In which we peek behind the curtain to dive into some of the inspiration and influences in my novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015. I’ll try to make it brief.
But don’t hold me to it.
Try the sudjukh.
Stay for the Zar.
*cover is courtesy of artist Stephan Martiniere.
As I’ve made plain to everyone who needs knowing–I wrote another book!
It’s a novella to be exact, called The Haunting of Tram Car 015.
Here it be:
Cairo, 1912: The case started as a simple one for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities — handling a possessed tram car.
Soon, however, Agent Hamed Nasr and his new partner Agent Onsi Youssef are exposed to a new side of Cairo stirring with suffragettes, secret societies, and sentient automatons in a race against time to protect the city from an encroaching danger that crosses the line between the magical and the mundane.
The novella came out from Tor.com Publishing one month ago, on February 19th, and returns to the world of my 2016 novelette, A Dead Djinn in Cairo. I’d been waiting to go back here in a big way for a minute, and finally made it. My hope is to have this story expand the boundaries of the world for readers and whet the palate for more. As I said before, it’s not absolutely necessary that you read A Dead Djinn in Cairo before The Haunting of Tram Car 015. But if you’re familiar with the original story–this novella makes the cameos and surprises sweeter.
So a few thoughts on inspiration and worldbuilding. Do my best to make em’ spoiler free.
Steampunk Tram Car–artist unknown.
Inspiration: Sometime in 2015 I sent the homie Troy Wiggins (ahem, World Fantasy Award winning editor of FIYAH) my story A Dead Djinn in Cairo to look over. The story was going in for a round of edits at Tor.com, and I was nervous. Tor.com was big time. It was what me and the muse had always talked about. What if the story bombed? What if everyone was like WTF was this hot mess? I needed someone to talk me down. Troy responded with a “you buggin. The story’s dope.” He pointed to one line in particular that caught his attention: “…watching aerial trams that moved high above the city, crackling electricity illuminating the night along their lines.” Said he liked that imagery. Somehow when I was fishing around in my head for what direction I wanted to take this new story, that popped in there. And I knew, right away, it was going to be about a tram car. Everything kinda went its own way from there. Inspiration be like that sometimes.
Sweet Sudjukh (sujuk) courtesy araratour.com
Sudjukh: Oh wait, also knew the story was going to involve some Armenian candy called sudjukh (sujuk). Why Armenian candy? Well, why NOT Armenian candy? You got something against Armenian candy? I was determined that sudjukh was gonna make an appearance in this story. If there wasn’t any sudjukh, there would be no story! It was that simple. Luckily, things worked out. Didn’t I just say inspiration can be odd? What’s sudjukh? A dry sausage. What’s sweet sudjukh? Something that looks like the dry sausage, but there’s no meat in it. Because as Rachel learned, meats should not be part of sweet desserts. Instead, it’s a deliciously addictive snack of hardened syrupy bits wrapped around walnuts. It’s Armenian. Also Georgian. And popular among other areas of the Balkans and Transcaucasia. The sudjukh I describe in the story tasted like the kind I’d first eaten–with bits of cloves and cinnamon. But I’ve seen others flavored with saffron and all types of spices. Anyway, would you believe the main ingredient is often Concord grapes? Here’s a recipe. Also, I’m absolutely open to new recipes to try so please–send em’ this way!
Cairo Tram, 1930
Tram Car Again: But why a tram car? Because it’s a setting I hadn’t tried before. Because this is a story set in a steampunk world, and though I like to dabble around with the magic parts a lot, wanted to do something around transportation. After all, most of steampunk is about transportation vehicles. Airships get all the big play. Decided it was time tram cars got their due. Also my story is set in an alternate early 20th century Cairo, and trams were pretty popular once in the city–as this article in Cairo Observer points out. I thought it was a way to pay homage to this vintage age in this alternative world. Plus, who doesn’t like trams? They’re small public transports that take you places and look cool AF. Oh, these trams are also located high up in the air and move along cables. Because that’s where I wanted them to be.
Originale photo 19ème Egypt – soldatsegyptiens
Hamed & Onsi: Like A Dead Djinn in Cairo, the story revolves around the exploits of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Because in this Cairo, there’s djinn who walk about freely and magic and what not. In that original tale, everyone got to meet agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi–she of the impeccable fresh n’ so clean, clean suits, bowler, and cane. I decided not to make Fatma the star of this story, but to go with two new characters–Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youseff. There’s a classic “experienced agent shows younger guy the ropes” trope going on. But between that I also wanted to give readers a glimpse of this world through fresh eyes. Hope you like these guys. Their uniforms were fashioned from a 19th century French photo of Egyptian soldiers.
Sketch art for A Dead Djinn in Cairo, Kevin Hong
Expanding the World: Before I began this story, I needed to really go all Silmarillion on the world building. I had some ideas rattling around my head since A Dead Djinn in Cairo, but I hadn’t committed them to paper. In one Saturday evening, I sat down and did it all–creating a timeline that really explained this world and expanded it dramatically. All of that isn’t in this story. Of course. But there are pieces here and there. The fate of a certain pasha. Some hints at al-Jahiz. And why “you let some people read Marx” remains a truism. My goal is to create a world bit by bit that feels believable without the dreaded “info dump.” So as you read, see what you can pick up. Hopefully the world I’m slowly building feels fuller and more tangible by the moment.
Sketch of opening scene of A Dead Djinn in Cairo, by Kevin Hong
Magic: So in case you ain’t know, there’s magic in this here Cairo. Forty or so years before the events of A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, the Soudanese mystic al-Jahiz through inventions, alchemy, and sorcery opened up the doorway to the Kaf–the other realm of the djinn–that sent magic pouring into our world. So now we have humans living alongside djinn, things that call themselves angels, and more. As I reveal in this novella, lots more. Because al-Jahiz didn’t just open the Kaf–he weakened the boundaries between us and the supernatural realm *everywhere.* What does that mean? I suggest you think big. And expand your horizons.
Steampunk: Alongside expanding this world, there are elements of steampunk in here from the original A Dead Djinn in Cairo–and some new things. It’s explained in both stories that a lot of the technological wonders in this alternate Egypt are the work of djinn–who have been sent pouring into the world by the long disappeared Soudanese mystic and inventor, al-Jahiz. Somethings that return include boilerplate eunuchs–the automatons of this world. There’s also some brief description of airships and lots of mention of clockwork machinery. Steampunk was my way of subverting Orientalist tropes in this world–making the East a technological power and leaving the old empires of Europe desperate to catch up.
Early Egyptian feminists- center, Huda Sha’arawi
Suffragettes: The story unfolds against the setting of some heady political winds blowing in this alternative Cairo. In particular, women are pushing to get the vote. So why have a suffragette movement going on? Why not? Modern Egypt had a feminist movement, usually dated as beginning with the Egyptian Feminist Union in the 1920s, with Huda Sha’arawi (Agent Fatma’s namesake) playing a prominent role. I figured with fantastic things like airships, djinn, and alchemy being the norm in this world, having the feminist movement start earlier that in our timeline shouldn’t give anyone pause. Because steampunk without politics is boring. But don’t think of these suffragettes as background, because they’ll end up playing a role that in some ways hints that the story was about them all along. But I’ve said too much.
Zar ritual, modern day Egypt. Photo: Yehia Tarek, courtesy of Al-Ahram.
The Zar: There’s a Zar in here, because of course there is. What’s a Zar? A ritual often led by women that seeks to aid various maladies of the body, spirit, or mind through the appeasement of djinn. At least in Egypt. It’s origins are disputed, though many trace it back to various rituals in the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia that spread North along the Nile into Egypt and eventually the Maghreb. I’ve always been fascinated by the Zar. The first time I referenced it was in a 2013 fantasy story called Ghost Marriage. I saw the opportunity to introduce it into this world in a meaningful way and to add some new characters while we’re at it. Tried to treat it with the care and respect it deserved–hope I managed to do so.
Ramses Station: A lot of this story takes place in (or around/above) Ramses Station. The real life Ramses Station (above) is a stunning bit of modern architecture that boasts an antique/ancient Egyptian style. I tried to capture this with a steampunk flair, as well as a nod to architectural styles like Neo-Pharaonic.
The front cover of the novella (below) features a look at this re-imagined retro-futurist Ramses Station–complete with a statue of the pharaoh, a steam engine, aerial tram cars, and airships, all showing hints of Neo-Pharaonic. It’s an ode in some ways to pioneers like Mamud Mukhtar–just a lot more fantastic.
I could go on. There’s lots more to talk about in the story. But if I do, I’m afraid I’ll give too many things away. So gonna stop there. Just to repeat: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is out! You can order at Amazon, Barnes & Nobles and other booksellers.
Want to read a really long excerpt? You can do that too, here.
What some more very nice people are saying about The Haunting of Tram Car 015:
“P. Djeli Clark once again blends his brilliant imagination with a thoughtful and complex historical analysis — not to mention plenty of heart — to weave a breathtaking tale of cities, spirits, friendship, and society. I love this story so much and couldn’t stop reading it, and I can’t wait to see what Clark does next!” — New York Times bestselling author Daniel Jose Older
“Utterly delightful, with a sly wit and a deep and satisfying take on alternate history.” —Kate Elliott, Nebula and World Fantasy Award-nominated author
“The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a witty, political, magical visit to an alternate 1912 Cairo suffused with richly imagined sights, tastes, and a dash of bureaucracy. Forget the Ministry of Magic; you want to be there when the agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities get to work on a case.” —Nebula and Sturgeon Award-winning author Sarah Pinsker
“Fast-acting and fabulous, Clark’s sequel to “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” adds fierce suffragists and squirming smugglers to his alternate Egypt, a place richly infused with alchemical steampunkery. Newly introduced Inspector Hamed and his rookie partner are sharply-focused moving pictures of persistence, doing their utmost to face down a terrifying spectral incursion. With all-encompassing craft, Clark shares the story of an investigation in which his heroes’ efforts and Cairo’s cosmopolitan nature work in sync to save the day.” — James Tiptree Jr. Award Winner Nisi Shawl, author of Everfair
“Clark (The Black God’s Drums, 2018) continues to astound readers with his creativity and exploration of different supernatural entities. While his first book delved into African orishas in 1871 New Orleans, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 introduces djinn, Asian spirits, and automatons….This book will delight readers of all ages.” — Booklist
“Fast-paced, elegantly structured, and with an eye for the ridiculous, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is an absolute pleasure to read. In Djèlí Clark’s hands, prose, characterisation, and worldbuilding combine to create a deeply enjoyable magical alternate-history procedural. I eagerly look forward to seeing what he does next – and I have to confess, I’m hoping for a full-length novel.” —Locus magazine