“The Haunting of Tram Car 015 returns to the alternate Cairo of Clark’s short fiction, where humans live and work alongside otherworldly beings; the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities handles the issues that can arise between the magical and the mundane. Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr shows his new partner Agent Onsi the ropes of investigation when they are called to subdue a dangerous, possessed tram car. What starts off as a simple matter of exorcism, however, becomes more complicated as the origins of the demon inside are revealed.” – Goodreads blurb
P. DjèlÍ Clark is now on my auto buy list. I first came across his writing in the pages of the February 2018 edition of Apex Magazine with his story “Ghost Marriage.” Then I read his dark and exciting novella The Black God’s Drums which I loved. Now with The Haunting of Tram Car 015 I know that I’ll be soaking up every one of his stories I can find.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is actually the second of Clark’s novellas to be set in this alternate Cairo filled with djinn and automatons where the otherworldy live and work beside humans. The first book A Dead Djinn In Cairo (which I haven’t read) introduces this alternate world and it’s mysterious realities. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 seems to pick up after the events of A Dead Djinn in Cairo and introduces new characters who work in the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. While the events in A Dead Djinn seem to have more far-reaching, worldly implications, this installment is more localized and episodic, perhaps preparing us for greater things to come…at least I hope so.
This particular story focuses on Agent Hamed Nasr and his partner Onsi Youssef who are called in to investigate a haunted tram car. Only this tram car isn’t haunted by an ordinary ghost. It is possessed by a djinn. the elevated tram car can’t be used because the djinn threatens and chases everyone away. To get to the bottom of the case and remove the djinn, Nasr and Youssef will have to think outside the box. And time is running out. Both characters are fun to read and follow as they attempt to solve the case. Nasr is the more experienced and slightly older and wiser agent, and Youssef is the young and wide-eyed rookie with new ideas. Hamed though is the main character and it is his eyes we see the events of the story through. He attempts to do his best and keep a positive outlook while others he came up through the ranks with seem to get more attention and fame along with the more exciting cases. Hamed continues to show up, do his job as best he can, and focus on the case at hand. And then the haunted tram car lands in his lap. What seems a simple case at first may have more far reaching implications for his career.
I guess you would call this an example of Afrofuturism. I’m still not certain about the full distinctions of this genre but I think Clark’s work falls within it. This story, though set in an alternate past (a 1912 Cairo with all its sights and sounds and smells) really feels like it fits. It’s a mixture of urban fantasy and urban science fiction. And I absolutely love the world Clark has created. It’s a Cairo filled with tram cars on cables in the sky, airships that cross the globe, magical djinn that live and work alongside humans, and automatons (boilerplate eunuchs) that toil among them all. It’s a world where traditions of the past are crashing headlong into societal changes such as the suffragette movement. There are secret societies working behind the scenes, and new government ministries trying to oversee it all. This is a world where automation is powered largely by alchemy and a place where the supernatural and the natural are learning to live side by side after someone accidentally bore a hole into the Kaf and opened a doorway to the realm of the djinn. It’s a setting that is fantastical and magical and altogether wonderful.
As I’ve alluded to already, Clark’s writing is captivating. The mixture of the world building and his writing style take what would be an otherwise simple story and transform it into something more; something delightful; something altogether different and wonderful. And that’s really the case. By itself the plot isn’t complex. It’s similar to other investigative ghost/haunting stories. It’s what Clark does with all the other elements that make it stand out. His prose is just so easy to read and you find yourself turning the pages not wanting to set the book down. There’s humor, and pathos, and humanity, and action, all in measures that satisfy a day spent in reading pleasure.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also hit upon some themes and elements that make you stop and think. This is more than just the story it tells. Clark hits upon societal change as a marker of advancement. He does this in a number of ways, all revolving around the steadfastness of tradition and the sweeping impact that new developments have on society. A constant in the background of this book is the suffragette movement, where women are calling for the vote and the potential shift it may cause. It’s a world where people are still coming to grips with the powerful djinn in their midst, an event that occurred only some 40 years prior. It also challenges the the role of automatons by positing that anything that can think and make decisions for itself and is yet subject to the control of others is slavery. Notions of gender are also addressed with a character who may be a trans-djinn, or at least a non-binary djinn, something alluded to if not outright expressed. All of the above give added depth to the story and it’s world building as well as challenge the reader to think of ways alternate realities can be made in the here and now.
If you heaven’t read it already I encourage you to pick up a copy of The Haunting of Tram Car 015. It does not require having read A Dead Djinn In Cairo first though I definitely want to get that one next as it is not only set in the same alternate reality, but includes some characters found in The Haunting of Tram Car 015. I recommend this one for anyone who is already a fan of P. DjèlÍ Clark, anyone who enjoys Afrofuturism, anyone who likes a good ghost story/mystery, and anyone who just loves reading a fun and engaging alternate reality story. Oh…and did I mention it’s been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards for best Novella? Yeah…it’s got that going for it too. What are you waiting for…go read this one as soon as you can!
4 of 5 Stars
Author: P. DjèlÍ Clark
Series: Stand Alone
Publication Date: February 19, 2019