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!]