Wed
Aug 4 2010 6:09pm

Kiss the fleeting stead of death

Mediocrity has nothing to recommend it, and it makes up 84 percent of human existence. Of the remaining bits, 12 percent goes to the outright unredeemable tragic things. Two percent makes up the truly excellent stuff. The Grand Canyon, the Nicholas Brothers, puppy breath, Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, making out with someone you really, really want to make out with, the Sedlec Ossuary, and splendid root beer floats.

We wade through the daily mediocrity, the traffic lights and disappointing carrot cake, sustained by the hope of catching the fragrance of jasmine on a moonlight stroll as we recall Tang Dynasty poetry, or Drunken Master 2, knowing full well much of every day is nothing but dumpster chutney.

And the last two percent? A special category: The horrible excellent. (Not to be confused with the horrid horrid or near-excellent excellence...okay, I confess, I dont know what that means. I just wanted to link to Shari Elf).

The requirement for horrible excellence is not mere suckage, oh no. Anyone can make an ass of themselves. That’s nothing special at all. To excel horribly requires sincerity, and a total disregard for whatever talents one may lack. Ed Wood—in the film, I’m not sure about in real life—compared himself, in all seriousness, to Orson Welles. And in terms of drive, and the desire to create and express, the comparison is fair, however ludicrous it may be in any other sense. Also, I think the universe balances the remarkable on either side; for every Maria Callas there is a Florence Foster Jenkins.

All of which brings me to The Eye of Argon. No doubt most of you have read it, or at least have heard of it. Maybe you’ve read it a hundred times. It doesn’t matter. I could not possibly talk of horrible excellence without praising it. It’s pretty much the paragon of everything a fantasy story should not be. It’s full of sexism and random violence, in turns bewildering or predictable, but neither ever at the right time. Grammar, spelling, consistency: an Ecordian cares not for these things.

When author Jim Theis created it, he was a teenager in the early 1970s and had no idea how famous the story would become (and according to sources I’ve read, Theis did not care for its reception in later years). He’s sort of the Star Wars Kid of his day, I guess. The story has been circulated through sci-fi conventions, publication and the internet ever since. Some claim that it was written by a respected author, or group of authors, doing it for laughs (if so, bravo to them). But it seems to me that Theis was real, a guy with a Robert Howard obsession, a fondness for the word orb and a bottle of correction fluid. And a dream!

The Eye of Argon is the story of Grignr of Ecordia—a hill country far to the east of the Norgolean Empire—a barbarian warrior who makes up in tightly corded biceps, surly red mane and emerald orbs what he lacks in vowels. He journeys to Gorzom, fights a lot of stuff that bleeds a lot, rescues a wench who makes love well (that would be Carthena, daughter of Minkardos, Duke of Barwego, whose lands border along the northwestern fringes of Gorzom) and gets a blob on his foot.

Here is a sample of the narrative majesty.

The trek to Gorzom was forced upon Grignr when the soldiers of Crin were leashed upon him by a faithless concubine he had wooed. His scandalous activities throughout the Simarian city had unleashed throngs of havoc and uproar among its refined patricians, leading them to tack a heavy reward over his head. He had barely managed to escape through the back entrance of the inn he had been guzzling in, as a squad of soldiers tounced upon him. After spilling a spout of blood from the leader of the mercenaries as he dismembered one of the officers arms, he retreated to his mount to make his way towards Gorzom, rumoured to contain hoards of plunder, and many young wenches for any man who has the backbone to wrest them away.

I love horrible excellence because art has never been the sole property of the talented. We cannot all be Bruce Lee or John William Waterhouse (and I doubt anyone will ever be both). As Welles said (in the movie), “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone elses dreams?” Why indeed!

Creative people can become easily caught up in perfectionism and fear. To observe art that is joyfully bereft of any standard aesthetic merit can be a thoroughly liberating experience. Let me point out here that I am speaking of honestly enjoying horrible excellence for its freedom from restrictions and expectations. I do not advocate laughing at people for not being talented. I do, however, fully celebrate imperfection.

The Eye of Argon is all as magnificent as the selection above. I’ve never read its equal. If you can think of any contenders, please share. The only competition I can think of is the early work of Lionel Fanthorpe, an amazingly prolific pulp sci-fi writer who, under several pseudonyms, wrote about 200 books in a few years. These days, Fanthorpe is an Anglican priest who writes about theology and mysterious phenomena. 

Fanthorpe wrote some delightfully wacky stuff in the 1950s. For example, from March of the Robots:

Terrifying things, steel things; metal things; things with cylindrical bodies and multitudinous jointed limbs. Things without flesh and blood. Things that were made of metal and plastic and transistors and valves and relays, and wires. Metal things. Metal things that could think. Thinking metal things. Terrifying in their strangeness, in their peculiar metal efficiency. Things the like of which had never been seen on the earth before. Things that were sliding back panels . . . Robots! Robots were marching . . . Robots were marching, and were about to spread havoc and destruction across the earth, and as yet the sleeping earth knew nothing of their coming. As mysterious as anything in the great mysterious universe.

I still say Eye of Argon takes the cake, though. Unlike Theis, Fanthorpe is a good writer when given enough time. When he did the pulps, he churned out a book a week, more or less, and the wackiness comes from being incredibly rushed jobs with insane amounts of padding.

I have an undying love for this stuff. Theis and Fanthorpe are pretty well known, though. I would love to know what else is out there, in the horrid excellence subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. Please share! 


Jason Henninger once made a two-headed sock puppet.

7 comments
Ouranosaurus
1. Ouranosaurus
I love Fanthorpe. One or two of his books usually show up at the Turkey Readings events at VCon every year. The best one had "death dwarves" who attacked with "black knobbly rods."

If I work and strive for a hundred years, I will never write anything so funny as that chapter.
David Goldfarb
2. David_Goldfarb
I had never before heard of the Nicholas Brothers. That video you linked to is awesome.
Ouranosaurus
3. Ian B Manc
The Celestine Prophercy.

A bizarre scene at some convention where the protagonists mock scientists for not believing that you can see auras if you stop eating meat.

It was the only book I've thrown across the room in disgust.
Ouranosaurus
4. Sihaya
"Creative people can become easily caught up in perfectionism and fear. To observe art that is joyfully bereft of any standard aesthetic merit can be a thoroughly liberating experience. Let me point out here that I am speaking of honestly enjoying horrible excellence for its freedom from restrictions and expectations. I do not advocate laughing at people for not being talented. I do, however, fully celebrate imperfection."

Thank you for the whole article, but especially that one paragraph. Every so often I'll hear the ugliest two sentences in creation tumble out of somebody's mouth, and they're, "That's pathetic. Why doesn't he/she quit?" The phrase could be in reference to dinner theater, basketball, cooking - whatever. And I wonder why someone is so worried about making sure that only the worthiest one percent of people in the world do anything with their days other than punch a time clock in some cubicle, go home and watch TV. It would be a wretched world if we took the advice of these sour-minded "experts." Alot of us are living miserable existences because we're afraid of not being excellent.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
6. glasserc
By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!

Ethan
M Linden
7. mlinden
I swear, here and now, before all the assembled Internets, that before I die I will find a way to use the term "dumpster chutney" in conversation.

Thanks for a great article. Speaking as someone who spent his high school years making stop motion movies of lego figures with a vhs camcorder, I am no stranger to the Horrible Excellent. Mostly, though, I've only seen movies that fall into this category. Written works never seem to make it past just-plain-horrible. I'll have to check out Eye of Argon and Fanthorpe sometime, and I'll be watching the comments for more.
Binyamin Weinreich
8. Imitorar
You know, the story itself didn't get to me much. I mean, sure, it was dreadfully written, (and even if it hadn't been, there was nothing in there that Robert E. Howard hadn't already done better) but I never found it laugh out loud funny (except for the bit in chapter six where Grignr "smothered her trim, delicate lips between the coarsing protrusions of his reeking maw". That was hilarious). The MSTing, on the other hand, was one of the funniest things I've ever found on the Internet. Maybe it helps to read it in a group...

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