A Short History of "The Eye of Argon"

with Sandra Bond

"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.

Now that we have your attention.... Jim Theis's "The Eye of Argon", that notorious sub-Conan adventure embellished with strange typos and purple patches stolen from Clark Ashton Smith's thesaurus, has been circulating in science fiction fandom since the early 1970s. It's a perennial favourite at convention turkey readings, regarded as worthy to appear in the same sentence as Pel Torro, Bron Fane, Leo Brett or even Lionel Fanthorpe. The challenge is to read more than a single page aloud without giggling. The challenge of death – reportedly introduced by Jon Singer – is to do the same with a squeaky voice caused by inhaling helium. Further cultural spinoffs include the Eye of Argon Players at San Francisco's annual BayCon, who use impromptu props to act out the story. As Don Simpson notes, "This really brings out the author's inability to keep track of what object is being held in which hand...."

To prove that there's absolutely nothing which fannish scholars won't investigate, researches in recent years have disclosed more than you could possibly wish to know about the immortal (as so many of us fear) creation of Jim Theis. Here is a brief timeline.

9 August 1953. Birth of the author, James F. Theis, as recorded in the US Social Security Death Index. His surname is pronounced "Tice".

21 August 1970. OSFAN, the journal of the US Ozark SF Association, publishes its tenth issue from St Louis, Missouri. Pages 27 to 49 – the latter being the inside back cover – are devoted to "The Eye of Argon" by Missouri fan Jim Theis, with illustrations. Despite a fairly dreadful front cover the fanzine isn't that badly reproduced, but the typing and proofreading leave much to be desired. Early in the story, "Small rodents scampered about, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives." Sentences of this quality abound.

21 November 1970. OSFAN interviews its star author for issue #13. Jim Theis is fetchingly modest about his success: "... it is nothing to be proud of and yet it is. Because how many people have had their first story published at sixteen – even if it is in a fanzine or a club-zine? How many professional writers have written a complete story at so early an age? Even so, 'Eye of Argon' isn't great. I basically don’t know much about structure or composition."

1971 and onward. SF author Thomas N. Scortia loves the rich badness of "Argon" so much that he sends a copy for amusement to fellow-writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: "Dear Quinn, Here is an example of FINE writing that we might all enjoy. This must be a nom de plume of L.S. de Camp. – Tom." (Annotation preserved on Darrell Schweitzer's photocopy.) Yarbro is not only entertained but shows the story around and loans it out on request. The last page has gone astray, though, and since the Yarbro Codex is the source of all later recopyings and retypings in fandom prior to 2005, the ending has "always" been missing. Does Grignr the barbarian survive his death struggle with the blob monster whose first devilish move is to "slooze up his leg" and begin sucking, with many a "hiss of hideous pucker"? It is a mystery. Nevertheless, Tom Whitmore and Stephen Goldin work assiduously to spread the story's fame. It becomes a fannish institution. At some stage Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's then husband Don Simpson makes a particularly careful transcription of the text, checked against the original to ensure all typos and mispunctuation are preserved. The "Transcriber's note" describes his high-minded purpose:

But as a labor of love for those whose 3rd-generation copies have now suscummed to the bitter vicissitudes of time and entropy, worn away by the ravages of countelss re-readings before entralled audiances, yet who have found that the the heady flavor of its stylistic paragraphs has seeped into their soul and still grips it with a fervid grasp, I dedicate this readable version of the inimitable The Eye of Argon.

16 May 1983 The Don Simpson ASCII transcript reaches its best-known form: "ARGON.DOC - 05/16/83 - Version 01", stored on what he proudly recalls as "an 8-inch floppy disk formatted for my S-100 bus CP/M computer (maximum system memory of 64 kilobytes)." This is eventually uploaded to the Internet by Doug Faunt, who rarely receives his due share of the blame. In some later copies the final "Transcriber's note" is slightly changed, with "readable" becoming "machine-readable". We notice everything.

8 March 1984. Jim Theis is interviewed on the Californian radio talk show Hour 25, which has featured regular readings of "The Eye of Argon". He declares himself unhappy that his youthful folly continues to be mocked, and says he'll never write anything again. (Source: Wikipedia.)

1987. "The Eye of Argon" is reprinted in chapbook form by Hypatia Press of Eugene, Oregon ("Socialogical [sic] Explorations series, issue 1"), with new illustrations and a new byline, G. Ecordian for our protagonist Grignr the Ecordian. Inspired by the story's first line of dialogue – "Prepare to embrace your creators in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian" – Darrell Schweitzer publishes a learned appraisal in Fantasy Review 10:6 (July/August) with the self-explanatory title "One Fine Day in the Stygian Haunts of Hell: Being the Whole Truth About the Fabled 'The Eye of Argon'."

1995. The Hypatia Press chapbook is reissued or relaunched. Quizzed online about the lack of credit to Jim Theis, publisher Alan Bard Newcomer explains in lower case: "the legends surrounding [eye] were such that we chose to credit the book to grigner the ecordian / it was not possible to ascertain mr.theis's feeling regarding the traveling of his story across america" (rec.arts.books.marketplace, 27 August). But if we leave his name off, it is implied, he may not notice. Elsewhere, Dave Langford takes over the updating of the UK SF Fandom Archive created by Naveed Khan on the Glasgow University website, and is unable to resist converting the included ARGON.DOC's plain ASCII text – as originally digitized by Don Simpson and now replicated all over cyberspace like some ravening von Neumann machine – to an easier-on-the-eye HTML web page.

1997 Darrell Schweitzer's essay is reprinted in his collection Windows of the Imagination. Just to keep Argonologists – or should it be Argonauts? – on their toes, the title is subtly changed to "One Fine Day in the Stygian Haunts of Hell: Being the Lore and Legend of the Fabled 'The Eye of Argon'." By 2009, even Schweitzer has wholly forgotten that the original title was different.

26 March 2002. Death of James F. Theis, recorded in Missouri – again from the US Social Security Death Index. Birth and death dates match well enough to confirm that this is "our" Jim Theis. His seventeenth birthday was twelve days before the front-cover date of OSFAN #10, so the story would have been written and accepted rather than published when he was sixteen. As Darrell Schweitzer also observes below, he died at only 48.

November 2003. After all this time, the actual source of the story is widely unremembered. Samuel R. Delany has somehow come to believe that it was thrown together as a group joke by a Clarion workshop class. Darrell Schweitzer sets him right in Ansible #196: "My colleague Lee Weinstein cracked the 'mystery' of 'The Eye of Argon' recently. The story was originally published in the fanzine OSFAN (the journal of the Ozark SF Society) #7 [sic], 1970. There is a copy of this priceless publication in the Paskow Collection at the library of Temple University in Philadelphia. Mr Weinstein has actually held this amazing artifact in his trembling hands. A subsequent issue interviews the author. This interview has been posted online. The story really is by Jim Theis, who was a well-known Kansas City fan, something of a local celebrity. In KC, his authorship was common knowledge. He was not a Clarion student.... Alas, Theis died a couple years ago at age 48." Another alas: this library copy of OSFAN is also missing the last page. And, indeed, the last page but one. Stapling technology was poorly understood in 1970s Missouri.

November 2004. Lee Weinstein enters the lists of published Theis scholarship with "In Search of 'The Eye of Argon'" (The New York Review of Science Fiction #195). One thing leads to another: Gene Bundy, administrator of the Jack Williamson SF Library at Eastern New Mexico University, reads this article and is moved to investigate. His lithe opaque nose (phrase © Jim Theis, 1970) twitches at the discovery that the collection includes an intact OSFAN #10, back cover and all. The story's final paragraphs have come to light at last – and a photocopy is very soon on its way to Lee Weinstein.

10 December 2004. The no longer lost ending has its first public outing in 34 years, as the climax of the traditional "Eye of Argon" reading at Philcon in Philadelphia. At long last "the weary, scarred barbarian trooted slowly off into the horizon to become a tiny pinpoint in a filtered filed of swirling blue mists ..."

February 2005. Lee Weinstein follows up his previous NYRSF article with "In Search of 'The Eye of Argon': a Postscript" (The New York Review of Science Fiction #198), featuring a transcription of the ending. "It is only three paragraphs long, but a friend of mine noted, 'It does not disappoint.'" Perhaps the most poignant sentence describes the fate of the blob monster into which the Eye of Argon – that "scintillating, many fauceted scarlet emerald" – has transformed, leaving fandom with a 34-year cliffhanger: "All that remained was a dark red blotch upon the face of the earth, blotching things up." But who is Jay T. Rikosh? His accolade appears after Jim Theis's byline on the long-sought final page: "winner of the Jay T. Rikosh award for excellence!" Even Lee Weinstein is baffled. Meanwhile, Langford and others make morbid haste to update their online versions of the story.

2006. John Betancourt of Wildside Press publishes the first trade paperback edition of the complete text, including the newly discovered ending and an introduction by (that man again) Lee Weinstein, based on his NYRSF material and titled "In Search of Jim Theis". Only one small enigma remains: "Who Rikosh is or was or what the significance of the award was, I have no idea."

September 2009. Sandra Bond has acquired Ian Maule's fanzine collection, and unearths a treasure:

I have an Important Announcement to make.

One which may shake fandom to it's bones and leave it quavering in a moist blob of gore on the ornately pattened floor of its oppulent throne rooms while saucy wenches laugh in scorne.

I have an original copy of "The Eye of Argon", by Jim Theis.

Yes, the collection contains a virgin OSFAN #10! This was originally sent to antipodean fan Mervyn Barrett, then living in London. Sceptics who believed the rediscovered ending to be a fake or hoax are crushingly refuted: Sandra writes, "I may also add that the last page is extant in this copy and the ending as reported a few years ago is definitely canonical." Jay T. Rikosh, awarder of excellence, proves to be the story's illustrator; three of the awful drawings carry his signature. It is a sobering thought that the secret of the elusive ending could have been cleared up decades earlier if only Ian Maule could be bothered to look at his own fanzine collection. More from Sandra:

This wasn't Theis's only appearance in the fanzine; for good measure he also contributes a two-page report of a local fannish party on August 7th 1970. This will never be read aloud at conventions. However, some of the poetry in the fanzine is definitely on Argon level; though none is by Theis, one is by Rikosh –

IYCK! by Jay T. Rikosh


In the dark a scurrying, scuttling, slithering creature is heard.
Nervously you emblazon the room in light seeking it uselessly.
After a toal inspectic, with renewed courage, extinguish the light.
The pad, pad, tail dragging hiss has returrned impossibly in the dark.
Relax my friend, tis merely the visit of the lonely timid Iyck; yycckk!

Who shall deny this its place alongside Theis's masterpiece?

All things are intertwingled. The "Eye of Argon" illustrations include a tiny picture of this beastie, identifiable not so much from that poetic description as from its subtly meaningful caption "IYCK!!"

24 October 2009. Sandra Bond emails Langford with 26 massive attached files: "THE EYE OF ARGON is scanned, thanks to a session with Alice Dryden's scanner!" And continues in more appropriate vein:

"Do what thou wilt with them, for they are palimpsests of an earlier time than this, when warrier barbarians wandered abroad on the earth with no mind to the future or to what we laughingly call civilisation." Quoth Grignr to the wench who delivered a sigh of pathos.

"But stay," Interjected Carthina bustily. "Would it not be wise to give credit to those whose talents commingled to form a melange of skill that gave birth to this epic tale and to the fanzine that went forth to display the story to the assembled and wandering multitudes of readers?"

"Aye, that it would," rejoindered Grignr. "So let it be known that OSFAN #10 was edited by Chester H. Malon Jr and Sally D. Watson, yet was it published by Douglas O. Clark. Furthermore I vouchsafe, that Charles Prokopp drew the cover which graced the fanzine, whilst the pen of Francis X. N. Weyerich limned the full page that precedes the saga, and the back cover which follows hard upon its heels. And verily did Jay T. Rikosh create the five illustrations to the epic itself, of which I must give greatest place to the stout calliph on page 32 who doth appear to be smoking a big fat joint."

But the whilst Grignr was delivering this catalog of credits, the wench had made good her getaway and left the barbarian standing alone ...

November 2009. After rather too much obsessive labour, including careful repair to patches of badly faded duplicating on page 32, a PDF facsimile of "The Eye of Argon" – plus the fanzine's front and back covers for the sake of context – comes into existence. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

1 December 2009. The facsimile "The Eye of Argon" goes on line (see Links below) and the Ansible.co.uk website version is enhanced, or otherwise, by the addition of Jay T. Rikosh's illustrations. Thirty-nine years. That's not too many.

29 December 2009. Now Don Simpson has scrutinized the facsimile and informs Langford: "As the person responsible for the original ASCII transcription of The Eye of Argon (and author of the Transcriber's Note) it is my embarrassed duty to point out my errors." One is trifling; one restores a seduction long lost to literary history but slightly reduces the narrative weirdness "because without the missing bit both Agaphim and Agafnd die twice during the story, while with it only Agafnd does." Like the fabled ending, the italicized words below were long omitted from the best-known transcript:

"Aye; I was at one time a slave of prince Agaphim. His clammy touch sent a sour swill through my belly, but my efforts reaped a harvest. I gained the pig's liking whereby he allowed me the freedom of the palace. It was through this means that I eventually managed escape of the palace.... It was a simple matter to seduce the sentry at the western gate. His trust found him with a dagger thrust his ribs," the wench stated whimsicoracally.

Do we have closure at last? We fervently hope so, because the fan world should be spared another article like this.