Bottom of the Barrel

A dreadful truth shared by sf insiders is that although some published books may seem unspeakably, mind-rottingly bad ... these are the tip of the iceberg, the best of the worst. There's always worse stuff that never gets published at all.

Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine (and others) naughtily leak their favourite awful lines from rejected stories. Not to mention the authors' covering letters: 'I am well qualified to relate a tale of science fiction since I have always been of a fictitious nature.'

Here are some gems from actual submissions, spelling carefully not corrected: 'Freddy was in the habit of staring at Beverly's legs as they peaked from her Susie Wong slit dresses. She had a dozen of them.' 'My shouted words were lost in the damp chill, and my legs were already beginning to bale out, filling my shoes quickly.' 'He gazed at what appeared to be an invisable column coming from an infinite distance.' 'Ashala's head felt like vermicelli slowly slipping off the platter of her shoulders.' And another from the Pasta School of Simile: 'Thoughts flew like spaghetti in my brain.'

The terror of Internet is that anyone can publish anything. One amateur electronic magazine prides itself on never rejecting a story. They've eliminated all three traditional obstacles which have irritated writers through the centuries – editorial standards, censorship and readership.

But what's new? Self-publishing has a long, grisly history in sf fandom. One of the genre's most beloved pieces of appalling prose was tapped out on duplicator stencils by a typist who could usefully have been replaced by a infinite number of monkeys. The result has been read aloud to groans of appreciation at countless sf conventions. This is Jim Theis's legendary 1970ish fantasy epic, The Eye of Argon!

The story introduces Grignr the Barbarian, closely resembling Conan but worse-tempered, worse-spelt and harder to pronounce. His favourite oath is 'Slut!', aimed indiscriminately at men and women alike. And the Eye of Argon itself is of course a precious jewel, the eye of an idol, with some interesting plumbing attached:

'Glaring directly down towards her was the stoney, cycloptic face of the bloated diety. Gaping from its single obling socket was scintillating, many fauceted scarlet emerald ...'

Jim Theis (still with us, I believe) was a malaprop genius, a McGonagall of prose with an eerie gift for choosing the wrong word and then misapplying it. After limbering up by killing a few pursuers – '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.' – Grignr seeks wholesome fun in a pub:

'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.'

The lithe-nosed lady is not unreceptive to our hero (by the way, students believe that her 'ovals' are not naughty parts but just eyes):

'Glancing upward, the alluring complexion noted the stalwart giant as he rapidly approached. A faint glimmer sparked from the pair of deep blue ovals of the amorous female as she motioned toward Grignr, enticing him to join her. The barbarian seated himself upon a stool at the wenches side, exposing his body, naked save for a loin cloth brandishing a long steel broad sword ...'

Whatever his loincloth is brandishing may possibly be, er, metaphorical. Anyway, Grignr proves to be a fast worker even in a saloon bar:

'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.'

Before Grignr can get any more wholesome, someone out of his skull on 'virile brew' picks a fight and the story lurches in even more shambolic directions. The challenge of death, at sf conventions, is to read The Eye of Argon aloud, straight-faced, without choking and falling over. The grandmaster challenge is to read it with a squeaky voice after inhaling helium. What fun we fans have.

Fearing for your sanity, David Langford warns against downloading the whole saga from ... or his own Eye of Argon page which includes the long-lost ending!

Footnote: Jim Theis has since died.