Appendix N and Fantasy Exploration

DungeonMasterGuide4CoverWhile I’d been introduced to fantasy fiction when my mom read me The Hobbit, it was Dungeons & Dragons that sent me exploring for more of it. Appendix N lay at the very back of The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and there were treasures within. The problem was that the library didn’t HAVE most of those treasures. I’ve sometimes wondered how my writing and reading life would have differed if the library had actually held any Robert E. Howard books, not to mention a whole bunch of other things Appendix N said were must reads. The library DID have the Amber series, but the first few books were checked out for months.

Fortunately there were used bookstores in town. And even more fortunately I found a great copy of Swords Against Death by some guy that Appendix N recommended highly, Fritz Leiber. The first story wasn’t much of a thing, kind of an intro. But from there… wow. I knew I’d found something really good. It remains one of the finest sword-and-sorcery collections I’ve ever read, and my favorite of all the Lankhmar books. Sure, there are other great Lankhmar stories, but I don’t think any other Lankhmar book is as consistently excellent.

corumThe same bookstore had the Corum books by Michael Moorcock – both trilogies – and some more Lankhmar, and friends had the Elric novels and, thankfully, the Amber books. After devouring those I knew that I was a fantasy fan, but I didn’t realize it was sword-and-sorcery that particularly ticked my clock until years later.

In my late twenties I decided that if I was really serious about writing fantasy it would be wise to understand the roots of the genre. At that point in time I was living in Topeka Kansas, which had three excellent used book stores, and was only twenty minutes from a very fine used book store in Lawrence Kansas. Between those four stores and some internet searches I was able to track down a whole slew of older, out of print books and explore the grandfathers and grandmothers of fantasy. The famed Ballantine Adult Fantasy series was a huge help. Helmed by Lin Carter and Betty Ballantine in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series showcased a whole bunch of lost classics and influential fantasy writers.

It was interesting reading, even when I discovered I wasn’t that fond of the writer. For instance, William Morris was really important… but his characters were pretty wooden. Lord Dunsany, though, was a revelation, and E.R. Eddison was a marvel. I enjoyed various other greats and near greats, but none of them thrilled me nearly as much as Robert E. Howard and Leigh Brackett.

brackett6After two or three years of exploration I’d discovered that while I liked fantasy in general, it was sword-and-sorcery (and sword-and-planet, particularly Leigh Bracket!) that I liked the most. And so I’ve been a proponent of the sub-genre ever since. Surely, there is bad s and s, but there is also good, and in recent years there has been a steadily rising supply of it after a dearth of many years. Some of the best fiction has been from Warhammer authors like Nathan Long, Clint Werner, and some guy named William King, and I’m always puzzled that sword-and-sorcery fans in the wider world haven’t heard of Gotrek and Felix, Brunner, or Ulrika and the Blackhearts (sounds like a line-up of hard rock bands, doesn’t it?)

Back in the early ‘90s the lone sword-and-sorcery author seemed to be the late, great, David Gemmell, but the door has widened. Writers like Joe Abercrombie, Matthew Stover, and Scott Lynch pushed it open and more and more sword-and-sorcery writers have come through after them, me along with them.

comingofconanWhat do I like about sword-and-sorcery? There are protagonists who must live by their wit and weapons skills in deadly lands, beset by schemers and intriguers. There is treasure to be found, and ancient secrets. There are loyal comrades, implacable foes, powerful but foolish kings, secret societies, fabulous kingdoms, and dark wizards and forbidden secrets. There is world building, surely, but there is forward momentum and a distinct lack of navel gazing. In the hands of the best sword-and-sorcery practitioners, story comes first – and it may be that it’s this craftsmanship that appeals to me most strongly. I like a good slice-of-life tale or literary experiment sometimes, but what I prefer is a tale where interesting people go off to interesting places and do interesting things.

Thanks to Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb I was exposed to masterful historical adventure fiction, and because of a whole bunch of additional influences I fell in love with 8th century Arabia and the 1001 Nights. My own Dabir and Asim work is a marriage of that love for Arabian fantasy tales and all the things I like in sword-and-sorcery. I wouldn’t have written that kind of stuff if I wasn’t a fan, and it’s my sincerest wish that readers will find the same kind of thrill in my work that I’ve found in my own favorite writers.

This essay originally appeared in 2012 on Bill King’s web site.

15 Comments on “Appendix N and Fantasy Exploration

  1. Awesome!
    I’m hoping this, “live by their wits and weapons in deadly lands”, serves as a mission statement for Tales from the Magician’s Skull!

    • Well, it certainly serves as a blueprint for what I’m looking for in the fiction, so I guess it IS a kind of mission statement!

  2. I went sort of backwards with my discovery of sword and sorcery. I went from discovering Moorcock to discovering Leiber to Howard to Lamb. Don’t know why. It just worked out that way.

    I actually like Morris The Well at the World’s End but I thought E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroborus was boring. I loved Dunsany.

    • It’s hard not to love Lord Dunsany, isn’t it? Eddison can be a chore, but I found him worth while. Maybe I gave up on Morris too soon, but it might be that it’s just a difference in tastes. I tried reading his books and just couldn’t get into them.

      I think I’m the only modern reader of this stuff I know who read Lamb BEFORE Howard! Purely an accident. There’s no good reason the used bookstore didn’t have any REH in the late ’70s. There should have been plenty of it floating around back then.

      • Yes, it’s hard not to love Dunsany. It’s possible if I read Eddison today I would have a different opinion. It’s certainly true that Morris had wooden characters, but I liked it.

        I might have read Lamb before I read Howard. I did a report on Charlemagne and I think I read Lamb’s biography of him. At least, I read it years later and it seemed familiar.

  3. It’s been fun to watch the “rediscovery” of Appendix N in the last few years. The first person I saw write about was James Maliszewski over at the late and lamented Grognardia, but he’s our contemporary and played D&D back in the early days. Right now, there’s a passel of folks talking about it and it’s a blast to watch them dive into Leiber and others for the first time.

    • It’s been weird in some ways, because I didn’t realize it had to be rediscovered. I guess in a way I’d almost taken the list for granted, because it had always been there for me. I will never forget the first time I saw the original Star Trek as a 5yo, or the first time I read real sword-and-sorcery, all because of that appendix. I just wish I’d had more luck finding all the authors on it. Even back in my day, when the list was hot off the presses, some of those writers were hard to find.

      Thank goodness it’s so much easier to lay hands on the work of Robert E. Howard now. I still wonder how my writing projects might have chanced if I’d read him 10 or 15 years earlier. I just couldn’t find anything but pastiche for the longest time.

  4. “There are protagonists who must live by their wit and weapons skills in deadly lands, beset by schemers and intriguers. There is treasure to be found, and ancient secrets. There are loyal comrades, implacable foes, powerful but foolish kings, secret societies, fabulous kingdoms, and dark wizards and forbidden secrets. There is world building, surely, but there is forward momentum and a distinct lack of navel gazing.”

    I really love this sentiment. That really sums up what I love about it as well. It reminds me of why I also enjoy my other favorite sub-genre: cyberpunk. Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the original Cyberpunk role playing game, had a similar great quote about the genre. It went something like “cyberpunk isn’t about saving the world, it’s about saving yourself”. I’ve always felt like the two genres could be blended if we just had the right writer.

    • Sword & Sorcery, Hardboiled Noir, and Cyberpunk always seem to me like the same sentiments in three different settings.

      • I agree. They all share quite a few traits: they’re all gritty; they all focus on one or two main characters; they all feature fast-paced action; the protagonist is typically an outcast or outsider (but a regular person) facing inhuman odds, be it evil sorcerers, globe-spanning corporations or just “the system”.

        • Sitting on a panel at one of my first conventions, I once mentioned that Robert E. Howard was hardboiled and some of the panelists sniggered as if I didn’t know what I was talking about. I suppose they were thinking that Conan wore a fedora, or that his often lush prose was the opposite of hardboiled. They were wrong. Chandler can be wonderfully lush. It’s the mindset of author and characters.

          • It’s annoying to have people sniggered at you for things you know more about than them. People who are smug have a tendency to be ignorant. If l listen to two people who talk on a subject I know nothing I assume the one who is most smug is wrong until I see evidence to the contrary.

  5. Hey Matthew, that’s actually weirdly true.
    And a good conversational tool.
    Kind of an ‘Occam’s Bullshit Razor’.

    • There are times when the smug one is correct. It might be hard not to be smug if arguing with a Flat Earth Society member and not be smug. Also, it doesn’t work if you put too naturally smug people in argument for example: if Sean Hannity debated Bill Maher.

  6. I actually found Sword & Sorcery through D&D. I played the game all through high school and gradually explored the related fiction, starting with the game books produced by TSR (and later WOTC) and moving on to Fafrhd and the Gray Mouser, Elric, and Lovecraft’s work, along with more contemporary writers like James Enge. I’ve always liked the weirdness of S&S stories: the strange monsters, the unique cultures, the eccentricities of the world, etc. I’ve never really seen a similar level of weirdness in high or heroic fantasy.

    I was vaguely aware of the Appendix N, but didn’t really pay attention to it until I started listening to Jeff Goad and Ngo Vinh-Hoi’s Appendix N Book Club podcast. I like that the Appendix has been experiencing a bit of a revival in interest lately.

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