#WorldbuildingWednesday is a series of articles posted every Wednesday that flesh out some aspect of the Ascension Epoch’s shared universe.
In the Ascension Epoch, Harry Houdini is less known for his talents as a magician and escape artist than as a passionate critic of metahumans and one of the early pioneers of anti-talent tactics and technology.
Houdini was a skeptic set on exposing the fraudulent activities of many of his era’s spiritualists and mediums. Particularly in the wake of the Martian invasion, there were many hucksters and genuine, but unscrupulous psychics who bilked desperate people out of money and power, claiming to be able to put them in touch with dead relatives. Houdini’s crusade against these characters led to several contentious exposes and intense public confrontations, not all of which ended in Houdini’s victory. Stung by these losses and frustrated by the public’s continued support for his enemies, Houdini’s rhetoric became more strident and bellicose throughout the 1910s and ’20s. He enlarged his focus to include Talents in general, and railed against the threats posed by metahuman criminals. He warned of the rise of a supernatural elite bent on the domination of normal people, specifically naming the Pan-Germanic Empire and the Vril-Ya as perils to civilization. Some of the era’s more prominent talents and supernaturalists (notably Thomas Carnacki) went on the counterattack against his reputation and livelihood, actions which served only to steel his resolve.
Before the Martian invasion, Houdini dedicated himself to achieving feats equal or superior to those of Talent performers, and he often succeeded. Now, he used the same ingenuity and discipline that gained him renown on the stage to devise new weapons and tactics for mundane law enforcement to detect and defeat super-powered criminals. Supported by a core of concerned followers, he founded the Houdini Center for the Prevention of Paranormal Crime. The Houdini Center still exists today, notably compiling dossiers on paranormal criminals and reports on talent crime. Infamously, the Center often consults for oppressive anti-talent regimes like New England.
Today, many people still refer to those with zealously anti-talent opinions as Houdinis, and the term is especially applied to bounty-hunters and other professionals that specialize in hunting metahumans.
Comments: In real life, Houdini actually did embark on a crusade to expose phony mystics and mediums, and the facility with which he exposed their frauds alienated him from true believers in the supernatural, notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I find this aspect of Houdini equally as fascinating as his life as an escape artist, and it was natural to wonder how it might turn out differently in a world where people really did have psychic powers. The bit about his rivalry with Thomas Carnacki alludes to the real-life grudge apparently harbored for Houdini by Carnacki’s creator, William Hope Hodgson.
The idea of Houdini as a criminologist and fighter of paranormal crime should not seem far-fetched: today’s Free Book of the Day over at ForgottenBooks.com is a criminology text of his called The Right way to Do Wrong: An Expose of Successful Criminals.