Tuesday, January 31, 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?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Signal Boost ~ Cirsova Issue #5 and #6 Kickstarter

It's that time of year again! Cirsova has just put out their Kickstarter for their 2017 output. If you are looking for some adventure and excitement you should jump on this as soon as possible. You are looking at prices as low as $1. Who can pass that up?

I must confess that I have fallen behind. I haven't even cracked into issue #4 and yet there's more on the way. That didn't stop me from hitting the pledge button so fast I somehow became the first backer.

So if you're interested, let's see if we can help push Cirsova to new heights. You definitely won't get stories like this from most magazines these days.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

One of Those Weeks

I mentioned I would be posting less this year, and this is one of those weeks. However, I won't leave you with nothing.

Recently I have buckled down re-writing a story that I never felt came out right. It's a bit of an oddball tale, and I'm not sure how it'll turn out, but I can tell you it's not like Knights of the End. This story is one of the first ideas for a story I had since converting, so it is close to me. Of course there will still be action; I'm not writing the Great Gatsby all of a sudden.

How I decided to rewrite it was a story in itself. Mainly, I was listening to the defunct(?) Rockabilly/Swing/Punk band known as the Deluxtone Rockets and the scenario and events played crystal clear in my mind. Music can be quite a powerful tool for imagination.

You might be wondering how that has to do with the story being odd. Well, the Deluxtone Rockets sounded like this:

I'm not sure how that will give you an idea of what I'm writing, mind. But that's how it rolls sometimes.

In other news, I might have an update coming in the next week or two about something I've been working on. But that's out of my hands, so we'll see.

Have a good week!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Reality Couldn't Have Done This to Him" ~ A review of Declan Finn's "Set To Kill"

"The Stormtroopers looked at the staff, then each other, nodded, and sent out a BOLO order for Donatello."
So you want to know about Set To Kill by Declan Finn? Well that's a bit of a tale. If you've read the author's first published novel It Was Only On Stun! then you're halfway to understanding it. Me, I've read the book in question, and I'm not sure I fully comprehended the madness in these pages. What you're in for is a story filled with action, mystery, and more than a bit of comedy. That quote above is not even the most insane thing in the book.

After the events at the Vatican (long story), Sean A.P. Ryan is back in the protection game. Not only that, but he's working another con! Unfortunately, he soon finds himself in over his head as mercenaries, bounty hunters, crazed fans, stalkers, and just plain nutty people, assail him from every angle. Again! No wonder he doesn't like working at these things.

But it soon gets weird.

If there is one thing Mr. Finn excels at (there are a few) then it would have to be the action scenes. I'm hard-pressed to think of an author with so many details in their action scenes. Everything flows, the events are described clearly and fit together, and they are usually quite surprising. And funny.

Despite the action and the comedy there are several pretty good mysteries going on. Someone is killing guests at WyvernCon and it is up to the ever-overwhelmed Sean A.P. Ryan to put a stop to it. Oh yeah, and he has to make sure he stays alive with a several million dollar bounty (and growing!) on his head. That's kind of difficult with explosions, rifle shots, and assassins slipping in from every crevice, while he's trying to do his job. I'm starting to think he doesn't get paid enough for this.

Now if there is any complaint to note it is that there is a bit of inside baseball to some of the background elements of the story. Mr. Finn changes the names, but the events are very much based on a real "fandom" event. And it is just about as silly as he describes it as. I'm not going to explain it here because either you already know what it is or you don't care. Nothing I can say will add to it, so I'll just say that you might feel a little lost getting your head around the central conflict. Mr. Finn does his best to explain it at length, but it is what it is. Nonetheless, he does parody the events, and the players involved, quite well.

This is a hard book to really nail down. Would it be correct to call it something like if Dashiell Hammett wrote an episode of Murder, She Wrote thinking it was a sequel to Commando? I'm just not sure. If you enjoyed the previous book in this series, It Was Only On Stun!, then you should enjoy this one more. Whatever it is, Set To Kill accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.

Should you read this book? Only if you like wanton destruction and humor popping up in strange places. And, really, why wouldn't you like those things?

I can't wait to read the sequel. Surely by then Sean Ryan will have enough of a handle on the con experience to run his own. I could just imagine.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Into the New Year

I hope everyone reading this is having a good 2017 so far. For my first post of the year, I thought I'd put out a rambler of a post.

When I was a boy I found myself drawn to stories. I could never figure out why. As I grew older I began listening to less music, playing less videogames, and dropped out of most every fandom. But one thing that remained the same, and grew, was my love of story. The big change happened when I realized that what I was most concerned with in the stories I read was the fate of the characters' souls. This only really happened about five years ago.

Not to say I don't care if people die in stories, but that is not what fascinates me in them. What draws me into their tales is the struggle with a deeper evil or ill, and how they conquer them. It's not just about one man versus another. This is about conquering an evil that doesn't just wish to destroy, but eat souls for breakfast. It's about more than it seems at first.

If you want to know why I have enjoyed Brian Niemeier's Soul Cycle saga, Declan Finn's Love At First Bite series, David Gemmell's hero tales, shonen manga, old superhero comics, or the stories in Cirsova magazine, it is because there is often much more at stake than mere life or death. This is also why I really got into writing material like Knights of the End, and what I'm going to put out next year. Whether it is facing down Eternity, sin, alienation, extinction of one's kin or species, or the loss of Paradise, it is the struggle between despair and hope that drives the best stories. This is why I'm still a reader.

That is why every good story needs a good guy. Readers need someone to connect with in the grand battle between two opposing forces. This is why even in stories without them, readers will focus their attention on the brightest burnt bulb in the basement they can find. Rorschach in Watchmen is popular for this reason alone. Anti-heroes are subversive enough to draw in the smirking, nose-holding crowd, and the character might even be interesting on some level, but they ultimately fall flat in the long run. If you stain the white with too much black it eventually all blurs into a drab, murky mess of grey. This is all well and good for teenagers of a certain type and age, but for those of us escaping the despair of college deconstructionism, it offers very little beyond that first course sampler. My second reading of Watchmen left me freezing cold.

Heroes and villains work because opposing sharply contrasted ideals are dynamic. Competing visions and characters are exciting. This creates a conflict bigger than the protagonist that he might not even see at all. But the reader will see it on some level. Even in a story with no physical enemy, it is entirely reliant on the protagonist not succumbing to something intangible. There are still enemies.

Life is a battle for the souls. This is what pulses through every single great story, and why I still read them.

There are so many stories out there that I'll never get to them all, but this year opened my eyes to a lot of stories I might have otherwise never touched. As someone who avoided much modern fiction, it was one where I was introduced not only to much pulp, but newer authors more interested in telling a good story than lecturing their audience, as well as other authors I missed entirely that were also crafting their own tales. I learned a lot in 2016.

But 2017 is going to be a bit of a different year for me. I'll still be writing, and hopefully getting closer to my goal to write the sort of story people would want to read, but I'll be cutting my online time way down. What I said earlier about life being a battle for souls is very true, and I'm still going to fight it, however it is also a battle i need tor regain my focus on. This means prioritizing on a certain things at the expense of others. Therefore, this blog will probably only be updated twice a month next year, and there will be less posts overall.

Now, I still have reviews to post, in fact I'll have one this month, and I'll still do posts like this, but they will be less common. I apologize to any frequent readers, but it needs to be done.

As we enter 2017 I want every reader here to have a very blessed new year. I hope this will be a year of growth and improvement for you.

So I'll say it here: Happy New Year!