Lists of the worst literature ever written tend toward the eclectic and diverse. Alongside such standards as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, people have been known to list authors as diverse as Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, Christopher Paolini, and even (on one list) Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Compiling a worst-of literature list is highly subjective and dependent on individual tastes, but there seems to be one thing the literary world agrees on—the horrible high-fantasy novelette The Eye of Argon belongs at the top of the list.
The Eye of Argon was written in 1970 by sixteen-year-old Jim Theis and published in the sci-fi magazine OSFAN. It can best be described as a pastiche of concepts originally made popular in Robert E. Howard’s Conan series: muscular barbarian heroes, beautiful women, swordfights, magic, and evil creatures. Many authors have created compelling imaginary worlds with these concepts, including Howard himself. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept and story of The Eye of Argon. The great flaw of the story—and the thing that makes it so memorably bad—is the writing style itself.
Often fantasy authors use colorful writing that deliberately emphasizes adjectives and adverbs to illustrate their world. Instead of being merely “colorful,” Argon
is laughably flowery, with characters speaking lines such as, “Prepare to embrace your creators in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian!” and “The engrossed titan ignored the inquiries of the inquisitive female.” It is very difficult to keep a straight face while reading the story, a fact which made Argon
quite popular at science fiction conventions. It has become so popular that rules for its reading
have been created. The main challenge is to read as much of the story as possible without laughing.
Argon is so laughably bad that there is considerable debate in the fantasy community as to the exact nature of the work. Some believe that the story was an attempt at a serious fantasy novelette by Theis. Others insist that Argon was actually a parody of poorly written fantasy stories that was authored by multiple people. Theis insisted that he wrote it and was so hurt by people’s reactions that he never wrote another story. Theis passed away on March 26, 2002, and no other individuals have claimed co-authorship, so the satire theory remains unproven,
Whatever the truth of its origin, The Eye of Argon
remains the gold standard by which horrible fantasy stories are measured. The entire text of the story (including the “lost ending”) can be found here
. The Eye of Argon
is highly recommended to anyone in need of a fun party game (how long can you possibly read without laughing?), people who want to explore the very worst of the literary world, or anyone simply in need of a laugh. It may not be one of the great works of literature, but in spite (or because of) this, reading The Eye of Argon
is an unforgettable experience.