BOOK EXCERPT: The Eye of Argon and the Further Adventures of Grignr the Barbarian

We Can All Be Grignr;

or: How to Appreciate Very Bad Writing

by Michael A. Ventrella

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 woman 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 xerox machines only exist in the largest corporations and cost tons of money. Even law firms and courthouses use carbon paper.

But there’s also a mimeograph machine, where you type onto a certain specialized paper and feed it into a machine that can then print copies that are pale versions of the original. If you make a mistake typing, you either have to deal with it or rip the paper out of the typewriter and start all over. And that special paper isn’t cheap.

You can even draw on the specialized paper, but you have to press hard and not make any mistakes. And forget about shading or color!

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 have 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.

To add to the fun, the ending was missing. For some reason, the very last page had been lost, fallen from its stapley security, so no one quite knew how Grignr survived his final encounter. Theories abounded, and the search was on. Finally, according to Wikipedia, “a complete copy of the fanzine was discovered by special collections librarian Gene Bundy in the Jack Williamson Science Fiction Library at Eastern New Mexico University in 2005.” This was quickly distributed, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Well, except poor Jim Theis. He was unaware for quite some time of the notoriety his little story had generated, and had gone on to become a real writer, working as a journalist. He eventually learned people were gleefully reading and laughing at something he had written as a teenager. He was upset (as anyone would be). But he learned to live with it, and handled it well, knowing that if he objected over something he had done as a kid, he would come across as bitter. Instead, he shrugged and laughed along with everyone else.

Sadly, he died much too young, at age 48—but his story lives on, which is something all writers want.

And here’s where I come in.

I had participated in the readings at various conventions over the years, but around 2006 or so (I can’t remember the exact date), I was on a panel at Philcon, Philadelphia’s science fiction convention, which, of course, takes place in New Jersey. I was the first reader and even though I had done this before, I screwed up about three paragraphs in. That was it, I was removed from the panel. I got up to leave, and someone in the audience yelled, “Act it out!”

Being the ham I am, I readily agreed, and as the rest of the panel read, I pretended to be Grignr the Barbarian, wrestling giant rats, saving beautiful half-naked prisoners, and fighting evil clerics and nobles. The audience ate it up and laughed twice as hard as normal.

However, the person running the panel was not amused, and it was many years until I was once more invited to participate in the Eye of Argon reading at Philcon.

In the meantime, I had taken this to other conventions and had organized a panel of writers who would read the story and act it out with me.

Part of the fun for us playing these roles at first was in not knowing what would come next. It was improv theater at its finest! But by doing this at various conventions in the northeast over the years, we got to the point where many of us knew the story by heart and had various routines we would do that we knew would get laughs. Worse yet, if we tried reading, knowing the material, we hardly ever made mistakes or laughed.

So we evolved this into a game where we would invite the audience to participate, and once they were eliminated through reading, they were forced to act it out with us (to be replaced by the next audience member to read with us). Sometimes one of us would play Grignr, and sometimes we’d let the audience member have the starring role. The gender of the person playing Grignr or the half-naked femme fatale didn’t matter, and, honestly, sometimes that just added to the hilarity.

I had a key group that was part of this almost every time, which included Keith R.A. DeCandido, Hildy Silverman, Gail Martin and Ian Randal Strock—but many others were happy to play along, sometimes even willing to publicly humiliate themselves more than once. Among the ones I can remember are (in alphabetical order) Peter David, Ef Deal, Susan DeGuardiola, Geniveve Eldredge, Charles Gannon, Marty Geer, C.J. Henderson, Walter Hunt, Daniel Kimmel, Tee Morris, Michael Pederson, Sarah Pinsker, KT Pinto, Peter Prellwitz, Gray Rinehart, Ryk Spoor, Jean Marie Ward and there’s probably more I’m forgetting after all these years. Please forgive me if you’re one of them and I left you off this list.

Some conventions specifically refused to allow the reading of the story, claiming we were making fun of someone who was no longer here and could not defend himself. Our reply was that he was aware of the readings when he was alive and did not ask that they be stopped, and come on, we all were terrible writers once. Okay, maybe not that bad, but hey, even Jim Theis became a professional writer eventually. Still, you won’t find this being read at some conventions.

As this progressed, we also began showing the story on the screen so everyone could read along and see all the typos and mistakes. Ian Randal Strock annotated the story to show mistakes and corrections, and while this was a great way for everyone in the audience to appreciate the story better, we also found it was too distracting from the people actually performing the story. People would read along instead of watching the hams acting it out and would miss a lot of funny bits.

We plan to continue to perform this, although we’re all out of practice since many conventions were on hold for a few years due to the COVID virus. Still, we have plans to produce “Eye of Argon: The Play” in the future.

But all this led to an idea. What if we put Ian’s annotations into a book form, and better yet, write some more stories in the same world? The Further Adventures of Grignr the Barbarian!

I contacted many of the people who had performed with us over the years and invited them all to submit a story. There were no requirements other than it needed to be funny. As we had no real budget to speak of, we promised each writer a grand total of $20 for their story. “This may be the only anthology I’ll ever edit where a story may be rejected for being good,” I said.

And some of the writers took me up on it. “I’ve just submitted the worst story I’ve ever written!” Keith bragged on social media. Jean got so excited she basically wrote a novelette. Dan took it off in different directions. Some made sure there were plenty of typos and misspelled words, and others decided the story itself was silly enough not to need them.

In any event, I hope you’ll enjoy these tales and take them in the fun spirit in which they are intended. Mrifk!

Michael A. Ventrella

Buy your very own copy of The Eye of Argon and the Further Adventures of Grignr the Barbarian at Amazon

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