An early cover of the King in Yellow, with Chambers' own artwork. Picture retrieved from

The King in Yellow’s New York

On #AnnotatedTuesdays, we will share a quoted passage from some public domain source that has informed some aspect of the vast cosmos that is the Ascension Epoch universe, followed by commentary on how we used it.

Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President Winthrop’s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s seizure of the Samoan Islands, had left no visible scars upon the republic, and the temporary occupation of Norfolk by the invading army had been forgotten in the joy over repeated naval victories, and the subsequent ridiculous plight of General Von Gartenlaube’s forces in the State of New Jersey. The Cuban and Hawaiian investments had paid one hundred per cent and the territory of Samoa was well worth its cost as a coaling station. The country was in a superb state of defence. Every coast city had been well supplied with land fortifications; the army under the parental eye of the General Staff, organized according to the Prussian system, had been increased to 300,000 men, with a territorial reserve of a million; and six magnificent squadrons of cruisers and battle-ships patrolled the six stations of the navigable seas, leaving a steam reserve amply fitted to control home waters. The gentlemen from the West had at last been constrained to acknowledge that a college for the training of diplomats was as necessary as law schools are for the training of barristers; consequently we were no longer represented abroad by incompetent patriots. The nation was prosperous; Chicago, for a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from its ruins, white and imperial, and more beautiful than the white city which had been built for its plaything in 1893. Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York, a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the existing horrors. Streets had been widened, properly paved and lighted, trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished and underground roads built to replace them. The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks which proved a god-send to the population. The subsidizing of the state theatre and state opera brought its own reward. The United States National Academy of Design was much like European institutions of the same kind. Nobody envied the Secretary of Fine Arts, either his cabinet position or his portfolio. The Secretary of Forestry and Game Preservation had a much easier time, thanks to the new system of National Mounted Police. We had profited well by the latest treaties with France and England; the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of self-preservation, the settlement of the new independent negro state of Suanee, the checking of immigration, the new laws concerning naturalization, and the gradual centralization of power in the executive all contributed to national calm and prosperity. When the Government solved the Indian problem and squadrons of Indian cavalry scouts in native costume were substituted for the pitiable organizations tacked on to the tail of skeletonized regiments by a former Secretary of War, the nation drew a long sigh of relief. When, after the colossal Congress of Religions, bigotry and intolerance were laid in their graves and kindness and charity began to draw warring sects together, many thought the millennium had arrived, at least in the new world which after all is a world by itself.
Robert W. Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations” from The King in Yellow

And so begins what may be the greatest piece of horror fiction ever. Strange, no?

Hildred Castaigne, the supremely unreliable narrator of this opening story, places it in 1920, but I’ve long supposed that it was actually written circa 1895, the year The King in Yellow was published. What is this strange, dystopian New York he describes? A mere invention of his Yellow Sign-induced madness or a maddening glimpse into an alternate future? Whatever Chambers intended, I have found this passage and the following descriptions of this alternate timeline intriguing, and I wanted to incorporate them into the Ascension Epoch backstory as far as consistency would allow.

Those who have read the appendices Copper Knights and Granite Men (set in New York, circa 2011) have already read some of the history of the Ascension Epoch version of New York, including its twists of fortune and somewhat unusual institutions. I will not recapitulate those details here. However, the post-Martian New York of the 1920s and ’30s bears some considerable resemblance to Hildred Castaigne’s vision. Although the technology and references to a long-dead United States are anachronistic, the political and social aspects are a fit for the quasi-fascist (the correct term in-universe is ‘Cabotist’) government of New England during that time. While the New England regime had not yet become the quintessentially racist, anti-talent, socialist police state made famous in the lore of the Boston Crab, it was well on its way. New York City chafed under the rule of New England and eventually seceded during the Pan-American War, only to be occupied by the Eastern Coastal Republic of America, until it finally secured its independence as a free city in 2011.

There are several other discrepancies between Castaigne’s hallucination and the New York of this time period. Most prominently, Germany never invaded the east coast; indeed, at this time, the resurgent Wotanreich was busy extending its hegemony across central and eastern Europe. However, it’s eerie how Chambers’ account mirrors actual (primary world) Imperial German war plans for invading the US, plans which were discovered only in the 21st century. As for General von Gartenlaube, he plays a significant role in the Great Eastern War, which broke out in 1929 (a topic that will surely be discussed at a later date).

However, there are also other points of commonality with the Ascension Epoch timeline. The off-handed mention of “the new independent negro state of Suanee” inspired me to create such a state in the Yucatan, but as a product of Confederate colonialism. Established in 1880, Suanee was a part of the Mexican Yucatan, then under Confederate occupation for some years, conceived as a homeland for freed slaves and a buffer against intransigent Tabascan and Mayan rebels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *