The Eye of Argon and the Further Adventures of Grignr the Barbarian (edited by Michael Ventrella, published by Fantastic Books, 2022) is a labor of love – an homage to teenaged (in 1970) Jim Theis’s The Eye of Argon. Michael’s introduction explains the modest beginning and enduring appeal of the quirky original:
So it’s 1970. If you’re a fan of high fantasy, you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. There’s no Dungeons and Dragons, no high fantasy movies or TV shows, and now you’re looking for something else…
But all that’s available is Conan the Barbarian and its clone, the Gor series.
Then again, you’re a nerdy teenage boy with raging hormones, and fantasizing about being a strong hero who has beautiful women at his mercy is appealing…
So put yourself back in those days and imagine young Jim Theis, who wants to be a writer. There are no home computers, no home printers, and photocopiers only exist in the largest corporations and cost tons of money.
So Jim decides to write his own story. He has no training as a writer, has no patron to assist him, but he certainly has the enthusiasm required. He types away, ignoring mistakes, misusing words left and right, and having the time of his life, coming up with a story to impress his friends.
He then submits it to the Ozark Science Fiction Association, and they publish it in their little fanzine. Jim thinks that’s the end of it—a nice little story some people will appreciate and then forget about.
However, the Forces of Fate stepped in.
It falls into the hands of the science fiction community, which embrace it and start reading it for fun at parties, challenging each other to see how far they could get before breaking up laughing.
This extended to science fiction conventions, where a panel would try to get through it, and were required to read it as written, pronouncing the words exactly as they appeared while not laughing or screwing up.
Years pass as the story’s distribution grows, shared from one convention to another. People all across America and Canada (and maybe elsewhere, too, who knows?) look forward to participating in the convention’s reading sessions.
The writing of the well-intentioned high-schooler Jim Theis clearly reflects inspiration from Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery classic, Conan the Barbarian. Jim’s youthful exuberance is smile-inducingly conveyed by flowery and poorly edited text. To wit, the tale begins thusly (its original spelling intact):
The weather beaten trail wound ahead into the dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire. 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.
“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.
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.
Eventually, Ian Randal Strock and Michael Ventrella, experienced anthologists, assembled writer friends familiar with The Eye of Argon and its celebration at pop culture conventions to develop in the style of the original author further adventures of the Conan-esque protagonist, Grignr the Barbarian. The treatment will delight fans of the British sword and sorcery TV series, Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire.
Widely published author Keith R.A. DeCandido (aka KRAD) contributed a story, “The Rat’s Tail,” to the anthology. “I’ve just submitted the worst story I’ve ever written!” he bragged on social media. It begins:
The rat waited.
The hirsute creature paced the stuygian depths of the dungeon beneath the castle. For its entire short life it had paced the stoney floor of the dark and dank dungeon, eating whatever scraps might find their way to his ravenous gullet.
Keith graciously agreed to answer some questions about the project:
Henry: What was it about the original The Eye of Argon that captured your interest?
KRAD: It wasn’t so much the original piece itself as the convention game of reading it straight-faced with all the typos intact. I was first exposed to it in the 1990s, and I took my turn to read it. I got eliminated by correcting one of the typos, which I didn’t even do consciously. After that, I viewed it as a challenge to try to win the contest by getting farther than anyone else, which I managed on several occasions. It’s a fun challenge, not just to keep the poker face (which is relatively easy for me), but to read it as written without correcting it, which goes against all my writerly and editorly instincts…
Henry: I feel your pain. How did you settle on telling the tale of The Rat’s Tail?
KRAD: Oh, that was easy. One of the times we were performing the story as it was read, I was playing Grignr and we were doing the scene where he encounters the rat in the dungeon. When the rat appeared, someone in the back of the room had a stuffed rat on their person, and tossed it up front so I’d have it as a prop. It was then, when I had an actual (stuffed) rat in hand that I realized that the unnecessarily detailed description of how Grignr broke the rat’s neck wouldn’t actually work in real life, as the hands are described in twisting in the wrong direction for the move to be effective. Ever since then, the rat’s unjust demise has kind of been my thing at these readings/performances, and I decided that it was important to give the rat a backstory.
Henry: #RatDeathsMatter. What was it like writing pastiche, especially with intentional grammatical and spelling mistakes?
KRAD: Similarly challenging to reading it—I had to almost physically restrain myself from correcting the typos. And there were a lot, as I type more than 150 words per minute….
Henry: Is your story autobiographical?
KRAD: Only in the sense that it was inspired by real events, as chronicled above…
Henry: Is there anything else you’d care to share about the experience?
My mother is a professional editor of several decades’ standing (though she usually does it sitting down), and she has always read everything I write before it gets sent off. This story was one of the few exceptions, as the last thing I wanted was for this story to be improved. It was very entertaining to write something deliberately bad like this, and then be able to proudly post on social media that I just e-mailed the worst story I’d ever written to the editor!
I’d never heard of The Eye of Argon until Michael Ventrella mentioned it. But upon reading his introduction to the anthology, it was easy to see why the original story captured the hearts of so many authors and pop culture convention-goers. In Jim Theis’s work, we see our own passion for sword and sorcery fantasy and the love of tale-telling.
The Eye of Argon and the Further Adventures of Grignr the Barbarian can be found at: