Misha Burnett on Why Appendix N Started a Literary Movement

Thursday , 19, January 2017 4 Comments

I have never owned a Dungeon Masters Guide.

I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the fall of 1975, when I started Junior High School. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It combined the backyard playing pretend that I have never outgrown with rules to settle those pesky “I shot you!”/”No, I shot you first!” arguments.

At the time Dungeons & Dragons was three small paperback books in a white cardboard box. I managed to acquire the original books as a birthday present, and I scraped up enough money for the official supplements; Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, Gods Demigods & Heroes, over time. Not an easy trick at a time when my income came exclusively from mowing lawns and the average job involved me having to make change for a dollar.

I never did get a DMG, though. The year that it was released, 1979, my parents divorced and my mother packed me up to move to the big city where I got to find out what real poverty was. Of course, Sid Vicious and Zeppo Marx both died in ’79, so I suppose I wasn’t the only one having a bad year.

So I have to admit that my first exposure to Appendix N was when I started reading Jeffro Johnson’s blog. I was a a gamer, off and on, in the intervening years, but D&D has since been joined by dozens of other options and I tended to play either science fiction or horror games, rather than heroic fantasy.

When I started reading the works that Gary Gygax had recommended in the DMG I saw that many of my own favorites made the list. John Bellairs, Frederick Brown, Fritz Leiber, Philip Jose Farmer, H P Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, Fred Saberhagen, Roger Zelanzy—all authors who have in some way inspired my own writing.

Reading Jeffro’s series of reviews I began to see why these works in particular were chosen.  There was a common theme of Heroic Fantasy—stories in which the protagonists were truly heroic and the worlds were truly fantastic.

I missed a lot of the controversy regarding Jeffro’s series simply because I don’t spend much time reading gaming blogs, but I did find myself asking, more and more, “Why isn’t anyone writing books like this any more?”

Evidently I wasn’t the only one. Spearheaded by the courageous and unapologetic Cirsova magazine, there is a growing Pulp Revival movement, a movement that I am proud to consider myself a small part.

My story “A Hill Of Stars, appeared in the first issue of Cirsova magazine, and the story was a deliberate homage to H P Lovecraft and E R Burroughs.  I set the story in an alternate Permian Era Earth which is inhabited by both humans and the Elder Races of Lovecraft.  That story has inspired other writers to set stories in what we are calling “The Eldritch Earth”.

I have some other stories that qualify–“We Pass From View”, for example, in the Sins Of The Past anthology, is a horror story told as an interview with a dying B-movie director and is a deliberate pastiche of the Weird Tales style.

The definition of Pulp Revival is still a very unfixed thing.  There are some characteristics that everyone who uses the term (and it seems to be gaining ground day by day) seems to agree on: action-oriented storytelling, protagonists with a clear moral compass, an element of romance in both the classical sense of decisive action as well as the modern sense of interpersonal passion, and an unapologetic view of violence as the proper tool for overcoming evil.

Action Oriented Storytelling:  Action-packed is almost a synonym for Pulp Fiction, but I think that Action Oriented Storytelling is more than just fights on top of speeding trains and blowing things up. What I mean is that the use of a character’s actions–in opposition to a description of the character’s feelings–should be the primary engine that drives the story.

Protagonists with a clear moral compass: What makes a character a “good guy” is overcoming  moral peril–what I call “a credible threat of damnation”. We don’t all agree on what is right and wrong, and what matters to the story is what the character thinks is right and wrong.

The reader should understand implicitly what the character will and will not do.  While no one’s moral philosophy is purely Manichean, there should be a clear line that the character is resolved not to cross.

The first two points lead directly into the next one.

An element of romance in the classical sense of decisive action: “Romance” in the elder sense of the word is difficult to define (which may explain why the modern sense has supplanted it) but both G K Chesterton and Ayn Rand have described it as a conviction that the universe is not what it ought to be and that this gap between what is and what should be creates a moral imperative to act.

A romantic hero is not able to passively watch injustice, she or he is compelled to do something.  Of course, it may be misguided.  It may, in fact, turn out to be exactly the worst thing he could have done, once he knows all the facts (which means that the same sense of justice will compel him to right the wrong he has committed).

As well as the modern sense of interpersonal passion: Pulp heroes are motivated by love.  It may be the sexual love of the brawny barbarian for the lovely and quick-witted princess, or it may be his comradely love for the soldier who has fought valiantly beside him. Love of home, of nation, of a way of life, all can compel a character to take up arms against an oppressor.

An unapologetic view of violence as the proper tool for overcoming evil: Not the only tool, or even, necessarily, the best tool.  A Pulp hero will often try diplomacy first, saving violence as a last resort.  However, the potential for violence, the willingness to use force in the defense of what is right is an indispensable factor in the Pulp Aesthetic. Reason is useful only against those who will be reasonable.  One’s convictions must be backed up by the courage to fight, or they are meaningless.

Now, I am not saying that all Appendix N stories necessarily exhibit all of these characteristics.  But I do believe that in reintroducing the lost gems on that list to new readers and writers Jeffro has helped to show us what has been lost to much of modern genre fiction.

What is lost, though, may not be gone forever.

The response that I have seen to both the original Appendix N stories and to those modern stories that have been inspired by the Pulp Aesthetic leads me to believe that what worked back then is working still and that people, maybe now more than ever, are hungry for Heroic Fantasy, strong heroes and fantastic monsters and the conviction that it is a good thing to fight for what is right and to risk death to protect others and to believe in magic.

Fortune favors the bold!

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    I wonder if it’s not so much “violence as the proper tool” as, simply, the fact that the protagonist MUST be willing to go to the very last resort to achieve victory without compromising that moral compass that’s so very important. I can conceive of a pulp story where no violence is needed, but I can’t conceive of one in which the protagonist fails to draw a line in the sand. The moral peril is the key I think.

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    Edit: the moral peril is the key, I think, along with the protagonist’s response to it: ie stay true.

  • I own lots of copies of the DMG, and I like Misha’s descriptions not only for literature, but for D&D. I have never cared for the all-talk style of D&D, nor for the “everything’s a gray area” style, and especially not “I’m Chaotic Neutral so I can do whatever I want” – the Everyone’s a Thug style. Heroes should be heroes. The only good orc is a dead orc.

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