Gary Gygax’s Appendix N

A Hindu Rakshasa re-imagined in D&D’s Monster Manual

When I was a teen and enamored with Dungeons & Dragons, one treasure I discovered poring over the rules books was Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax lists nearly thirty pulp and genre writers as major influences on the development of the game. “Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy,” Gygax wrote, “being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950.”

In the early 1970s, Gygax and Dave Arneson harvested genre and pulp fiction to invent a new game, one that felt oddly familiar yet unlike any other experience. If “a book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver,” then Gygax and Arneson systematized that dream with charts and rules and catalogs. They took the dream off the paperback page and put it on the tabletop where it can be shared and shaped by a group of people.

If you’re familiar with D&D, most of the authors listed in Gygax’s Appendix N are unsurprising: R. E. Howard (creator of Conan), H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber (whom I’ve written about before), Michael Moorcock, J. R. R. Tolkien. Some names do surprise though, such as Leigh Brackett, whose screenwriting credits include the film noir The Big Sleep and John Wayne’s Rio Bravo. (Gygax probably included her for her planetary romances set on Mars, however.) Others would have faded into obscurity if not for Gygax’s list.

I don’t recall Appendix N being discussed much by D&D players back in the day. Decades later, the D&D blog Grognardia revealed to me that Appendix N has taken on a life of its own within the community. Gygax’s list has been studied, dissected, and emulated. There’s even an Appendix N Book Club. Blogger James Maliszewski called Appendix N the “literary DNA” of D&D.

And while Appendix N names only 20th-century authors, skimming the various rule books reveals D&D’s literary DNA also includes (in no particular order):

  • Scandinavian, Teutonic, and Anglo-Saxon mythology
  • Catholic demonology
  • Biblical imagery
  • Chivalric codes and Japanese bushido
  • Fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm
  • Jewish Kabbalah
  • Greek mythology
  • Persian, Arabic, and Islamic folklore
  • Ancient mythology of Mesopotamia (Tiamat, the iconic five-headed dragon of D&D, derives from Babylonian religion)
  • Hindu legends
  • Arthurian tales (“Matter of Britain”)
  • Western European legend, from Charlemagne to the Renaissance (“Matter of France”)
  • Celtic and Irish folklore
  • Slavic folklore
  • Haitian folklore (although D&D’s zombies are more like 1968’s Night of the Living Dead)
  • Ancient Egypt (although D&D’s mummies owe more to 1932’s The Mummy with Boris Karloff)
  • Western classic literature (Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, and more)
  • 20th-century genres beyond those listed in Appendix N (horror and science-fiction as well as fantasy, in print and film)

This list is incomplete, but already its breadth is wild. How could a game culled from this haggis hang together in a coherent fashion, let alone grow into a cultural phenomenon played and studied fifty years later? D&D’s pulp fantasy roots help, but some credit must be chalked up to its origins in the gonzo anything-goes 1970s. Another reason is that D&D, like the written word, takes place in the mind rather than on a screen, and so inconsistencies can be papered over by the imagination and a willing suspension of disbelief.

D&D is a cultural mutt, perhaps the ultimate postmodernist pastiche. (As Jeff Rients put it: “You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula.”) As with other collaborative games such as Exquisite Corpse, a session of D&D is never truly finished or closed. The difference is, D&D’s rules and system are open-ended. The game organizer is free to mix-and-match their own inspirations—Gygax and Arneson baked a kind of implied amendment system into their Constitution. “From such sources, as well as any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which to grow the fruits of exciting campaigns,” Gygax wrote in Appendix N.

Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon crash-land in the D&D world and need the players’ help? That’ll work. A zombie apocalypse sweeping across a country village? That’ll work. Modern superheroes transported to the age of D&D? That’ll work. Referees can add their own pulpy sources and influences and, somehow, it still holds together.

There were complaints that this melange was ahistorical, especially from players who’d got it in their head D&D was to be a simulation of some sort. At its most basic, the game felt like swords and magic in Ye Olde Merrie England or thereabouts. So why do players fight Jewish golems and Egyptian mummies? Concerted efforts were made to correct Gygax’s “mistakes” and produce more historically-accurate role-playing games, such as Chivalry & Sorcery and Fantasy Wargaming. Those titles drifted into obscurity while D&D’s popularity intensified. Gygax’s and Arneson’s reception to inspiration from all sources—their “lightning rod”—was a feature, not a bug.

Not only does Appendix N indicate how widely-read Gygax and Arneson were, it also suggests how widely-read they expected the players to be. D&D wasn’t merely made by smart people, it was made for smart people.

Gygax could have used Appendix N to recommend movies, TV shows, or comic books, but chose not to. “I would never add other media forms to a reading list,” Gygax wrote in 2007, a year before his death. “If someone is interested in comic books and/or graphic novels, they’re on their own.” For me, this quote seals just how highly Gygax regarded the written word.

This post was adapted for Internet Archive’s blog: “The Fantasy Books that Inspired Dungeons & Dragons”

Oracular dice

Photo by Diacritica (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Writing about Monsters and Manuals and rereading the abandoned Dungeons & Dragons blog Grognardia led me to think about a few more D&D-related topics, like dice and randomness.

All those funny-shaped D&D dice, subject of endless mirth and memes, serve a purpose quite different than moving a pawn around a playing board. D&D’s reliance on chance for story events—combat, encountering monsters, dealing with hirelings—represents an

embrace of events beyond your control as an integral part of the gaming experience…the ‘story’ arises from the synthesis of design, randomness, and reaction; it isn’t something you can set out to create.

Grognardia called this “the oracular power of dice,” a phrase I understood straightaway when I first read it.

While Gygaxian Naturalism may make D&D like playing within a fiction, there is no single author of the story. In any D&D session there’s the referee, the players, and the dice. The dice are the third team on the field.

Even the referee is subject to the winds of chance. If she dispatches a band of goblins at the players intending a slaughter, bad dice rolls on her part (or good rolls on theirs) may thwart her plans. Even if she tries to assist the players through a rough patch, the dice may decide otherwise. A novelist can put an authorial thumb on the scales to tip fortune toward or against his character. In D&D, the referee doesn’t have the same absolute freedom.

That’s not to say D&D is a game of mere luck. The referee and players make most of the decisions throughout the game. Gygax wisely corralled dice rolls to specific situations, containing their entropy to key decisive moments. (The history of D&D’s polyhedrons—originally, all were Platonic solids—is an interesting story in its own right.)

Everyone who plays D&D long enough develops a futility toward the capriciousness of the dice. Take away the dice, though, and you have something that’s not D&D.

Combining cooperation with chance reminds me of exquisite corpse, where multiple artists contribute portions to the final picture, even though none of them are permitted to see the rest of the page until the drawing is completed. The obvious difference is that in D&D the story’s contributions are guided by dice rolls rather than obscuring the page.

One exquisite corpse variant is Sentence Drawing Sentence, which I participated in many years ago:

  1. The first person writes a sentence
  2. The next person draws a picture beneath the sentence in reaction
  3. The next person writes a sentence beneath the drawing in reaction
  4. And so on until the page is full

The paper is folded back with each addition so the next person can only see the prior sentence or drawing.

Sentence Drawing Sentence

Philip K. Dick threw I Ching coins while plotting The Man in the High Castle. The game …and then we died has players drawing Tarot cards to build a collaborative story of a gruesome death. (An obituary-writing game? Why not.)

Introducing cooperation and randomness to the creative process isn’t cheating, it’s adding more creativity. Embrace “the synthesis of design, randomness, and reaction.” These small chaos-es release the tight grip our ordered minds wish to exert over our creations, that impulse to micromanage every little detail of a short story or novel. Such creative games also fine-tune the internal “lighting rod of inspiration” I’ve written about before by introducing elements out-of-the-blue we may not have considered otherwise.

A different kind of naturalism

T1: The Village of Hommlet by E. Gary Gygax
Original cover of
The Village of Hommlet

My previous posts on the blogs Monsters and Manuals and Grognardia led me to look back on Dungeons & Dragons, a game whose influence on me is pronounced, even if I haven’t played it since I was a teenager.

One topic blogger James Maliszewski explored in depth was “Gygaxian Naturalism,” his term for D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax’s aesthetic sensibilities:

The intention behind Gygaxian Naturalism is to paint a picture of a “real” world, which is to say, a world that exists for reasons other than purely gaming ones. The implication is that monsters have lives of their own and thus go about their business doing various things until they encounter the player characters. … I don’t mean to imply that [D&D] is realistic in any meaningful sense, only that its fantasy follows “natural” laws of a sort, much in the way that, for example, I know that there are squirrels and raccoons and rabbits in my neighborhood who go about their business when I’m not seeing them in my yard or chasing them away from my recycling bins.

Before Grognardia I’d never heard anyone describe D&D as naturalistic, and yet the moment I read this post I knew exactly what Maliszewski was referring to. Gygax breathed an internal logic into his game. His fantasy world is a dynamic and mutable place rather than a static backdrop.

The creatures that inhabit this fantasy world don’t merely exist as wooden cut-outs in a shooting gallery. They coexist within an ecosystem. Minotaurs prefer solitary existences while goblins live in tribes. There’s a pecking order. In Against the Giants, the players discover the Hill Giants answer to the Frost Giants, and the Frost Giants answer to the Fire Giants…and all the giants answer to the elves underground.

Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet is an exemplar of D&D naturalism. The village is a medieval Winesburg, Ohio of nosy innkeepers and petty intrigues and split alliances—oh, and there’s an evil-worshiping death cult ten miles outside of town. One reviewer notes Hommlet “is a place with history and its history shapes and affects its layout, mood and inhabitants.”

Those inhabitants don’t exist merely to impart exposition or direct the adventurers to the dungeon entrance. They have ambitions, suspicions, and secrets. They share useful and baseless rumors. A widower farmer and his spinster daughter live in town. They are the black sheep of the village and not well-liked. They’ve stashed seventy-three silver coins in the hollow of a tree—there could be a story within all these details, a story within the larger story. Another farmer’s son likes his brew a bit too much and will wag his tongue if drunk under the table, while the town brewer’s nephew can hold his ale and then some. One elderly farmer is ex-military but would rather talk about any matter other than fighting. More question marks, more history.

And yet, it’s possible, even likely, none of these inhabitants or their situations will be faced by the players. Like Hemingway’s iceberg, Gygax’s inclusion of these details make the setting richer even if little of it is presented in-game. The players may never meet the farmer’s daughter, they may never drink at the inn, and they may never become involved in Hommlet’s inner squabbles. But if these details do become relevant, the game referee is expected to honor the villagers’ best interests and play to their strengths and weaknesses the way a character actor might develop a backstory for his brief role.

How does this correspond to naturalism in literature, especially American literature? In work like McTeague or The Awakening, characters are cursed to accede to the drives of base instincts rather than follow established civilized norms. Greed is innate. Lust cannot be tamed. (Brew cannot be avoided.)

Naturalism presents “nature as an indifferent force acting on the lives of human beings.” Gygaxian Naturalism certainly meets this criteria. Man is of no concern not only to animals, but also bugbears, dragons, and gods, demigods, and demons. The infamous D&D dice act as passionless Fates that hold the players’ futures in their hands. The players start as insignificant creatures in the great chain of being, only becoming a problem when they burst into a lair bearing swords and torches. A player character’s death is mourned by few, if anyone.

When I was in grade school, two of my favorite short stores were “Leinigen Versus the Ants” and “The Most Dangerous Game.” Both are high naturalism, and both are very D&D-like in their telling.

In the introduction to The Village of Hommlet, Gygax writes “there are wheels within wheels in Hommlet and the lands around, and behind each character there is another, the circles growing wider and the figures shadowy but very powerful.” It’s not deep, nuanced stuff, but it’s enough sophistication to give players a lurking sense they are but minor actors in a larger drama. Gygaxian Naturalism is a big reason why playing D&D felt like acting within a story rather than playing a sword & sorcery video game sans computer.

Of grognards and grimoires

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition
Dungeons & Dragons
Basic Edition (1977)

Last time I wrote of my praise for Monsters and Manuals, a long-running blog on role-playing games. How I came across Monsters and Manuals is a story itself.

In 2012 I somehow found myself reading a now-defunct Dungeons & Dragons blog called Grognardia. Now, I haven’t played D&D since Ronald Reagan was president, although I was active in the game throughout the 1980s. Why I came across the blog is long-forgotten to me, but there I was reading about D&D in theory and operation.

Grognardia was a bit of a revelation: People—adults—were still playing D&D, even after the rise of the Internet and smart phones and hellaciously ambitious video games. For years I’d thought back on D&D as an odd teenage avocation of mine, a 1980s trend that faded with Rubik’s Cube and glam metal. For me in 2012, the image of four to eight people around a table with paper and pencil rolling saving throws was a sepia-tone daguerreotype of a more innocent age. Now I know better. D&D (and role-playing in general) has changed and evolved, but it’s still going strong.

Reading Grognardia’s love-letters to Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, and its many tributes to old-timey role-playing was a massive syringe injection of nostalgia. Reading closely, I deduced blogger James Maliszewski was about my age and had been introduced to D&D around the same time I was (the late 1970s).

Grognardia gave Maliszewski a platform to lay out his dim, gimlet-eyed views of the state of D&D in the 2000s. In fact, Maliszewski held a pretty dim view of all things D&D after about 1983. (Dragonlance Ruined Everything”, “I Hate Change”) His scheme of D&D’s eras has the game exiting its Golden Age before 1983 and waving goodbye to its Silver Age around 1989. From there, in Grognardia’s estimation, Dungeons & Dragons was downhill.

Reading Grognardia for the first time made me feel like Mel Brooks’ 2,000 year-old man stepping out from a 33 A.D. time capsule and discovering people are still abuzz over that Jesus guy. I lost contact with D&D after 1987 (or so) and Grognardia was my re-introduction to the community. Amazingly, I found the community was talking about the state of D&D prior to 1987.

Maliszewski’s writing is forceful, lucid, and mostly consistent. The early Grognardia posts were manifesto-like, each chiseled from a bedrock belief in old-school D&D, each post a brick set in mortar like a fervent believer building a country church by hand. His brimstone sermons on original intent and calls for a return to the soil earned him a wide fan base at his blog’s height a decade ago.

Alas—and you probably saw this coming—cracks in his reputation began to appear not long after I began reading his blog. (Like most Internet dramas, it’s a mildly complicated story and better explained by him and others.) Grognarida ceased updates soon thereafter, and I so searched for a replacement blog to fill the nostalgic void. That’s how I discovered Monsters and Manuals, which I’ve been reading ever since.

While writing my last post, I spent some time revisiting Grognardia. I’d not read it since my first encounter in 2012. The reread gave me a new appreciation for Maliszewski’s idiosyncratic but thoughtful perspectives. Back in 2012, his posts forced me to evaluate (and reevaluate) my memories of D&D and its impact and history. In my reread, I found myself returning to those evaluations once more.

I’m by no means a D&D insider, so my thoughts on the game may earn a collective yawn from the community, but I’ll record them in future posts in case they’re of interest to anyone.

Other posts on Grognardia and D&D

Of Monsters and Manuals

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Player’s Handbook

Blogging suffered a cruel downturn this past decade, all but displaced by social media feeds and their 280-characters-or-less bumper stickers. That’s why I hold today’s bloggers in such high regard, particularly hobbyists and amateurs not drawing a steady income off their hard work.

One blogger I’ve followed through the downturn is noisms over at Monsters and Manuals, a site dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. I’ve been meaning to write this for a couple of years now but kept putting it off. Now is the time. His twelve-year-old blog celebrated its 1,500th post last August and he’s still cranking out entries. That’s impressive. Kudos.

(I haven’t played D&D since the late 1980s. How I discovered Monsters and Manuals will have to be the subject of another post.)

Much of my admiration for noisms is simply the dedication required in producing posts regularly for over a decade. He’s also done well to stay on topic (so many blogs wander off their chosen path to spout politics or shill product) without feeling straitjacketed to a single subject.

More than these reasons, I discovered in Monsters and Manuals a blogger with a fine-tuned radar for exploring creativity.

I recently picked up a collection of Orwell’s critical essays and was sucked in by his discursive writing style. Orwell seamlessly moves from one topic to another without ever losing sight of the essay’s primary focus. Reading Orwell dissect Dickens’ and Kipling’s politics is following a busy bee through a lush garden of orchids and varietals. There’s a similar dynamic at Monsters and Manuals. noisms draws from philosophy, linguistics, history, British culture, and more, all in the service of exploring what makes role-playing different from—and perhaps better than—other narrative forms.

Photographs of odd entryways as starting points for dungeon adventures. British gardens as inspiration for a fantasy setting. Thoughts on the “ontological flicker” of postmodern critical theory. Actual D&D as Marxist praxis. And a defense of violence, at least, a highly-qualified one. It’s a rich stew.

Even in this hundred-word post on Super Mario Bros. as absurdist art, noisms drops something fairly profound for anyone writing a novel, play, or film script to consider:

In creating a long-lasting, interesting and innovative fantasy setting, then, I think the most important thing may well simply be to come up with, say, a dozen or so ideas, themes or tropes and make sure they appear consistently. What those ideas, themes or tropes are is probably of secondary importance to their repetitive use.

I would say that applies to all manner of story, not merely fantasy settings. All great work has an internal logic. Even if we don’t share its values, the pleasure is experiencing, even living within, that internal logic for a short period of time. (“A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver.”) Repetition of themes or tropes reinforces the internal logic of a character, or an ethic, or a condition, or a world.

Or this, the profession of beekeeping as a creative constraint:

The point is simply this: once constraints are set in place, creativity starts to flourish. Envisage human creativity like water: without barriers it floods endlessly in a very thin and ever-spreading sheen. With constraint it bursts upwards like a fountain.

The best proof I can offer of Monsters and Manual’s wide peripheral vision is a role-playing game noisms developed called Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. Its premise: The player characters are exploring the dream-memories of an ancient crocodile asleep in a lake:

In its mind are memories of such antiquity that all trace of them have faded elsewhere in the world. Beasts long extinct whose bones are now dust. Spirits whose substance have gradually tattered and frayed down the eons until nothing remains. Civilizations which have risen and fallen and whose ruins are no longer even part of distant legend. Lands which have sunk beneath seas so deep that not even the kraken have seen them. The crocodile witnessed it all and those memories live inside it still.

As a setting for a game world, is it successful? I have no idea. But it’s so strange, so ambitious, so weird, I can only admire the effort.

A more down-to-earth effort is his game There is Therefore a Strange Land:

[The players] might be dilettantes, scholars, satanists, priests, or alchemists. One of them inherits the study of a dead uncle or aunt who was clearly Up To Something. In this study is a portal, or portals, which lead to another World or Worlds…the existence of the other Worlds is also known by others, who will want to buy whatever the [players] can bring back, kill them as rivals, and so on…Picture a group of scholars from Regency-era London going to Athas and bringing back a cannibal halfling to sell to the Prince of Brunswick, all the while trying to avoid being noticed by their rivals, thieves, or high society.

What I love about this premise is how the off-world adventuring is not the only meat of the game. It’s also returning to 19th-century London with bizarre artifacts, finding a fence to move them, dealing with robbers and toughs, and navigating the powdered wigs jockeying for position around the Crown. Although set pre-Victorian, I can’t help but visualize the game as the formalism of H. G. Wells meets the street life of Dickens with The King in Yellow thrown in for measure—I don’t know if I want to play that game, but I would certainly like to read that book.

What I see in Monsters and Manuals is a writer who remains wide open to inspiration from traditional and nontraditional sources. I’ve discussed inspiration before, but I’ve neglected writing how to develop an internal “lightning rod” for inspiration: Maintaining an inquisitive mind that stirs loose subconscious, even primal, thoughts to the surface; not rejecting those ideas out-of-hand because they’re silly or or absurd or embarrassing or transgressive; and most importantly, recording everything for later.

It’s apparent to me noisms has developed a lightning rod for role-playing games—his creative mulch is music, countryside walks, philosophical treatises, news clippings, and more. Any writer would do well to do likewise.

On Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz LeiberSaturday I had the pleasure to take Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour. Like his more famous Dashiell Hammett Tour, Herron recreates through personal research, recollection, and local points-of-interest Leiber’s life story and the circumstances that led him to spending his last years in San Francisco.

My attendance in the tour was accidental. In October, while talking with Nicole Gluckstern after the conclusion of the Bikes to Books Tour, I mentioned what can only be called a minor parallel in my life with Fritz Leiber’s, and how I’d been meaning for years now to learn more about this prolific author. Nicole told me she was in talks with Don Herron to have him lead a one-off, by-invite-only Fritz Leiber Tour. I eagerly jumped when she asked if I wanted to attend.

Leiber’s life defies a summary in brief. The child of actor parents (his father appeared in a number of early Hollywood productions), Leiber developed an avid readership over a career of decades with his wide-ranging work—science fiction, fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, horror & the occult, and more. In addition to experience in theater and acting, Leiber was an amateur astronomer and one-time editor of Science Digest, making him the rare science fiction writer with an actual background in science.

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Will Hart, (CC BY 2.0)

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Still by Will Hart (CC BY 2.0)

As a child and young man, I was familiar with Leiber through his science-fiction short stories (although I don’t recall reading any of his novels). His stories were featured in “best of” collections and back issues of science fiction magazines I dug out of dusty cartons in Livermore’s public library.

Then, via Dungeons & Dragons, I learned of a swords-and-sorcery series featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a duo comprised of an oversized swordsman and a diminutive thief. When I saw this series was penned by someone named Fritz Leiber, I distinctly recall thinking, “What a coincidence—there’s a science-fiction writer with the same name.” No coincidence, it turns out. (According to Herron, Leiber coined the phrase “sword-and-sorcery.”)

A personal friend of Leiber and his second wife, Herron is a fount of history and insight into this prolific author. Much like his Hammett tour, Herron led us down and around Geary Street and the Tenderloin (names which might ring familiar to readers of Bridge Daughter). Then we boarded MUNI and trekked up to Corona Heights (and its stunning views of the city) in the Castro District. All locations have some connection to Leiber and his semi-autobiographical Our Lady of Darkness. It’s a Lovecraftian novel that takes place in 1970s San Francisco whose main character endures a battle with the bottle and grief over the death of his wife, just as Leiber was undergoing at the time.

I hope Herron considers permanently reviving the Fritz Leiber tour—but I suspect the only way that would happen is if there was a strong revival of interest in Leiber himself. Personally, I’ve already added Our Lady of Darkness to my reading list, and I plan on searching out more of his work.

About that parallel

When I earlier claimed a parallel with Leiber’s life, I should explain. I don’t mean some personal connection with the author or his work, only that Leiber wrote about an event in his life that rang similar to one of my own.

Eight years ago, after going through what can only be called a divorce immediately followed by a second relationship gone sour, my trials culminated with me busting up my shoulder in a bad accident. I severed all the tendons there, leaving me with a separated shoulder. (To this day it looks like I have “two” shoulder bones.)

I found myself bedridden for six weeks and unable to move my right arm. Day and night I consumed painkillers, delivery Chinese food, and—unwisely—whiskey. (I wrote about this episode for We Still Like‘s “Gravity” issue, a piece titled “Taylor & Redding”.) I spent my time in my apartment, alone, absorbed with Miles Davis and Cal Tjader. I spent my less stuporous hours reading whatever I could get my hands on. In particular, I located at the library a thick collection of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, which I consumed cover-to-cover.

To keep from going stir-crazy, I took long walks up and down Nob Hill and through the Tenderloin, often at odd hours of night. Due to the painkillers, sleep was varied and sporadic. Some of these walks were as late as three in the morning, when the insomnia was too much to bear.

On these walks I discovered locations and buildings named in Hammett’s work, all mere blocks from my Geary Street apartment. The old part of San Francisco is rife with short streets and dead-end alleys, too insignificant to be incidentally included in a story for local flavor, yet Hammett would feature them prominently in his work. These names did not come off a map or phone directory, these were streets intimate to Hammett, a writer obsessed with specifics and verisimilitude. Some of the Continental Op’s stories are set in Chinatown. It got so I went out of my way to seek them out.

Humphrey Bogart and "the dingus." (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Humphrey Bogart and “the dingus.” (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This led me to reread Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (which I’ve written about not just once but twice). There, in this single detective novel, I re-experienced in concentrate everything I’d experienced the prior weeks poring over the Continental Op stories. In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade walks streets I walked every night, attends theaters down the block from my apartment, eats at restaurants still in operation. Sam Spade, living and breathing in San Francisco circa 2008. My front stoop was backdrop and stage for this classic of American literature.

It’s not merely the rush of casual literary association—similar to the rush of meeting a celebrity—that overwhelmed me. Details of the novel easily overlooked snapped into clear focus. That gunman Thursby is shacked up at Geary & Leavenworth suggests he’s residing on the hairy edge of the Tenderloin, an area rife with flophouses, while the supposedly-delicate Brigid O’Shaughnessy rooms on posh California Street. Sam Spade rides streetcars up and down Geary Street, a notion that defies imagination, as Geary in downtown San Francisco is narrower than the suburban lane I grew up riding my bike on. (The Geary streetcars were known as “Iron Monsters” and phased out in 1956 to make way for America’s love affair with automobiles.)

I’d been forced to move to Geary Street a few years earlier due to a bad break-up and the meager income I drew, living paycheck-to-paycheck tending bar. I wasn’t happy to reside a stone’s throw from the Tenderloin, infamous as San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood. It’s not—there’s a dignity in the TL easily overlooked—and Hammett’s work gave me a second sight, another way of reading my surroundings, and with it came another way to see my own circumstances. I say without qualification, Dashiell Hammett’s writings carried me through one of my lowest periods of my life.

Some time after my recovery—personal and monetary fortunes on the rise—I sat at the bar of John’s Grill in Union Square nursing a drink and waiting for my dinner to arrive. (“Jack LaLanne’s Favorite Salad”—a cold seafood salad with avocado slices, pure protein and fat.) On the back of the menu I found a newspaper article the restaurant had reprinted, “Stalking Sam Spade” written by one Fritz Leiber.

And I distinctly recall thinking, “That’s funny…there was a science fiction writer with that name.”

Stalking Sam Spade

Light reading while waiting for your steak medium-rare at John’s Grill.

After Leiber snapped out of the grief over his wife’s death and started drying up, he too rediscovered the city he lived in by reading it through Hammett’s lens. Geary Street, he wrote, is the “spine” of The Maltese Falcon, and he set out to locate its landmarks much as I’d attempted myself. Leiber was more organized about the project than I ever was, and “Stalking Sam Spade” does a much better job detailing his discoveries. Learning about San Francisco’s past through a detective novel led him to search for the history of the apartment house he lived in, culminating in his building becoming the nexus of Our Lady of Darkness.

Perhaps the allure of “rediscovering” a city through literature is not unique to San Francisco, but it’s certainly an active and avid pastime here. While some people move to San Francisco solely concerned about which address is currently beau chic or which nightspots are ripe for seeing-and-being-seen, I’ve encountered just as many who’ve found themselves ensnared in this game, the game I played those sleepless nights. It’s much as the Baker Street Irregulars “play the game” retracing Sherlock Holmes’ footprints as though he’d lived and breathed. With each step of the game comes the chill of revelation, the buzzing realization you’re walking the streets Hammett, Kerouac, Frank Norris, and others once trod daily. Each San Francisco writer is inspired in very different ways by the same city—a city that reinvents itself every generation, granting each artist who lands here a bed of fresh soil to sow and till. Some waste it, some fail to tend their seedlings. Others grow oak trees still standing today.

As Herron pointed out on our tour, Leiber got one fact wrong in “Stalking Sam Spade”: Spade’s apartment was most likely at Post & Hyde (not Geary & Hyde), the same location as Hammett’s apartment when he lived in San Francisco. A landmark plaque is on that building today, just as there is one at Burritt Alley—the location of the first murder in The Maltese Falcon—a plaque that did not exist when Leiber wrote his article.

Photo by Parker Higgins

Photo by Parker Higgins (CC0)

Another plaque that did not exist at that time is today placed on the Hotel Union at 811 Geary Street. It’s dedicated to Fritz Leiber and the book he wrote while drying up there, Our Lady of Darkness, a book inspired by his quest to re-walk the chapters of Hammett’s San Francisco and see the world anew.

Learn more about Don Herron’s tours and books at donherron.com