show all entries...

The Totally True Story of How I Almost Got Caught in a Tim Powers Ghost Trap

March 26, 2011 at 4:41 pm

About a year before I went to Australia, I read Expiration Date by Tim Powers.  The plot of this book revolves around the concept of sniffing or ingesting ghosts—absorbing their life essence to prolong one's mortal existence.   Among a certain set of connoisseurs, the demand for new ghosts has given rise to an entire market.  Which, in turn, means that people have developed methods for attracting and trapping ghosts.   

The depiction of revenant spirits in this book is haunting and lyrical; I'll never be able to see a homeless person without thinking of this book.  And, as in all Powers novels, the magic system is depicted in a way that makes everything sound entirely plausible.   Everything sounds obvious, like common sense, when Powers explains it.  Because of course magic works that way.  And of course you'd trap a ghost like that...

I'm lucky I read it before arriving in Adelaide.  (Which is a lovely city and I'm sure many of the people there are NOT ghosts.)

According to Expiration Date, ghosts are attracted to palindromes.  So people who trap ghosts for the purpose of selling them on the black market often mark their traps with palindromes.

Ghosts also find loose change irresistible.  They can't help but arrange it in neat little stacks.  So a good ghost trap will sometimes include a few coins that have been glued to the ground, because a ghost will get stuck there, constantly trying to move them.

Ghosts sometimes aimlessly wander the streets in semi-corporeal form.  They can be mistaken for the homeless, or for disoriented elderly folks.

Which is all fine and good, and which I thought was all fiction, until Adelaide.

Actually, it wasn't Adelaide proper.  It was a sunny little beachside suburb of Adelaide called Glenelg.

So there we were, sitting at a tram stop in this lovely residential neighborhood, waiting for the train to come and whisk us down to the beach.  It wasn't until I looked up at the sign for our train stop—right over our heads—that I realized Glenelg is a palindrome.  Which seemed pretty neat, because palindromes are cool.  And even though it had been more than a year since I'd read the book, for some strange reason my very first thought was this: Good thing I'm not a ghost, heh heh heh.

Not sure why that popped into my head.  But immediately after that I just happened to glance down at the bench beside me.  And noticed a bunch of spare change.

Crap, I thought.  There's a hole in my pocket.

Naturally I started picking up the coins.

Or trying... and trying... and trying...

Until I realized the coins were glued to the bench.

I'm pretty sure that for a few seconds I honestly wondered whether I'd somehow become trapped in a Tim Powers novel.  Which, I want to promise you, is a very freaky feeling.   But the train came, and we got on, and it became clear the ticket person could see us and interact with us.  Clearly we weren't ghosts.  So it was alll just a bizarre coincidence, right?

We rode the train to the end of the line, which is a boardwalk/retail area that runs several blocks toward the beach.  The first thing we noticed? A disproportionate number of older folks hobbling around with walkers. 

Sure, they say it's an area with many pensioners.  Were these kindly pensioners, or the dessicated husks of revenant spirits? 

It was one weird afternoon.  But I bought some very good chocolate, which more or less made up for the half hour of mortal terror.

[Reminder:  I'm giving away some books!]


Andrew March 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm
That is Awesome. This is right up my alley of knowledge and Now I have to check out Tim Power's book. Yay! When your life is settled or just plain boring and your not working on hundred of other MS or your own MS, send me a message and check out my unsellable Anthony stories, maybe get you some luck packets while you trap ghosts.
Ian March 26, 2011 at 5:32 pm
Maybe I wasn't caught in a Tim Powers novel at all, but an Andrew Ahn novel! That would be better because the latter makes for a much more compassionate world.
Steve Halter March 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm
That's pretty cool. I'd have been getting paranoid at that point. But, chocolate does always help.
Ian March 26, 2011 at 6:17 pm
You know what would have been a lot cooler? If I had told the story in the form of a song!
Steve Halter March 26, 2011 at 6:58 pm
Lol, that would be cooler. Of course, you got to hold a wombat on the same trip--hard to be cooler than that.
Brook March 27, 2011 at 5:26 pm
Adelaide has the reputation in the rest of Australia as the city of churches and serial killers. I cannot think of a better place to look if I was hunting for ghosts. Now I think I'm off to add a new book to my wishlist
Ian March 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm
I didn't know that about Adelaide! I had no idea. It reminded me a lot of southern California for some reason. The ghost thing would have freaked me out even worse had I known about the churches and serial killers. Yikes... I really like Tim Powers's books. If you do read Expiration Date, I hope you enjoy it!
ChiaLynn March 28, 2011 at 12:11 am
Well, churches and serial killers would fit SoCal, too. I first read Expiration Date not long before I went to visit my ex's family in Detroit, and visited the Ford Museum, which has (and I'm totally serious) the test tube containing Thomas Edison's last breath. I've been to a couple of bellydance events on the Queen Mary since moving to LA, too. I'm always peering into corners on that ship. Come to think of it, I haven't read Expiration Date since I moved to California, and I never did finish Earthquake Weather. I should put those on the list - it's always interesting to re-acquaint myself with stories set in LA now that I live here. The only other Powers I've read, and it's one of my favorite books, is The Drawing of the Dark, which is only kind of about beer.
brook March 28, 2011 at 3:38 am
I just ordered it, people tell me I don't need new books but they lie! Adelaide uses 'city of churches' as its tourism tagline, they do have a lot of beautiful historic churches and in modern times have sadly become the home of Australia's religious right. The serial killer thing is only half true, they don't actually have more murders than the rest of the country but the ones they do have seem to be especially bizzare or gruesome so it has that reputation. The more I think about it the more I think someone really needs to write a horror novel set in Adelaide!
Ian March 28, 2011 at 9:34 am
I've been to the Ford Museum! Which, yeah, kinda weird with that whole last-breath-in-a-jar thing. That actually is a plot point in the Tim Powers book. That's the thing I love about Powers-- he's so good at taking strange stuff from real life and somehow making it explicable by embedding it in a magical secret history. The world actually makes more sense to me when filtered through the lends of Powersian magic. Have you read Last Call? Because I will never, ever play poker on a houseboat.
Ian March 28, 2011 at 9:37 am
The serial killer thing is only half true, they don't actually have more murders than the rest of the country but the ones they do have seem to be especially bizzare or gruesome so it has that reputation. So it sounds like Adelaide (or, I guess, more correctly, South Australia) is to the rest of Australia as Wisconsin is to the rest of the United States. Wisconsin has a reputation (unfairly, but not without reason) for producing most of our cannibal serial killers. Wisconsin has also been in the news much lately after the recent election of an extreme-right governor. So I guess there are some similarities...
ChiaLynn March 28, 2011 at 11:02 am
I have not read Last Call! I shall have to remedy this.
Ian March 28, 2011 at 11:08 am
And I shall have to go read The Drawing of the Dark! I've always loved the play on words in that title.
Derryl Murphy March 30, 2011 at 7:34 pm
Someone may have said this, but my son is pestering me to go out the door to buy something for school: Expiration Date is the 2nd of a loose trilogy, Last Call, then Expiration Date, then Earthquake Weather. Wikipedia says it's called the Fault Lines trilogy, which was news to me. I wrote about Tim's The Stress of Her Regard at SF Signal. Partway down in this entry:
Ian March 30, 2011 at 11:11 pm
Cool! Clearly I need to read Earthquake Weather immediately. I'd heard that some of Powers's books were interrelated, but I could never remember which ones, or how. Now I'm dying to finish the trilogy. By the way, a few days ago I read your Big Idea piece over at Scalzi's blog about Napier's Bones. Sounds like a fantastic thing-- really, really looking forward to it. Congrats on the release!
Derryl Murphy March 31, 2011 at 6:49 pm
Thanks for that, Ian. Obviously a couple of people didn't think Napier's Bones sounded like a fantastic thing, but I wasn't about to pull a Howlett on them. BTW, you also need to read Declare, which rocks mightily: Kim Philby, the Great Game in the Middle East, and djinn.
Ian March 31, 2011 at 11:35 pm
Did people give you a hard time over on the Big Idea piece? Hope not. I really mean it when I say it sounds like something I'll dig. (I admit that I never went and read the followup comments for my own Big Idea essay; I tend to avoid reviews and such anyway. Not because I'm a standoffish jerk (though maybe I am) but because I just work better in a vacuum.) I have indeed read Declare! I love that book. I've been waiting for people to accuse me of trying to riff on that one in my own novels... as IF anybody could write like Powers.
Derryl Murphy March 31, 2011 at 11:56 pm
I wasn't reading the comments for reviews or anything, but to answer questions (you know: reader engagement). Someone scolded John for allowing such a horribly written Big Idea get through the net. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. Holly Phillips blurbed Napier's Bones by accusing the book of being "Tim Powers on crack." Which was an honor and a frightening weight all at once. BTW, I went looking for your books tonight and struck out, so I have to convince them to order some in. Shouldn't be hard.
Ian April 1, 2011 at 12:17 am
Someone scolded John for allowing such a horribly written Big Idea get through the net. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. Dude... That's just shitty. Don't let it get under your skin. Teh internets, ya know? There are always trolls, I guess. FWIW, I don't agree with that assessment of your Big Idea essay. Any comparison to Tim Powers is a huge compliment, in my humble opinion! So that rocks! Thanks for the kind words. I hope you enjoy Bitter Seeds (if you can get your hands on a copy).
Steve Halter April 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm
I thought the idea sounded really cool. I've got it on my iPhone now, in fact. I hadn't looked at the comments, but your reaction was just right. Who knows what set the couple of people off. Everyone else seemed to like it. Never really even occurred to me to criticize an authors idea--you either like it or you don't. By the way, Ian, the Big Idea was where I saw Bitter Seeds first. It's a really nice way for the author to tell what the idea behind the story is.
recent blog entries