In praise of The Eye of Argon


The year was 1970. The Beatles broke up. The Apollo 13 crew almost died. The US got bored with bombing Cambodia and sent in infantry. And a teenager named Jim Theis submitted his novella to a small SFF fanzine.

That story, The Eye of Argon, is often called the worst fantasy story ever published.

I love it.

– – –

The Eye of Argon begins with a swordfight on horseback in a desert wasteland. During the blow-by-blow description we learn that “riveted” is a synonym for “ricocheted,” the desert wind can be “humid,” and our protagonist is a Conan expy whose unspecified “scandalous activities” annoyed the “refined patricians” of Crin enough for them to want him dead. The fight serves no other purpose.

When I say “Conan expy,” I’m not kidding. Not only does Grignr of Ecordia differ from Conan only in hair and eye color, but if you don’t already know about Conan, you’ll be reading through that fight between a barbarian and two soldiers and wondering why there’s a “mighty thief” involved all of a sudden.

You might also be wondering whether Grignr’s foes are regular “soldiers” or “mercenaries,” how scowling and mirth can combine in someone’s voice, and what “swilveled” means. This is because Theis was trying to write purple prose and failing, and because no one at that fanzine edited or proofread this thing before printing it.

The plot, when we eventually get to it, isn’t very good. Grignr rides into a new town, meets a woman who’ll let him get to second base in the middle of a crowded barroom, gets accosted by a drunken soldier, and kills him before noticing that the bar is half-full of soldiers. From there he stumbles from one conflict to the next, until the climax, in which he’s trying to keep a miniature blob monster from climbing up his leg and leeching all his blood out.

And there it ends. (Unless you count the “lost ending,” which I don’t, because it’s most likely forged. Its style is wrong; it reads like it’s trying to be bad and childish, whereas The Eye of Argon reads like it’s trying to be erudite and adult.)

Oh, and the spelling, punctuation, indentation, and spacing mistakes contnue throughout. And the thesaurus abuse. And the pointlessly detailed descriptions of clothing and architecture. And the woeful misunderstanding of what women can do in a sword-and-sorcery story. Even Conan’s women. Valeria or Belit would kick Carthena’s ass.

– – –

The Eye of Argon became famous when writers and SFF fans began mocking it. There’s that game where people take turns trying to read it aloud without laughing, and it’s been MiSTed at least once. Its badness is supreme, which makes it a wellspring of unintentional comedy.

That isn’t its only redeeming feature, though. Beneath all that malformed prose is a genuine love of the sword-and-sorcery genre and a desire to contribute to it, and maybe to someday (after much practice) become another Leiber, Howard, or Moorcock.

I can’t blame Theis for not being able to write yet, and nothing created out of love can be all bad.

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