Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Appendix N and the Real Story of Pulp Fantasy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 16, 2017

Okay, I promised a little more about Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons and Dragons by Jeffro Johnson this week. Last time, I discussed the ramifications on “old-school” gaming style, how the bibliography in the Dungeon Master’s Guide suggested a much wider scope of story and fantasy that early versions of D&D tried to encompass, and how Jeffro’s book provides a wealth of advice for players and game masters based (sometimes loosely) on ideas from these stories.

Setting all the gaming stuff aside… if I can… the book can be enjoyed by non-gamers completely on its own as a discussion of older fantasy and science-fiction (science-fantasy?) stories. Some of these stories originate from an era before the walls of genre and subgenre were erected… largely as marketing efforts by the magazines to carve out their particular niche in the pulp field. Some of the others are trippy works from the 1960s and 1970s dealing with drugs and / or an overpopulation apocalypse. Actually, there’s a good deal of post-apocalyptic fantasy throughout the list. Future fantasy?

In fact, most of the discussion about this book in the corners of the Internet declaring the #PulpRevolution have nothing to do with gaming, and everything to do with how this book has helped people rediscover a legacy of speculative fiction largely forgotten today. It’s exciting on two levels. First of all, rediscovering the past is always fun. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, for those who have survived on a diet of big-publisher science fiction and fantasy for the last thirty or so years, these older stories are as significant as the “indie revolution.”  It’s the discovery that these stories ever existed, and are so different from what has replaced them on modern store and library shelves.

Maybe it should be as much #PulpRevelation, huh?

Now, I grew up reading older stories from the “pulp” era.  These stories were from way before my time, but I didn’t know that. I read a lot of older books as a kid, because they were used books or the ones I found in the library, before the publishers started bloating the size of books (because the increase in size was a negligible increased expense on their end, but they could charge more for them). While my geeky friends were gushing over Lord of the Rings, I was reading Conan. (I loved LotR too, but I preferred Conan). At some point, I discovered Doc Savage, and read several of the novels, with no clue there were so frickin’ many books. In some cases, I really had no idea how old these stories were. I was barely a decade old myself, and so everything was old. In a couple of cases, I sought out stories as a teenager based on references in D&D, particularly Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series.

In other cases, I was later to the show, but still familiar with them before reading this book. I discovered Leigh Brackett a couple of years ago, and I’ve been enjoying her work ever since. She left behind a TON of awesome stuff, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Before that, I started reading the Barsoom and Tarzan stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs, and found them pretty riveting, nearly a hundred years later. And of course, I started digging into the old pulps myself, going beyond the “best of” reprints and reading some of the less-memorable stories of the era from digital scans of the originals… even collecting a couple of originals myself. And yeah… not everything from the pulp era was gold. But it has more than convinced me that the dismissive attitude of people towards pulp – using it as a derogatory term – is way off-base.

So I’m not completely unfamiliar with the type of stories mentioned in Appendix N. Few fantasy fans would be… Lord of the Rings is one of the series on the list. None of it came as a surprise to me. But there was a lot I haven’t read, and had no idea what they were. I have only started to delve into the stories mentioned in the book, but it has added a bunch of books to my already-oversized “to read” list.

I think like Jeffro Johnson and many others, I’d heard the name of Abraham Merritt (A. Merritt)  only in passing, and had no idea what a luminary he was in the pulp era. I bought and downloaded a collection of his work immediately after reading about him in Appendix N. I’m reading “The Moon Pool” right now, published nearly 100 years ago, and while I understand it’s an earlier work and not his best, I’m really enjoying it. It may have influenced H. P. Lovecraft’s later work. It starts in familiar territory for fans of movies like King Kong or the 1999 version of The Mummy. Or D&D players. Exploration of ancient ruins, something evil lurks behind / deep within, modern man vs. ancient magic (or in this case, ancient technology)… classic stuff.

But there’s a lot more like that (and better) reviewed in Appendix N.

The general view of the book, from the perspective of a well-read fantasy fan and gamer, seems to be: “Holy crap, I didn’t know this stuff existed, and it’s awesome!” That’s been my feeling delving back into some of the pulp-era stories as well. That’s probably why this book resonates so well with me. It’s like delving into an ancient treasure vault. Some of the more interesting notes from the books cited here: Besides less genre distinctions and more of a blend of science and fantasy, the fantasy also tends to be less dependent on secondary worlds. A lot of it takes place in our own world, either in a time of legend that has been forgotten in the modern era, or in a future time when our own modern world has been forgotten. This is interesting and inadvertent theme that parallels the theme of the book, I think, considering how many works here were once popular and seemingly permanent fixtures of the literary fantasy landscape, and have now been dropped down the ol’ memory hole.

Many people have taken this book as a call to return to some of the pulp roots and traditions, with which which I joyously agree. I do take take exception to any antagonistic stance towards hard SF and the products of the post-pulp era, because I love that stuff, too. How could you not, after watching or reading The Martian? I think I got dust in my eye reading Brad Torgersen’s Spirits With Visions in the 2113 Anthology, which was 100% hard SF and full of heart. I heartily agree to tearing down the genre walls, but not the stories that reside within them.

But for the most part, people are looking at this and saying, “Why can’t we have more stories like that today?” Twenty years ago, the answer was simply because it was too risky for publishers. But nowadays, the indie side of things has really taken a hold, and while there may be many reasons to go with a traditional publisher, there isn’t the necessity that there once was. I think we are seeing, and will continue to see, more works that embrace a similar aesthetic, creativity,  a willingness to take risks, and an emphasis on stories that entertain the reader. Not stories written to look and sound like they came out of a 1930s pulp magazine, but those written the way a pulpist would write if they were around and working today, with modern language and style but a pulp attitude.

If the audience is there, I think we’re going to see more and more of that.

Filed Under: Books, Retro - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • cirsova said,

    Great piece!
    I do think that the antagonistic stance toward Hard SF is not so much against the works that fall into that category as it is against the idea behind the category itself.

    Funny thing is that Jeffro’s the “don’t read anything after 1940” meme guy, while the 1940s stuff has totally been my wheelhouse.

    I think it’s the whole “take it seriously but not literally” thing at work.

    Part of why I use the term “Raygun Romance” is that it’s a way to encapsulate both harder and softer SF elements that fall into pulpy mode. A weird space-physics hook like Ross Rocklynne’s Cosmic Yo-yo uses a hard sf idea (using tethers and inertia to maneuver ships) as a fulcrum for the story’s climax, but it’s a love story between a blue-collar space trucker and a space magnate’s daughter that gives the piece its weight and purpose.

  • JonM said,

    Bear in mind that the “hard sf doesn’t exist” is an onjection to the taxonomy that is in common usage. It’s no slight against stories that limit themselves to hard tech. The complaint is not anout self-imposed limits, but about a culture that has historically praised stunted works as somehow better that tales of unlimited imgaination. The term “hard sf” is a weapon used to limit stories and writers, and that’s why so many pulp revolutionaries recoil like a vampire shown a cross when we hear it.

  • anonme said,

    I really don’t want to come across as an aloof centrist, but these whole arguments leave me scratching me head and going “why can’t I like both?” Why can’t I love the pulps, their mythology, old fashioned heroics, and still enjoy the Campbellian inspired works, the ideas they raised, and the general ‘Humanity F*ck Yeah!” nature of those works? Why can’t I enjoy the works of E.E. Doc Smith, see the true nature of stuff like Buck Rogers and Conan beyond the denigrated pastiche, while still enjoying the works of Asimov, and Heinlein?

    Sure Asimov had plenty of flaws as a writer (characterization and character development especially, though I do disagree with JonM’s challenge, off the top of my head, I can describe the personality of Susan Calvin, and Lije Bailey, I will also admit they are exceptions which will probably go towards Jon’s point). His works took my imagination to distant vistas. I wanted to ride the expressway. I wanted to be on a distant world figuring out programming errors on malfunctioning robots.

    So yeah, I’m an idort, and just don’t get the attacks on the writers (which I guess doesn’t matter much since the authors are mostly dead), or the fanbases though I do understand much of it is rhetorical arguments since 50s writers trash talking the pulps is part of the reason the pulps were unfairly protrayed as crap. Admittedly some of these guys were clearly jerks, but as Jeff Dunteaman put it, the field is kind of filled with jerks. I can still like their writing.

    Just differing opinions and all that, but my opinion is that I like both.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Here’s to a brave new world where we finally *can* have both!