There’s nothing better than a good book – or so those of us who make our living on the written word would have you believe. Literature, at its best, is a glorious thing. Imagination, beauty, love, hope, and honor all inhabit the pages of Shakespeare, Austen, Tolkien, or Dumas, just to name a few.
But everything has its downside, even the written language and the printing press, both widely considered to be some of the greatest inventions in human history. Granted, they’ve allowed enormously talented writers to reach millions of delighted, devoted fans. However, these two wonders of human civilization also indirectly led to The Eye of Argon, a science fiction novella written in 1970 by one Jim Theis, whose name has lived in infamy ever since.
Widely known as the worst sci-fi/fantasy tale ever penned, The Eye of Argon has become an underground cult classic. Derivative, incoherent, and written using rules of grammar, spelling, and linguistics unique in the known universe, it is now a byword, and has been reproduced in many forms on the Web and celebrated at hundreds of genre conventions. It was originally published by Osfan magazine, the editor of which was unable to pass up such a gem. It was circulated in mimeographed form by science fiction writers, until eventually making its way to the public eye – and the advent of the Internet, of course, allowed the story to reach a wider audience than ever before.
The story’s valiantly unpronounceable protagonist is Grignr, a barbarian mercenary who is, as the tale opens, forced to flee to the city of Gorzom. There he encounters a woman whose “lithe opaque nose” and “firm protruding busts” entice him to dally. As it turns out, she’s actually the girlfriend of one of the city guards, and Grignr is unceremoniously hauled away to the palace and imprisoned.
After escaping, Grignr wanders the palace until he eventually rescues a girl about to be sacrificed by Gorzom’s evil priests; in the process, he steals an important artifact, the Eye of Argon. After several more pointless and incomprehensible adventures, Grignr and his lady love win their way to freedom. The final battle, in which Grignr defeats the Eye of Argon – don’t ask why he stole it in the first place only to kill it once it inexplicably comes alive, please – is a worthy representative sample of the story’s quality and scope.
“With a sloshing plop the thing fell to the ground, evaporating in a thick scarlet cloud until it reatained its original size. It remained thus for a moment as the puckered maw took the shape of a protruding red eyeball, the pupil of which seemed to unravel before it the tale of creation. How a shapeless mass slithered from the quagmires of the stygmatic pool of time, only to degenerate into a leprosy of avaricious lust. In that fleeting moment the grim mystery of life was revealed before Grignr’s ensnared gaze.
“The eyeballs glare turned to a sudden plea of mercy, a plea for the whole of humanity. Then the blob began to quiver with violent convulsions; the eyeball shattered into a thousand tiny fragments and evaporated in a curling wisp of scarlet mist. The very ground below the thing began to vibrate and swallow it up with a belch.
“The thing was gone forever. All that remained was a dark red blotch upon the face of the earth, blotching things up. Shaking his head, his shaggy mane to clear the jumbled fragments of his mind, Grignr tossed the limp female over his shoulder. Mounting one of the disgruntled mares, and leading the other; the weary, scarred barbarian trooted slowly off into the horizon to become a tiny pinpoint in a filtered filed of swirling blue mists, leaving the Nobles, soldiers and peasants to replace the missing monarch. Long leave the king!!!”
As can easily be seen from this excerpt – which isn’t, to be fair, even the best (worst?) of the work as a whole – no mere description can do The Eye of Argon justice.
In fact, the only way that’s been found to fully appreciate the story is through a contest that’s regularly held at science fiction and fantasy conventions. Attendees are challenged to read the novella aloud to an audience – and to keep a straight face. Laughter is an immediate disqualification. Doesn’t sound too hard, right? But try reading even one paragraph of Jim Theis’s masterpiece out loud to another person, and you’ll see how difficult it can be.
For example, try this one:
“All knowledge of measuring time had escaped Grignr. When a person is deprived of the sun, moon, and stars, he looses all conception of time as he had previously understood it. It seemed as if years had passed if time were being measured by terms of misery and mental anguish, yet he estimated that his stay had only been a few days in length. He has slept three times and had been fed five times since his awakening in the crypt. However, when the actions of the body are restricted its needs are also affected. The need for nourishmnet and slumber are directly proportional to the functions the body has performed, meaning that when free and active Grignr may become hungry every six hours and witness the desire for sleep every fifteen hours, whereas in his present condition he may encounter the need for food every ten hours, and the want for rest every twenty hours. All methods he had before depended upon were extinct in the dismal pit. Hence, he may have been imprisoned for ten minutes or ten years, he did not know, resulting in a disheartened emotion deep within his being.”
That disheartened emotion, deep within Grignr’s being? It probably came from reading The Eye of Argon.