Conan holding up a bloody sword and yelling

Okay, technically this is Conan, not Grignr, but I'm pretty sure this is how Theis imagined Grignr.

Originally published in a 1970 fanzine, The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis is known as the worst story ever written. The Eye of Argon readings are a favorite at conventions, where readers compete to read the story without laughing. Since it’s already been torn apart so much, I don’t know what I could add to the conversation by criticizing it. That’s why instead, I’m praising it. Every work has flaws, so theoretically every work should also have strengths, right?

Right?!

Plus, I’ve done positive critiques before. Well, okay, I’ve done one.

While I’ve seen a few snippets from The Eye of Argon, I’ve never read through it. I’m using a copy of the free Competitive Reading Edition assembled by Roger MacBride Allen of FoxAcre Press, which is formatted to reproduce as many errors from the original as possible. I’m not bothering with “[sic]”; you can assume errors in the quotes come from the original… or die. If you’d like to thank FoxAcre Press for putting this together, you can purchase their scholarly edition of the tale, which has some accompanying essays and an investigation into the origins of the work. Get both editions here.

Let’s review the first sentence.

The weather beaten trail wound ahead into the dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire.

Well have a look at this – it’s a complete sentence and everything! While this opening doesn’t create a hook or introduce the main character, the rustic setting and named empire allows us to identify right away that it’s a work of otherworld fantasy. Also, since no one would ever casually think “which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire,” we can guess this is an omniscient narrator, or at least a very distant one.

That wasn’t so bad. That must mean the rest of the first paragraph also won’t be so bad.

Age worn hoof prints smothered by the sifting sands of time shone dully against the dust splattered crust of earth. The tireless sun cast its parching rays of incandescense from overhead, half way through its daily revolution. Small rodents scampered about, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust sprayed over three heaving mounts in blinding clouds, while they bore the burdonsome cargoes of their struggling overseers.

So this is a little rough around the edges, but it generally meets the expectations that the first sentence set.

Discounting any laughter from disrespectful readers, the passage creates a strong atmosphere of general bleakness. My favorite line is that small rodents are living dismal lives. In fact, I wish the narrator would continue on about how everything from the trees to the stones were merely counting the days until the end of their pointless existences. This can’t possibly be because I have a morbid sense of humor.

While it helps that the paragraph isn’t trying to do more than set the scene, its information management is also solid. The only proper noun we’ve had to learn is “Norgolian,” and we have a clear and memorable impression of this Norgolian empire as dusty, particularly since “dust” has appeared three times so far.

Last, I would like to point out that while the sun does not complete a revolution every day – astronomical or otherwise – since it generates light by being very hot, it is by definition incandescent. Assuming we forgive a small spelling error, the scientific accuracy of this passage is above 0%, which is probably higher than Americans are used to right now.

Moving on…

“Prepare to embrace your creators in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian”, gasped the first soldier.

“Only after you have kissed the fleeting stead of death, wretch!” returned Grignr.

Well, umm… there’s conflict now. It doesn’t exactly create tension because these characters barely existed before, but assuming they continue to exist, theoretically we could become invested in the the outcome of their fight.

Since an empire was previously mentioned, we can also conclude that the soldier is fighting for the empire and that this Grignr is against it. The phrase “first soldier” also informs us there are additional soldiers. While it would have been useful to know there were multiple soldiers earlier, at least we know now.

While many readers probably won’t know that “stygian” refers to the river Styx in the Greek underworld, Theis makes it clear from context that it’s associated with this world’s hell somehow.

A sweeping blade of flashing steel riveted from the massive barbarians hide enameled shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel shod blade to the hilt into the soldiers vital organs. The disemboweled mercenary crumpled from his saddle and sank to the clouded sward, sprinkling the parched dust with crimson droplets of escaping life fluid.

The enthused barbarian swilveled about, his shock of fiery red hair tossing robustly in the humid air currents as he faced the attack of the defeated soldier’s fellow in arms.

Look at how this passage masterfully works in description of the barbarian Grignr during this fight scene. Grignr seems to be the main character, and we now know he’s massive (assuming that’s not referring to his shield), he probably has rippling muscles (it’s either that or an arm that is moving in ripples), and he has a single shock of fiery red hair. Granted, since this is omniscient the narrator simply could have described him outright, but working it into the fight prevents the description from slowing the story down.

Also, we’ve seen Theis is definitely willing to crack open his thesaurus. While some might say that picking random words form a thesaurus is one of his biggest issues, this passage has some genuinely good choices such as the mercenary “crumpling,” and… well, in an alternate reality where “swiveled” was spelled correctly or “sweep” or “flash” were actually being used as verbs, those would have been good choices too.

I could easily comment on every passage of The Eye of Argon, but I’d like to cover more ground. So let’s skip to the end of the next paragraph of description, when the second soldier/mercenary dies.

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.

Grignr’s emerald green orbs glared lustfully at the wallowing soldier struggling before his chestnut swirled mount. His scowling voice reverberated over the dying form in a tone of mocking mirth. “You city bred dogs should learn not to antagonize your better.” Reining his weary mount ahead, grignr resumed his journey to the Noregolian city of Gorzam, hoping to discover wine, women, and adventure to boil the wild blood coarsing through his savage veins.

Grignr is a distinct and consistent character. We’re only at the end of the first page, and we know him surprisingly well. His bloodlust is consistently portrayed not just by telling readers that he is a savage renegade barbarian, but also by showing him kill two soldiers without hesitation and stare at one of those dying soldiers lustfully. We also know what his goals are, and those goals match the character we have seen so far.

I think Jim Theis wanted Grignr to be styled after a classic sword & sorcery hero, and at that he has also succeeded. While Grignr and Conan may not quite be on the same level in terms of quality, they are similar in kind.

The trek to Gorzom was forced upon Grignr when the soldiers of Crin were leashed upon him by a faithless concubine he had wooed. His scandalous activities throughout the Simarian city had unleashed throngs of havoc and uproar among it’s refined patricians, leading them to tack a heavy reward over his head. He had barely managed to escape through the back entrance of the inn he had been guzzling in, as a squad of soldiers tounced upon him. After spilling a spout of blood from the leader of the mercenaries as he dismembered one of the officer’s arms, he retreated to his mount to make his way towards Gorzom, rumoured to contain hoards of plunder, and many young wenches for any man who has the backbone to wrest them away.

Since the story is skipping forward while Grignr travels, this a good place to pause and fill in a little background via exposition. Not only that, but the passage explains why Grignr’s traveling, why the mercenaries are after him, and why he decided to go to Gorzom – information that is all relevant to what’s currently happening. A single paragraph is also a good length for this information.

And again, the summary of how Grignr spilled a spout of blood and dismembered someone’s arm is consistent with the character Theis has established.

Next, he arrives at Gorzom and immediately heads to an establishment of ill repute.

Tables were clustered with groups of drunken thieves, and cutthroats, tossing dice, or making love to willing prostitutes.

Eyeing a slender female crouched alone at a nearby bench, Grignr advanced wishing to wholesomely occupy his time. The flickering torches cast weird shafts of luminescence dancing over the half naked harlot of his choice, her stringy orchid twines of hair swaying gracefully over the lithe opaque nose, as she raised a half drained mug to her pale red lips.

I really like how sex-positive Theis is. Besides sex being described as wholesome, it’s genuinely nice that in an establishment full of violent people, he’s reassured us that all the prostitutes are consenting. Thus far, The Eye of Argon is more friendly to sexual assault survivors than countless stories I could name, and certainly many sword & sorcery works.

He also doesn’t describe this harlot in particularly objectifying ways. The most specific description is of her hair and face, well… her nose. I mean, it’s nice to know it’s opaque, right? On a planet with billions of potential readers, surely there’s someone who would have assumed her nose was transparent otherwise.

” Thou hast need to occupy your time, barbarian”,questioned the female?

“Only if something worth offering is within my reach.” Stated Grignr,as his hands crept to embrace the tempting female, who welcomed them with open willingness.

“From where do you come barbarian, and by what are you called?” Gasped the complying wench, as Grignr smothered her lips with the blazing touch of his flaming mouth.

The engrossed titan ignored the queries of the inquisitive female, pulling her towards him and crushing her sagging nipples to his yearning chest. Without struggle she gave in, winding her soft arms around the harshly bronzedhide of Grignr corded shoulder blades, as his calloused hands caressed her firm protruding busts.

“You make love well wench,”Admitted Grignr as he reached for the vessel of potent wine his charge had been quaffing.

This sex scene is refreshingly vague and brief.

Grignr also gains an ever so slightly more complex personality as he compliments his partner on her performance afterward. (That’s afterward, right???)

Apparently there are more soldiers in this tavern, because next, one of them declares that only he shall court the opaque-nosed beauty. Grignr reacts exactly how we would expect him to.

The staggering soldier clumsily reached towards the pommel of his dangling sword, but before his hands ever touched the oaken hilt a silvered flash was slicing the heavy air. The thews of the savages lashing right arm bulged from the glistening bronzed hide as his blade bit deeply into the soldiers neck, loping off the confused head of his senseless tormentor.

With a nauseating thud the severed oval toppled to the floor, as the segregated torso of Grignr’s bovine antagonist swayed, then collapsed in a pool of swirled crimson.

While this passage isn’t entirely clear about whether the confused head was lopped off the soldier or the soldier’s senseless tormentor (Grignr), it’s very clear that a confused head was in fact lopped off and that it landed about the same time as a side of beef.

Next, the soldier’s fellows surround Grignr.

“Dismiss your hand from the hilt, barbarbian, or you shall find a foot of steel sheathed in your gizzard.”

Grignr weighed his position observing his plight, where-upon he took the soldier’s advice as the only logical choice. To attempt to hack his way from his present predicament could only warrant certain death. He was of no mind to bring upon his own demise if an alternate path presented itself. The will to necessitate his life forced him to yield to the superior force in hopes of a moment of carlessness later upon the part of his captors in which he could effect a more plausible means of escape.

Oh man, what a twist! Theis has successfully subverted my expectations by having Grignr do something other than mindlessly slaughter the random soldiers that attack him constantly. Theis even admitted that a force superior to Grignr exists!

Somewhere out there is a reader who cares about Grignr, and that reader was no doubt riveted by the hero’s peril. With this hook, the story has begun in earnest.

After this, the soldiers take Grignr to see the prince/king. We now know that Grignr is a… multi-faceted character, and we see that play out as Grignr wavers over whether he should make an effort to preserve his own life.

“Down on your knees, lout, and pay proper homage to your sovereign!” commanded the pudgy noble of Grignr.

“By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!” scowled the massive barbarian.

“You dare to deal this blasphemous act to me! You are indeed brave stranger, yet your valor smacks of foolishness.”

“I find you to be the only fool, sitting upon your pompous throne,”

This sounds very dangerous for Grignr, but luckily Theis is a savvy enough storyteller to realize that it will be difficult to continue the story if his main character is dead.

The prince regained his statue, then spoke to the soldiers surrounding Grignr, his face conforming to an ugly expression of sadistic humor. “Take this uncouth heathen to the vault of misery, and be sure that his agonies are long and drawn out before death can release him.”

[…]

The advisor […] lowered his head and whispered to the noble. “Eminence, the punishment you have decreed will cause much misery to this scum, yet it will last only a short time, then release him to a land beyond the sufferings of the human body. Why not mellow him in one of the subterranean vaults for a few days, then send him to life labor in one of your buried mines. To one such as he, a life spent in the confinement of the stygian pits will be an infinitely more appropiate and lasting torture.”

As we thoroughly appreciate how much worse it will be for Grignr to be sent to the mines instead of dying, I have to mention how consistent Theis is with his worldbuilding. Disregarding capitalization and spelling, he is using his naming language and world terms consistently and sparingly. We know Grignr worships someone named Mrifk, and those two names certainly look like they came from the same vowel-hating culture. Again, he uses “stygian” in a context where “hellish” would be appropriate. Each paragraph only has about one word that isn’t somewhere in the English dictionary in some form, though it may not be the form Theis is using.

Next, Grignr shows another side of himself as he angsts over how his life was spared.

“I shall never understand the ways if your twisted civilization. I simply defend my honor and am condemned to life confinement, by a pig who sits on his royal ass wooing whores, and knows nothing of the affairs of the land he imagines to rule!” Lectures Grignr ?

Theis takes a golden opportunity during a tense moment in the story to work in some political commentary and frighteningly realistic characterization. Grignr is sympathetically anti-elitist, yet unwilling to look beyond the bounds of his own culture, perhaps because he is emotionally dependent on justifying his violent behavior.

Also, do I detect an ongoing animal motif? The prince is referred to as a pig, whereas the soldier Grignr killed was “bovine,” and Grignr was referred to by another character as possessing a gizzard – an organ that birds have but humans do not. Combined with Grignr’s savage and hedonistic characterization, this is clearly commentary on the animalistic nature of human conflicts.

Or at least… some theoretical literary fan of this work could see it that way if they really wanted to. No, it’s probably not Theis’s intent, but he’s not around, so it doesn’t matter!

Next, Grignr manages to grab a sword and murder the advisor who just doomed him to a longer life. Naturally the prince reacts by cringing in fear.

“Where is your wisdom and power now, your magjesty?” Growled Grignr.

The prince went rigid as Grignr discerned him glazing over his shoulder. He swlived to note the cause of the noble’s attention, raised his sword over his head, and prepared to leash a vicious downward cleft, but fell short as the haft of a steel rimed pike clashed against his unguarded skull. Then blackness and solitude. Silence enshrouding and ever peaceful reind supreme.

“Before me, sirrah! Before me as always! Ha, Ha Ha, Haaaa…”, nobly cackled.

I like how Theis characterizes Grignr passing out as the peaceful reign of enshrouding silence – though admittedly he didn’t say it exactly like that. While this description isn’t what you’d expect in a violent romp, Theis has previously described the lives of rodents in nihilistic terms, so it’s not entirely inconsistent.

Plus, if we assume this story is deep commentary on the savage and bestial nature of humans, it fits that the absence of human consciousness would be peaceful.

Consciousness returned to Grignr in stygmatic pools as his mind gradually cleared of the cobwebs cluttering its inner recesses, yet the stygian cloud of charcoal ebony remained. An incompatible shield of blackness, enhanced by the bleak abscense of sound.

Okay, umm… this passage successfully informs readers that Grignr is conscious.

Theis uses some evocative words like “pools,” “cobwebs,” “charcoal,” and “shield” that could, if they were used in a coherent context, make for some great internal description.

[Grignr] dickered with the notion that he was dead and had descended or sunk, however it may be, to the shadowed land beyond the the aperature of the grave, but rejected this hypothesis when his memory sifted back within his grips. This was not the land of the dead, it was something infinitely more precarious than anything the grave could offer. Death promised an infinity of peace, not the finite misery of an inactive life of confined torture, forever concealed from the life bearing shafts of the beloved rising sun. The orb that had been before taken for granted, yet now cherished above all else.

Theis again shows his appreciation for science. Grignr uses the experimental method in coming up with a hypothesis and then proving it wrong by collecting data. He demonstrates several times that he understands the concept of infinity. Last, he metaphorically mentions photosynthesis, and the sun is, in fact, an orb.

Next, there’s a page and scene shift.

A tightly rung elliptical circle or torches cast their wavering shafts prancing morbidly over the smooth surface of a rectangular, ridged alter. Expertly chisled the forms of grotesque gargoyles graced the oblique rim protruberating the length of the grim orifice of death, staring forever ahead into nothingness in complete ignorance of the bloody rites enacted in their prescence. […]

Encircling the marble altar was a congregation of leering shamen. Eerie chants of a bygone age, originating unknown eons before the memory of man, were being uttered from the buried recesses of the acolytes’ deep lings.

Theis shows a surprising amount of versatility as he switches to cosmic horror. This isn’t really that genre-bending because the Conan stories and other sword & sorcery works also did this. Even so, it’s still impressive to see Theis change from wording that’s obviously taken from one context to wording taken from another.

And sure, when it comes to incorporating words, his eyes are clearly bigger than his stomach, but he obviously pays a great deal of attention to mood and language. Many writers have to be taught to be less vague and more specific, but he doesn’t have a problem with that.

Our last quote ends the scene.

Dangling around their necks were oval fashoned medalions held by thin gold chains, featuring in their centers blood red rubys which resembled crimson fetish eyeballs. […]

Situated in front of the altar, and directly adjacent to the copper pail was a massive jade idol; a misshaped, hideous bust of the shamens’ pagan diety. The shimmering green idol was placed in a sitting posture on an ornately carved golden throne raised upon a round, dvory plated dias; it bulging arms and webbed hands resting on the padded arms of the seat.

[…]

Gaping from its single obling socket was scintillating, many fauceted scarlet emerald, a brilliant gem seeming to possess a life all of its own. A priceless gleaming stone, capable of domineering the wealth of conquering empires… the eye of Argon.

Theis again subverts expectations by casting the third-most-abundant gas in Earth’s atmosphere as his villain.

Just so I don’t have to contort logic to find some new and genuine praise for this passage, let’s zoom out and look at some big-picture stuff.

  • The narrative premise and perspective of the story has been very consistent so far. It doesn’t contain head hopping or other jarring perspective changes. In that aspect, The Eye of Argon is better written than Maximum Ride and Maze Runner.
  • Information in the story is carefully introduced, telling readers what they need to know about current events without veering into excessive exposition dumps. In that aspect, The Eye of Argon is better written than Crescent City and The Tommyknockers.
  • The story introduces its main character right after the first paragraph and, judging from what I’ve seen, sticks closely to relevant plot events after that. In that aspect, The Eye of Argon is better written than Sword of Shannara and Battlefield Earth.
  • Problems and conflict are abundant in the portions we have covered. In that aspect, The Eye of Argon is better written than Tiger’s Curse and The Name of the Wind.

Yes, The Eye of Argon is terrible. But some people have speculated it’s so terrible someone must have made it that way on purpose, and I don’t think this is justified. For one thing, unless you’re an editor, you don’t know just how bad people are at writing when they get started. But mostly, the errors that make The Eye of Argon stand out are all about word choice, with excessive typos and spelling errors thrown in.

In fact, these errors remind me a bit of both Eragon and Dawn of Wonder: The Awakening. While it’s much more extreme in The Eye of Argon, both Eragon and Wonder have strange and sometimes funny word choices. I can believe someone would have this same problem in spades, particularly if they cared about wordcraft and were eager to impress. And it turns out Theis isn’t too different from Paolini, the young writer of Eragon. Theis apparently wrote The Eye of Argon when he was sixteen.

Everyone starts somewhere, and The Eye of Argon seems like a fine start to what could be a successful writing career. No, it shouldn’t have been published, not even in a fanzine, but that’s the fanzine’s fault. When most beginning writers submit their works to publishers, they’re rejected, and that tells them their work needs to improve. Theis was perhaps quite unlucky that The Eye of Argon was accepted.

I’d love to believe he’s out there writing successful books under a different pen name, but unfortunately, he died in 2002. He was forty-eight. Much of his doings, and his response to having his work widely mocked, are still a bit of a mystery.

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