Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Selective Memory ~ An Appendix N Post

With the recent hoopla concerning Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N book, I decided to dedicate a post to that intentionally buried source. If you want some background on what Appendix N is, and why it matters, I suggest watching the below video from Geek Gab which goes into a bit more depth.




The reason I wanted to make this post is because I've never actually expressed my full opinions on Appendix N as a whole. I've mentioned it in passing but have never actually expressed any concrete thoughts.  I guess it's because it isn't anything new to me.

No, I don't mean Appendix N itself-- I mean I've been in this situation before. Let me give you a bit of background to illustrate what I'm talking about. Please be patient: I swear this is going somewhere.

When I was growing up, one of the few things that endured throughout the strangeness of my teenage years was my love of stories. But not my love of books. I was up for any good story you could give me, but you would have to fight me to get me to read a book. I was a very suspicious teenage boy.

So why didn't my love of books endure while my love of stories flourished? Easy. Because every book I picked up was a nihilistic slog filled with sex, drugs, celebrating the pointlessness of life, and how special it was to be an artist and be above the stupid common man. I'm not just talking about modern literature that no one reads either. I'm talking about everything on the bookshelf that was published while I was growing up. Not to mention that the "classic" books foisted on me as a teenager were the most boring and flavorless things you could imagine.

Maybe you had to be there, but can't you just imagine? Should I read a book about a sainted alien who teaches the world the truth about orgies, or read a manga about a mysterious gunslinger on a distant planet who has to stop his nihilistic brother from purging humanity from their new world? How is that a choice? I still have trouble imagining anyone preferring the first as genre defining art, while telling me that latter is juvenile trash. But that's how it was.

Then I got to college and read a pile of the most hateful stories you could ever thumb through. Two in particular made me give up entirely. They were called Generals Die in Bed and Catcher in the Rye, and they were considered classics. If you've ever read them you have my condolences.

Suffice to say, I was done. This was the best of the best? This was all the literary world had to offer? I went back to my comics and manga, and largely left reading books behind. I didn't know any readers. I didn't know any writers. I didn't know anybody who really cared about stories at all. So as far as I could tell, this was how it always was and always would be.

Years later a lot of things happened in my personal life and I everything changed. I was rejuvenated. Made whole. I began reading about this new world that opened up to me. And things got better.

Then I read someone named G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. It fundamentally changed how I saw the world. He was the first person I'd ever read that made perfect sense. It was as if he was talking directly to me over a hundred years after writing that book. I'd never experienced anything like that before. Looking into him led me along an odd string of events to find a book called The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope which honestly might be the best book ever written. It had everything: action, adventure, comedy, romance, and it was fun. It made me realize that I'd missed so much, and I never even knew it.

But what really shifted the way I saw things was Mr. Chesterton as a person. He was friends with H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. He was a well known figure. He wrote scores of books, fiction and non-fiction, and he was highly respected even among those he opposed. He even wrote a pretty good play called "The Surprise" that earns its title.

That lead me to a very important question: Why had I never heard of him?

This was a man who was big (pun intended) in his time, was massively influential, and helped change my life. And I've never met another person in my life who has ever heard of him. He certainly isn't taught in schools. It was as if he was intentionally written out of history.

Keep that in mind for later.

In the midst of all this was my attempt to write. I'd been flailing around trying to learn on my own and not getting anywhere. My conversion helped allow me a focus and purpose for writing, but I couldn't nail down what to write or the best way to do it. There were no writing courses to take where I live, and as I said earlier, there were no writers to talk to. So I learned on my own and tried to ask around online.

Eventually I threw my hands up and decided to write a story I would have read as that disappointed thirteen year old. There had to be a good way to write a fun book, right? I buckled down in NaNoWriMo in 2014 and cranked out a novel. It took me a while to fix it up, but I eventually got it out the door with many people helping me along the way. That story ended up becoming Knights of the End, something I'm very proud of writing. It also helped solidify story construction for me. I successfully captured that feeling I wanted to bottle.

But while editing Knights, I came across a series of posts on the Castalia House blog on a topic called "Appendix N" written by a fellow named Jeffro Johnson. It was fascinating to me.

Now I knew about D&D. Everyone who has ever touched a video game, comic, genre film, anime or manga series, or genre fiction book, in the last half-century knows what it is. The game encapsulates everything that people steal from for their own fantasy stories. But the game didn't appear out of thin air. What I wasn't aware of was that there was a list of books that inspired its creation. But I was more surprised at some of the names on the list.

After Knights was in the can I sat down to read some of these stories. I'd already known Tolkien, and The Hobbit is still one of my favorite books, but I'd never gotten into the many writers who cribbed directly from him. Some of the other names I'd also heard before. Burroughs I'd only known from Tarzan and what I was told about his other works which were not glowing. You know where this is going.

I've already said I didn't read much genre fiction. This will make me unpopular among certain people, but I don't like stories about wizards throwing fireballs around like grenades, or tales about men with screwdrivers. I like stories about adventure, excitement, good and evil, and out-there ideas. That's why I went to places other than books to get them. My impression of genre fiction was that it was just another way to tell Important Stories about Things That Matter in a different setting, and that the stories I wanted to read died with John Buchan, George MacDonald, Anthony Hope, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

So I read a few of the books on the list. Some even older. Poul Anderson, A. Merritt, and Mr. Burroughs himself. The Worm Ouroboros. Manly Wade Wellman. I even finally read The Three Musketeers.

I was flabbergasted. I had found what I had been looking for years for. This is what those trashy stories actually were? Had I been lied to? I picked up Cirsova magazine, I started getting into old radio shows of The Shadow, and I started posting about a lot of this here. Everything changed. Like taking an old jalopy through the car wash and finding out its actually a corvette.

The stories I wrote after Knights began turning out a bit different than I first expected, I began looking at other stories in a different light, and I even found some other writers that felt the same way. Appendix N changed a lot. That's not to say I've taken up writing pure pulp, but it did affect me quite a good deal.

Genres didn't exist. There were no constraints. No lessons. No berating the audience. There was no whining. It was about the story. There was action. There was adventure. There was romance. There was speculation, history, and impossibilities, all mixed together to shape whatever story the author wanted. They weren't held back by anything except their imagination, as cheesy as it sounds. But it's true.

It was as if I finally understood just what made books so great in the first place. Whether I can capture that feeling in my future works is to be seen, but now that I have a clearer path I can at least be thankful to see the forest for the trees.

This even affected how I read more modern books. David Gemmell became a light in a rather dim field of modern fantasy, and even old superheroes like The Shadow and The Question took on a whole new meaning to me. It wasn't just the books. Everything changed.

That lead me to another very important question: What the heck happened?

Why did I have to go to manga, comics, video games, genre films, and anime, to get what I was looking for in the first place? Why was something intentionally hidden from me again?

Mr. Chesterton was a man who aided in saving my life, in more ways than one, but the world wanted him buried. The old pulp works would have sparked my imagination, and others, when I was younger, but they were scrubbed out of existence by the "right people" long before I was born. This was happening over and over.

And it's happening to a whole new generation. In the comic world, Marvel is currently taking a hammer to their brand as DC endlessly reboots themselves into irrelevance. Video games has seen the collapse of the middle market for AAA blandness while "journalists" joyfully insult their audience enjoying what they want. Manga and anime have been smothered in an overabundance of perversity and uniform sterility. Hollywood is dying from their own hubris.

There is ample reason for me to be upset about all of this. And I am. Were I born now, there would be nothing to sustain me in the empty modern age. I would be trapped in a room without windows. The thought of that is disturbing.

This is partially why I started this blog. We all wander the wasteland looking for something more than the barrenness surrounding us. We all look to the sky to find something above it. We are constantly stuck between them. There has to be a way out and beyond the boundaries.

Without imagination, without stories, without hope and wonder, we would have no hope of higher and more important things. And to think there are those deliberately destroying and hobbling those that are lost and searching? That is a game-changer for me.

So yes, Appendix N is important just as G.K. Chesterton is important. They are evidence that those who lived before us have much to offer us now. The past has a lot to offer. So why don't we connect with it once more? How can that possibly hurt?

6 comments:

  1. I grew up with my parents bookshelf, ending up reading everything from Bircher - style conspiracy theories - which I later discovered had more truth than I dismissed at the time, to the SF classics, even sometruly golden age stuff, my dads westerns, even Taylor fucking Caldwell (can you say voracious reader). The library delivered even more- Tom Swift, the Oz books....

    I'd finished 1984 and Animal Farm in middle school. And Heinlein's "Friday". Plus Pournelle, etc. - aside - the "there will be war" stories, Pournelle's Falkenberg/codominium books, and his collabs with Niven (Oath of Fealty, Mote in Gods Eye especially) are fucking awesome.

    I'd already run into a few books that made me feel dirty - the Long Walk by "Bachman" (aka King). But it wasn't until that stupid fucking lottery story in high school, or the Lord of the Flies, or the Catcher in the Rye, that I found a book so disgusting I could not finish it.

    This coming from someone who managed to wade through and enjoy drek like Battlefield Earth twice in high school, though couldn't stomach his other crap, or dianetics.

    I've heard it only half-jokingly said that English teachers try to beat a love of history and reading out of us. Given what even the apparently well meaning hand to us as examples of "meaning" and literature?

    Fuck that.

    I can't remember most of what I read in the 90's - Wheel of time bored me to tears (couldn't finish it even underway on a sub), Goodkind also wore on with the blatant messaging, but I do remember stumbling into John Ringo, and Baen books. And then Castalia. Outside of a couple standouts like Card, and later discovering John Wright after he signed on with Castalia, and teh puppy crew, I don't recall any of it. It's all gray fucking goo.

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    1. The Lottery! I still remember the first time I read that. What a pointless and stupid story about nothing at all.

      Unfortunately, being as slow as I am, it has taken me far longer to catch up on what I missed. But at least this way I always have something to look forward to. It only saddens me that my situation was very common and there are many my age and younger (and older!) that simply don't read at all because of this.

      Thank you for the post!

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  2. OK - I'm expanding my comment a bit and putting it on my blog, if you don't mind.

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  3. Chesterton is the name you hear over and over again on the "How has nobody heard of him?" subject.

    The great irony of Chesterton is that he is one of the most influential codifiers of those schoolchildren literary "classics" but never gets credit for the fact.

    The reason you read Dickens in school? Thank G.K. Chesterton. When Dickens died, he was looked at as a populist writer. He wasn't "literary". He was for the masses, not for the elites. It was only due to the tireless championing of G.K. Chesterton (I've read some of his Dickens essays) that Dickens successfully fought his way OUT of the mainstream and INTO the world of the literati.

    Nowadays Dickens occupies a strange place somewhere in between that of a populist writer for the masses and a literary darling. But the only reason he gets any critical attention at all - the only reason he's ever read in schools - is because of G.K. Chesterton. But I doubt a single one of my teachers - even the ones who'd heard of him - knew anything about this aspect of Chesterton's career - despite it being possibly the most influential thing he ever did.

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    1. I didn't read Dickens in school but on my own time. And I'm thankful for that. I wouldn't have enjoyed "A Tale of Two Cities" half as much if I was made to dissect it.

      But you are correct. Mr. Chesterton was not obscure back in the day. He was very well known.

      They have begun doing the same to C.S. Lewis in ignoring his existence and importance, but thankfully Christians aren't letting that happen.

      We have done enough burying the past.

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