by ZJ Czupor
A Dark and Stormy Night
In the “Peanuts” cartoon strip we see the almost human-dog Snoopy sitting on his doghouse, hunched over a typewriter, writing the Great American Novel. And he begins typing: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Then he gets stuck and he types the words over and over.
Charles Schulz, who created the strip, said he didn’t know the phrase was specific to any one author. He said he used it because “it was a standard pot-boiler opener that was always out there.”
This dark and stormy opening line has been called “florid,” “melodramatic,” “antiquated,” and “purple prose”—among other invectives and certainly a style to be avoided at all costs. Today, these words are a much-maligned cliché.
Those famous, or infamous, words are the beginning of a long sentence (58 words to be exact) and read like this:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scenelies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
The original author of those famous, mocked and most-maligned words is Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, (1st Baron Lytton), who, in his day, was a popular poet, novelist, playwright, and politician. He was friends with Charles Dickens and even convinced him to revise the ending of Great Expectations in a way that was more acceptable for the reading public. In Dicken’s original version of the novel, Pip and Estella do not get together.
Interestingly, the same words “It was a dark and stormy night,” also form the first sentence of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newberry Medal-winning young adult novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962); and appears in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1831 short story, “The Bargain Lost,” although not at the very beginning.
Writer’s Digest described the sentence as a “literary posterchild for bad story starters” (2013). On the other hand, the American Book Review ranked it as No. 22 on its “Best first lines from novels” list (2013).
In 1830, “a dark and stormy night” was not a cliché in the opening lines to Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, Paul Clifford. The story is about a highway robber during the French Revolution. The robber doesn’t know he’s the son of a well-heeled judge—and he only learns it just in time to be sentenced to death by that very same judge. But all ends happily as he breaks free and runs away to America to marry his cousin.
If you’re interested, the novel is available to read free online. It’s only 950 pages long.
Lytton (1803-1873) was a prolific writer. In one twelve-year stretch he wrote thirteen novels, two long poems, four plays, a history of Athens, numerous essays, and edited New Monthly magazine. He wrote science fiction, historical fiction, horror, romance, on the occult, and mysteries. His psychological crime thriller Eugene Aram (1832) was controversial because the hero was a murderer. He also, at times, published works anonymously. Another of his novels, Strange Story (1862) carried a supernatural theme and was a great influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In his lifetime, Lytton wrote a total of twenty-nine novels, two series, three books of poetry, and eight plays. His works were translated into ten languages and several of his novels were made into operas—one, Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes(1835), was adapted by German composer and conductor Richard Wagner. The opera became more famous than the novel.
As a politician, Bulwer-Lytton was elected to the British Parliament; was named Secretary of State for the Colonies in British Columbia; was offered the Crown of Greece, which he declined, after King Otto abdicated; and offered a lordship of the British Admiralty, again, he declined for fear it would interfere with his activity as an author. He was honored with a burial in Westminster Abbey.
In addition to penning his most famous opening line, he’s also noted for writing, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which appeared in his play Richelieu, as: “…beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.”
He also popularized the phrase, “pursuit of the almighty dollar” from his novel The Coming Race (1871); and is credited with the term “the great unwashed,” which also appeared in his novel Paul Clifford.
But alas, his name lives on in the annual tongue-in-cheek Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest sponsored by the English Department of San Jose State University, in which contestants think up terrible, deliberately bad, openings for imaginary novels. The contest attracts well over 10,000 entries. Notable sentences not bad enough to merit the Grand Prize are awarded “Dishonorable Mentions.”
The 2019 Grand Prize Winner wrote:
Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago.
Opening lines from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
From Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Bargain Lost” (but not the opening line)
It was a dark and stormy night. The rain fell in cataracts; and drowsy citizens started, from dreams of the deluge, to gaze upon the boisterous sea, which foamed and bellowed for admittance into the proud towers and marble palaces. Who would have thought of passions so fierce in that calm water that slumbers all day long? At a slight alabaster stand, trembling beneath the ponderous tomes which it supported, sat the hero of our story.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
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