The Eye of Argon
I can't remember exactly how I originally discovered it, but somewhere in 2015 I caught wind of the legendary Eye of Argon, also known as “the apotheosis of bad writing,” a title which had been prematurely adwarded before the advent of 21st Century Young Adult literature. Intrigued, I looked it up and found the eBook on Amazon, which included some essays about the mythos surrounding the story. (You can also get it in paperback, or read it for free at David Langford's website.) I read it, thought it was an interesting read, then mostly forgot about it.
Five years later I decided to re-read The Eye of Argon as it had been featured on 372 Pages We'll Never Get Back, a podcast in which Conor Lastowka and Michael J. Nelson of RiffTrax read and then discuss poorly written books.
The Eye of Argon is a short story, roughly 23 pages long, about a barbarian adventurer named Grignr. Written by a 16-year-old from St. Louis, Missouri, named Jim Theis, it's basically a knock-off of Conan the Barbarian. The novella is legendary for its excessive use of adjectives and adverbs, as nary a noun nor verb goes without extensive description. The story is also rife with unintentional malapropisms, either through misspellings or the author overreaching for an interesting-sounding synonym. It's one of those things “you have to see to believe!” Here's a sample paragraph from the first page:
A gleaming scimitar smote a heavy blow against the renegade's spiked helmet, bringing a heavy cloud over the Ecordian's misting brain. Shaking off the effects of the pounding blow to his head, Grignr brought down his scarlet streaked edge against the soldier's crudely forged hauberk, clanging harmlessly to the left side of his opponent. The soldier's stead whinnied as he directed the horse back from the driving blade of the barbarian. Grignr leashed his mount forward as the hoarsely piercing battle cry of his wilderness bred race resounded from his grinding lungs. A twirling blade bounced harmlessly from the mighty thief's buckler as his rolling right arm cleft upward, sending a foot of blinding steel ripping through the Simarian's exposed gullet. A gasping gurgle from the soldier's writhing mouth as he tumbled to the golden sand at his feet, and wormed agonizingly in his death bed.
After its publication in 1970 in OSFAN #10, a fanzine, The Eye of Argon quickly gained a cult following as over the following decades copies of copies were shared at sci-fi and fantasy conventions. One popular game at conventions is to see how far a player can read the story before laughing or stumbling over the typos.
Despite the 1970s and '80s lacking the global or even national interconnectivity of the modern World Wide Web, and therefore lacking the vile culture of cyberbullying that's currenlty predominating the Internet, Theis still felt the effects of having his work mocked, and swore to never write again. That's too bad because he could have potentially gone on to hone his skills and become a decent writer. Afterall, he was only 16 when he wrote The Eye of Argon, and all great writers have to start somewhere, and most start off poorly, slowly improving their skills through the refining fire of repeated practice and listening to constructive criticism.
The last time the world at large heard from Jim Theis was in an inverview some time in or after 1984. He died March 26, 2002, at the age of 48.
Despite all the criticisms, The Eye of Argon is far from the worst story I've ever read. Just look at all the unreadable rubbish published since the turn of the century that becomes a best-selling series then inconceivably goes on to be adapted into multiple blockbuster films.
Even with its tremendous flaws, as Grignr “smothered [the damel's] trim, delicate lips between the coarsing protrusions of his reeking maw,” The Eye of Argon is still a better love story than Twilight.
- ⌃ Theis is pronounced like “Tise.”