The Eye of Argon
|Publisher||Wildside Press (2006 reprint)|
|Media type||Print (magazine, 1970; trade paperback, 2006)|
The Eye of Argon is a heroic fantasy novella that narrates the adventures of Grignr, a barbarian. It was written in 1970 by Jim Theis (August 9, 1953 – March 26, 2002) and circulated anonymously in science fiction fandom since then. It has been described as "one of the genre's most beloved pieces of appalling prose", the "infamous 'worst fantasy novel ever' published for fans' enjoyment," and "the apotheosis of bad writing", and has subsequently been used as part of a common science fiction convention party game.
The novelette was written in 1970 by Jim Theis, a St. Louis, Missouri science fiction fan, at age 16. The work was first published in 1970 in OSFAN (the journal of the Ozark SF Society) No. 10. David Langford described Theis in SFX as "a malaprop genius, a McGonagall of prose with an eerie gift for choosing the wrong word and then misapplying it."
Tom Scortia sent me the fanzine pages as a kind of shared amusement, since both of us tended to look for poor use of language in stories. Don Simpson and I were still married then, and one of our entertainments was reading aloud to each other. This work was such a mish-mash that we took turns reading it to each other until we could stand no more...
About two weeks after the story arrived, we had a dinner party, mainly for MWA (Mystery Writers of America) and book dealer friends, and Joe Gores got to talking about some of the really hideous language misuse he had seen in recent anthology submissions and had brought along a few of the most egregious. I mentioned I had something that put his examples in the shade, and brought out "The Eye of Argon." It was a huge hit. [Locus reviewer] Tom Whitmore asked if he could make a copy of it, and I loaned it to him, and readings of it started to become a hideous entertainment. I never typed out a copy of it, but I am afraid I did start the ball rolling.
She showed it to other fans, and it met with a tremendous and incredulous reaction. The work was copied and distributed widely around science fiction fandom, often without Theis's name attached. Readings quickly became a common item on science fiction convention programmes. "People sit in a circle and take turns reading from photocopies of the story. The reader's turn is over when he begins to laugh uncontrollably."
The version which currently circulates on the Internet was manually transcribed by Don Simpson from a mimeograph of Theis' original, and bears his note at the bottom:
- No mere transcription can give the true flavor of the original printing of The Eye of Argon. It was mimeographed with stencils cut on an elite manual typewriter. Many letters were so faint as to be barely readable, others were overstruck, and some that were to be removed never got painted out with correction fluid. Usually, only one space separated sentences, while paragraphs were separated by a blank line and were indented ten spaces. Many words were grotesquely hyphenated. And there were illustrations — I cannot do them justice in mere words, but they were a match for the text. These are the major losses of this version (#02) of TEoA.
- Otherwise, all effort has been made to retain the full and correct text, preserving even mis-spellings and dropped spaces. An excellent proofreader has checked it for errors both omitted and committed. What mismatches remain are mine.
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database lists an edition having been published by Hypatia Press in 1987 (ISBN 0-940841-10-X). The story was also reprinted in 1995. In 2006, a trade paperback edition of the text was published by Wildside Press.
- Chapter 1
- The story starts with a violent swordfight between the barbarian Grignr and some soldiers. Grignr is on his way to Gorzom in search of wenches and plunder.
- Chapter 2
- Grignr arrives in Gorzom and goes to a tavern, where he picks up a local wench (with a "lithe, opaque nose"). A drunken guard challenges him over the woman; he kills the guard, but is arrested by the man's companions and brought before the local prince, who (on the advice of his advisor) condemns him to a life of forced labour in the mines. This chapter contains the first of several occasions when the word slut is applied to a man, presumably as an insult.
- Chapter 3
- Grignr sits despondent in his cell, thinking of his homeland.
- Chapter 3½
- A scene of a pagan ritual involving a group of shamans (referred to using the misguided plural "shamen"), a young woman to be sacrificed and a jade idol with one eye: a "many fauceted scarlet emerald", the Eye of Argon.
- Chapter 4
- Grignr sits bored and anguished in his cell and is losing track of time. He battles a large rat and it inspires him with a plan, involving the corpse of the rat.
- Chapter 5
- The pagan ritual proceeds, with a priest ordering the young woman up to the altar. When she fails to proceed, he attempts to grope her. She disables him with a hard kick between the testicles, but the other shamans grab and molest her.
- Chapter 6
- Grignr is taken from his cell by two soldiers. He takes the rat pelvis he has fashioned into a dagger and slits one soldier's throat. He then strangles the second and takes his clothes. He wanders the catacombs for a time, finding a storeroom, and narrowly avoids being killed by a booby-trap. Below this room he finds the palace mausoleum. He resets the booby-trap in case he is being pursued.
- He hears a scream apparently coming from a sarcophagus. He opens it to find the scream is coming from below. He opens a trap door and sees a shaman about to sacrifice the young woman. He ploughs into the group of shamans with an axe and takes the Eye. The young woman, Carthena, turns out to be the tavern wench. They depart.
- Chapter 7
- One priest, who had been suffering an epileptic seizure during Grignr's attack, recovers, draws a scimitar and follows Grignr and Carthena through the trap door in the ceiling.
- Chapter 7½
- The priest strikes at Grignr but he triggers, and is killed by, the reset booby-trap before his sword can connect. Carthena tells Grignr of the prince, Agaphim, who had condemned him to the mines. They encounter Agaphim and kill him, as well as his advisor Agafnd.
- They emerge into the sunlight. Grignr pulls the Eye of Argon out of his pouch to admire. The jewel melts and turns into a writhing blob with a leechlike mouth. The blob attacks him and begins sucking his blood. Carthena faints. Grignr, beginning to lose consciousness, grabs a torch and thrusts it into the blob's mouth.
Traditional photocopied and Internet versions end at this point, incomplete since page 49 of the fanzine had been lost. The ending was rediscovered in 2004 and published in The New York Review of Science Fiction #198, February 2005. The authenticity of this "lost ending" is still disputed by many.
- The Lost Ending (Remainder of Ch. 7½)
- The blob explodes into a thousand pieces, leaving nothing behind except "a dark red blotch upon the face of the earth, blotching things up." Grignr and the still-unconscious Carthena ride off into the distance.
The lost ending
The version usually found on the Internet is incomplete, ending with the phrase "-END OF AVAILABLE COPY-". Ansible, Langford's science-fiction newsletter, reported in its February 2005 issue that "according to a letter in The New York Review of Science Fiction (January 2005), a complete copy of the relevant 1970 fanzine has been unearthed in the Jack Williamson SF Library at Eastern New Mexico University. JWSFL collection administrator Gene Bundy reports that the long-missing page 49 begins: "With a sloshing plop the thing fell to the ground, evaporating in a thick scarlet cloud until it reatained its original size."
At SF Conventions
For a number of years circa the 1990s The Eye of Argon was read aloud, usually as charity events, at several West Coast U.S. Science fiction conventions (such as OryCon and LosCon) as well as Northeast U.S. conventions such as 5Con. A panel of volunteers would take turns reading passages, and the audience would bid to stop that passage or continue (for some set number of minutes, or paragraphs after each successful bid). At some of these events some members of the audience improvisationally got up to act out the scenes being read, as mime. All proceeds from these were then given to various different charities. Some of these events were spontaneous, others were officially scheduled. Usually they were held late at night or in the wee hours.
As a party game
Reading The Eye of Argon aloud has been made into a game, as described by SF critic Dave Langford in SFX magazine: "The challenge of death, at SF conventions, is to read The Eye of Argon aloud, straight-faced, without choking and falling over. The grandmaster challenge is to read it with a squeaky voice after inhaling helium. What fun we fans have." Strict rules also include not laughing and reading all mistakes exactly as written. Making it through three-quarters of a page is considered an extraordinary accomplishment.
James F. Theis (pronounced [ˈtaɪs]) was born August 9, 1953 and died March 26, 2002. He published The Eye of Argon in a fanzine in 1970 at age 16 (it did not appear until three months after his 17th birthday, but Theis himself claimed to have been 16 at the time of its writing). He did not write any more fiction, but did later pursue and earn a degree in journalism. His hobbies included collecting books, comics, and German swords; he also collected, traded, and sold tapes of radio programs of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s under the business-name "The Phantom of Radio Past", advertising in such publications as the Fandom Directory.
In an interview with Theis on 8 March 1984 on Hour 25, a talk show on KPFK, the presenters of which would periodically stage a reading of The Eye of Argon, Theis stated that he was hurt that his story was being mocked and said he would never write anything again. In a later interview he complained about being mocked for something he had written thirty years ago, at age sixteen. He is said to have participated in readings of the story in St Louis, e.g. at Archon. A copy of the 1995 reprinting was sent to him, with no response.
Because the novelette was at least once re-typed and photocopied for distribution, without provenance, many readers have found it hard to believe the story was not a collaborative effort, a satire on bad writing, or both. The webmaster of a now defunct site called "Wulf's 'Eye of Argon' Shrine" argued that the story "was actually well paced and plotted. He went on to say that, although he didn't believe it himself, 'at least one sf professional today claims that the story was a cunning piece of satire passed off as real fan fiction.'" Langford reported the following, sent in by author Michael Swanwick, in Ansible #193:
- I had a surprising conversation at Readercon with literary superstar Samuel R. Delany, who told me of how at an early Clarion the students and teachers had decided to see exactly how bad a story they could write if they put their minds to it. Chip himself contributed a paragraph to the round robin effort. Its title? "The Eye of Argon".
The 1995 reprint was attributed to "G. Ecordian," after the hero, Grignr the Ecordian. Langford considers it well known that Theis is the author, and surmises that Delany misremembered the event.
Author Stephen Goldin said that, during a convention, he met a woman who told him she had done the actual mimeographing for the Ozark-area fanzine. Lee Weinstein reports that he had originally heard that Dorothy Fontana had distributed the photocopies. Weinstein, however, later discovered Usenet posts by Richard W. Zellich, who was involved in running the St. Louis, Missouri area convention Archon. Zellich reported in 1991 posts that Jim Theis was real and attended the convention for years.
What Weinstein calls "the smoking gun...the long missing citation" was a 1994 posting from New York fan Richard Newsome, who transcribed an interview with Theis published in OSFAN No. 13. Theis was quoted as saying, "How many professional writers have written a complete story at so early an age? Even so, 'Eye of Argon' isn't great. I basically don't know much about structure or composition." The interviewer praised him for showing good sportsmanship, and Theis replied, "I mean, it was easier than showing bad character and inviting trouble."
- Amanda McKittrick Ros, novelist whose work was also read aloud in similar competitions.
- "Bottom of the Barrel". SFX Magazine. Retrieved 2008-01-16.
- Von Ruff, Al. "Bibliography: The Eye of Argon". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved September 23, 2013.
- Weinstein, Lee (November 2004). "In Search of "The Eye of Argon"". The New York Review of Science Fiction (Pleasantville, N.Y.: Dragon Press) 17 (3:195): 1, 6–8. ISSN 1052-9438.
- "David Langford | Week 99". The Infinite Matrix. Retrieved 2010-09-19.
- "Ansible 211, February 2005". News.ansible.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-09-19.
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- "SS > SF > The Eye of Argon > more background". Users.cs.york.ac.uk. Retrieved 2010-09-19.[unreliable source?]
- Zellich, Richard W. Re: [stlf] The Eye of Argon Published Professionally, St Louis Fandom mailing list, Sat Sep 16, 2006[unreliable source?]
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- "Ansible 193, August 2003". News.ansible.co.uk. 2003-10-31. Retrieved 2010-09-19.