Marnie Surfaceblow: Haunted Hydroelectric Horrors (Fiction)

Long-time POWER readers may remember Marmaduke Surfaceblow, a fictional character whose engineering escapades were brilliantly portrayed in hundreds of stories published within POWER magazine’s pages over more than 30 years beginning in 1948. Today, the fictional series continues through Marmy’s granddaughter, Marnie, who is an engineering wiz in her own right.


Providing employees with a safe and healthy workplace is paramount. Never dismiss persistent workplace environmental complaints, no matter how “crazy” they may seem.

A lone SUV motored through wooded hills on a late October night. The woods were blanketed by fog so thick it sometimes obscured vision past the end of the hood. Maya Sharma, lead field engineer for Surfaceblow & Associates International, cautiously navigated the route while Maya’s boss and the company’s vice president, Marnie Surfaceblow, stared at the fog with wonder.

“This is great! The hills, the forest, the fog—and we’re hunting ghosts! It’s … it’s … like I’m back in the haunted woods of Scotland!” Marnie bounced in her seat with joy.

Maya frowned. “So … ma’am, our contract says we are traveling to this hydroelectric power station to both investigate and, um, I believe it says in the contract ‘exorcise, with all available resources’… ghosts. Why?” she asked.

Marine laughed and replied, “Because they’re ghosts! Will-o’-the-wisps! Specters, spirits, asuras, …”

“Forgive me, but I must a-sure you there are no asuras here,” Maya pronounced with confidence, then added, “Besides, I am Hindu, I follow Maa Kali, and asuras are terrified by her.”

“Ah … but does her mantle of protection cover you and your boss? I recall Kali used a trident and sword to fight asuras. I have a trident, although I didn’t bring it, but you don’t even have a single sword of your own.” Marnie paused and mused, “Isn’t your birthday coming soon?”

1. Marnie rigged up a unique “ghost detector” and connected it to her old laptop as an analyzer. Source: POWER

Anticipating an awkward moment in the near future, Maya quickly asked, “But ma’am, why would a physical object have any effect upon incorporeal objects?”

“Easy!” Marnie exclaimed with a broad smile and green eyes sparkling in the dashboard lights. “We use a magic sword!”

“We have neither tridents nor swords; nor will you find nunchaku, vials of blessed water from the Ganga, or anything unusual in our luggage. Please, no more talk about ghosts.” Maya focused on the road as the streetlights of Nixie, West Virginia, became visible through the thinning fog. Within minutes they reached their hotel and Maya parked under the front awning. There was some struggle retrieving their personal bags, as the SUV was packed with special equipment Marnie had brought. As they walked through the reception door, Marnie said flatly, “Oh, the hotel’s haunted too.”

“Of course it is,” answered Maya with a sigh.

Unsettling Occurrences

Maya warmed her hands with mint tea as she and Marnie shared breakfast at the hotel with two of their clients—Lead Night Operator Fiona Maus and Technical Superintendant Rhys Owens, who descended from Northumbrian steam engineers and Welsh miners, respectively. The breakfast buffet was unremarkable, save for Marnie horrifying the staff by filling her four-liter thermos with the “bottomless coffee” option. After the usual small talk about the weather, Rhys began sharing the backstory.

“The plant started as a run-of-river grain mill in about 1810, and we don’t know much ‘bout the history until 1892. Someone put a DC generator on the wheel, and gave the town the first electricity folks hereabouts had ever seen. It caught on pretty quick, so townsfolk raised money and dammed the river, flooding the upper valley. The dam wasn’t finished until 1910—there were lots of startup problems. The old-timers claimed river spirits cursed the dam,” Rhys said.

“Oh, nixies, hence the name of this town,” Marnie said matter-of-factly. “Yeah, nixies, naiads, and rusalka don’t like dams. Kelpies and undines can adapt, and Nessie has no problems.”

There was incredulous silence around the table, which Marnie seemed oblivious to. Fiona continued the story in relatively short order. “Operation started in 1913 with three active and one spare penstock. They chose these crazy 38-Hz AC generators, and with all four running they could reach about 20 MW. I see that look, Ms. Sharma, you’re thinking ‘why 38 Hz?’ No one seems to know, but rumors are that Nikola Tesla himself designed them. There’s another hydro plant in upstate New York using the same generators—I think it still uses them.”

Setting her coffee down, Marnie eagerly added, “It was when last I visited them. They’re incredible! The definition of ‘steampunk,’ worthy of Webster’s.”

Fiona nodded. “They worked, and when the grid settled on 60 Hz, we used leather-belt pulleys with about a 1.6 to 1 ratio for frequency matching. But, they were noisy, poorly-balanced maintenance hogs. So, in 1937, we got some New Deal money from the government and swapped three of the four turbine-generators with 20-MW, 60-Hz units. The fourth one …” Fiona trailed off and Rhys continued.

“We planned to change all four, but there was an accident trying to replace TG4, that is, turbine generator #4,” he explained. “Five workers lost their lives from a strange arc flash, and staff started talking about curses and water spirits. Plant legend says we left TG4 out of respect for the dead. The truth is we just ran out of money. Plus, using all four generators drains the lake too fast, so we let it sit.”

“So,” Marnie leaned forward eagerly, “tell us about the ghosts.”

2. Although Maya didn’t believe in ghosts, she was quite shaken when she saw a white image that she couldn’t explain near the control room. Source: POWER

“The first sighting was about two weeks ago, and since then we’ve had half the staff see or experience something unsual.” Pausing to shake his head, Rhys continued. “Something’s just plain wrong. Folks are getting dizzy, having hot flashes and cold chills, and just feeling like the whole world is out of order.”

“Welcome to menopause,” Marnie muttered just loud enough for Fiona to smirk and Maya to jump in. “But, why ghosts? There could be many explanations—environmental toxins, unusual lighting effects—why ghosts? Why would engineers in this age be believing in such nonsense?”

Fiona drew herself up and fixed Maya with a hard look. “I’m an engineer, too. I may have grown up with all these legends and myths, but … I’ve seen things during my night watch—six times now. And, no,” she said turning to address Marnie, “it’s not a ‘female problem.’ Most of the staff are men, and they see ‘em even more than the women.”

“Forgive me, ma’am, I believe your account implicitly.” Pausing from embarrassment, Maya added, “Can you please describe your experiences?”

“For example, last Friday morning, I was in the maintenance room planning for next month’s outage, and suddenly I felt sick, scared, like something was watching me. I called on the plant radio and asked the night crew what’s up, and about half the crew said they felt it too. And there I was holding the radio and suddenly I saw, um, a hazy white blob creeping along the wall, and some kinda shimmer. After the shock I tried getting video on my phone. I sent you both the file, but there’s nothing there. I looked down when I heard someone yell they saw something, then another guy—three ghosts at once! And Rhys’ seen ‘em, at least a couple,” Fiona said.

Embarassed, Rhys muttered, “I saw something, I never said it was a ghost.”

Fiona shrugged, “They don’t make a noise. They don’t interact with physical things. As far as cold chills go, we tried to upgrade the HVAC six months ago, and it’s cold everywhere.”

“They may not touch anything,” Rhys added, “but they scare people, and plant staff need to focus on safety. Last week, an electrcian was on some scaffolding, got dizzy, and said something came at her. She fell ‘bout six feet, and now she’s on leave with a broken leg. That’s when we called you folks. Your group has a reputation for dealing with the unusual.”

“Well now,” Marnie paused, then said sternly with her green eyes hard as emeralds, “we’ll help your team focus on safety in two ways. First, you’re going to mandate that your staff tie off when they’re more that four feet from grade. And, of course, we’ll deal with the ghosts. We’ll follow you to the plant to et acquainted, come back early to take a nap, then return at about 10 p.m. to sit the night watch with you.”

As the four walked to their vehicles, Maya’s growing knowledge of American popular culture was just enough to know Marnie was happily humming the theme song to the original Ghostbusters film. It was difficult not to smile.

The Magic Circle

Staff interviews, operator logs, and Marnie’s unique ways of convincing even the most laconic plant staff to wax poetic revealed most sightings occurred in four interconnected rooms—most of those in a cramped parts storage room adjacent to the control room. The area in question became almost impossible to navigate once Marnie had unpacked her “special equipment.” Maya marveled at the instruments, while Marnie wove safety tape to create a 6-ft. barrier fence around an old wooden table she encamped at.

“We’re leaving nothing to chance,” Marnie stated after finishing with the tape. “OK, some things I bought because I always wanted them. Look, genuine storm glasses! These sealed vials of pretty floating crystals are supposed to predict the weather, but they only work via confirmation bias. Still, look at these other marvelous multitudinous measuring mechanisms—electromagnetic field meters, Geiger counters, 18 thermal imaging cameras, light spectral analyzers, and a special surprise,” Marnie pointed to a laptop older than Maya, wired by serial cable to a small box with a long PVC pipe running up to the HVAC ductwork. “Just don’t come any closer, or you’ll break my magic circle,” she said.

Maya looked down and was stunned speechless. Using safety tape and de-icing salt, Marnie had created a concentric circular design on the floor, filled with mysterious symbols written in sharpie pen. “What is …” Maya began.

Staring intently at the laptop, Marnie repeated, “A magic circle to help keep everyone else safe.”

“But, only you are inside. How …” Maya paused as Fiona, having entered the room bearing snacks and drinks, exclaimed, “Dear God! What are you doing and what is that on the floor?”

“Um, a magic circle. Do not cross please,” Maya said while passing Marnie her coffee. Maya kept her head down over her own laptop to escape the line of fire.

Surveying the cluttered chaos of equipment, Fiona gave Marnie a dangerous look. “Folks say you’re supposed to be the best engineer for solving problems no one else can, but why on earth do you have a …”

“Magic circle, ma’am,” Maya whispered.

A sudden chime from the laptop led Marnie to look at the screen and smile. Then, she looked around the room, suddenly freezing—staring silently at a far wall. An uncomfortable silence passed, then Marnie laughed and shook her head. “Wow. Hang onto your hard hats, ladies, because it’s spook central here—a regular hydroelectric Halloween!” she exclaimed.

“But, ma’am, there are so few facts. These events began 16 days prior. The only contemporaneous noteworthy event was TG4 came online 20 days prior. Why?” Maya asked Fiona.

“It’s the rainy season,” Fiona replied. “Generating an extra 5 MW is better than wasting that potential energy down the spillway, and our spillway is badly eroded. But we’ve been doing this for years, and no one ever reported any problems.”

Marnie shook her head, “No, Ms. Maus, something else changed since last year. We need to wait a wee bit more for confirmation, but I think this will be the last night for your ghosts. Meanwhile, we could pass the time by telling ghost stories.”

Seeing Is … Believing?

Just an hour later, as Marnie was providing Fiona with ideas for fixing the spillway, Maya returned from visiting the control room, looking clearly upset. She announced, “I have seen two, um, things … ghosts … and I feel quite unwell.” Maya dropped into her chair, trembling slightly.

As Marnie leapt through her magic circle to give Maya a reassuring hug, Fiona poured a hot mug of tea. “Maya, drink this, tea makes everything better,” Fiona said.

With a crestfallen tone, Marnie softly said, “I apologize, my child. You seemed so certain there weren’t any ghosts, so I didn’t warn you. I was sure Fiona would provide the confirmation I needed. I’ve been seeing them for the last hour or so, but being a subjective observer, I had to wait until someone else did.”

Fiona bristled, “You used us as lab rats?”

“No,” Marnie insisted. “Your family name may be ‘Maus,’ but you were no lab rat. I admit I created an atmosphere of uncertainty with my little stage-show,” Marnie waved at her equipment, “but that was just to dampen the tension from Maya and me being on-site. I think this can end now, because I know Maya very well, and I am fairly certain she recorded exactly what time she saw what she saw. Maya?”

Looking up from her tea, Maya said, “By my phone, from 3:21:17 until 3:21:35, when I started feeling very ill and could no longer look. I apologize.”

“Don’t apologize! Drink tea and relax,” reassured Marnie. She grabbed Maya’s phone, ran over to the laptop, and clapped her hands in glee. “It worked! Independent confirmation! Ms. Maus, the ghosts will be leaving tonight. Would you please turn off the air conditioner and assemble all available staff in the control room?”

The Big Reveal

A small hydroelectric plant requires few active staff, so everyone was gathered in the control room within 10 minutes. Marnie confidently strode into the room carrying her old laptop, the strange box, and its hose. She passed a stack of handouts to Fiona.

Standing before the operators and engineers, Marnie began, “I love detective stories. My favorite part is the big reveal in front of all the players. To begin, I’ll tell a story of my own. Many years ago, a bright and curious engineer named Vic Tandy found himself working in a laboratory building that was allegedly haunted—the staff saw silent apparitions, felt cold and sick, and worked each day feeling like someone or something was watching them. Tandy was a man of science, and while he didn’t believe in ghosts, he could feel the unease and tension in the room. And then, late one night, he saw a ghost.”

After pausing for dramatic effect, Marnie continued. “Being only human, his fear was strong. But his faith in science was stronger, so he assumed the most logical answer was that he was cracking up. Time passed, but the creepiness remained, until one day he mounted a fencing foil blade in a vice to cut threads for the pommel, and he saw it start vibrating by itself! Tandy did some experiments and calculations, and found there was a powerful infrasonic wave in the lab! The vibration was at 19 Hz, below the range of human hearing, and the source was a fume extractor fan,” Marnie explained. “Did you know that 19 Hz happens to be half the frequency of TG4?”

“Wait, you’re saying noise from TG4 is making us see things? And why now, a century after it was installed?” Fiona shook her head, and the crowd murmured general disapproval of Marnie’s theory.

“Many experiments have shown some people are sensitive to sound pressure waves between about 8 Hz and 40 Hz. They can feel chills, sick, and even see visions, especially around 19 Hz!” Marnie said. “As to why this is happening now, my guess was this, I noticed you completely replaced your air conditioner and ductwork about a half a year ago. So, I looked for what I call ‘the conspiracy of random events.’ That’s why I brought this gadget.” Marnie held up the mystery box with the hose attached. “An infrasound detector that can record sound waves to well under 1 Hz. I placed the sensor tube by your new HVAC ductwork, cordoned off the area under the vent, and waited. Sure enough, I saw the ghosts, and each time the meter recorded a peak of 125+ decibel sound at 18.9 Hz. But, since I was a subjective observer, I had to wait to see if others objectively saw something when the pulse peaked. Maya’s sighting during the next pulse was the proof, and details are in the handouts.”

Flipping through the pages in disbelief, Fiona said, “But, why now, and what’s making the noise?”

Marnie shrugged. “That’ll take some investigation. It could be a loose generator mount from the original replacement attempt, but most likely natural resonance from your frequency-matching pulleys finding affinity with the new ductwork. Maya ran some calculations for me and found if the speed of sound is about 1,100 feet per second, then you’ll find a 19-Hz standing wave in duct about 58 feet long, or 29 feet if it’s a half wave. Re-route the ductwork, add some dampening, or exorcise that old 38-Hz turbine generator to a museum,” she suggested.

The meeting was adjourned, and Fiona took TG4 offline for inspection. Other workers pulled out the drawings for the new HVAC system and started tracing the duct runs. Marnie and Maya were about to start re-packing all of Marnie’s equipment when Fiona walked over and offered her hand. “You’re a very unusual person, Ms. Surfaceblow, but I can’t deny your creative brilliance. Do you think your company could replace TG4 with something less haunted?” she asked.

Marnie laughed, “Only if you give me the haunted one as part of the deal. I have some … plans for it. Yes. That reminds me, Maya, did I ever tell you about the case of the speakerphone to the spirit world? That one was really …”

“No, ma’am, but please do not. I have had enough of ghosts—for this lifetime at least.”

Una Nowling, PE is an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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