"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 scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." — Paul Clifford (1830) [from the contest website]

According to the delightful contest website,

Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. The contest (hereafter referred to as the BLFC) was the brainchild (or Rosemary's baby) of Professor Scott Rice, whose graduate school excavations unearthed the source of the line "It was a dark and stormy night." Sentenced to write a seminar paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose the man with the funny hyphenated name, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was best known for perpetrating The Last Days of Pompeii, Eugene Aram, Rienzi, The Caxtons, The Coming Race, and — not least — Paul Clifford, whose famous opener has been plagiarized repeatedly by the cartoon beagle Snoopy.

And one may add, also by Italo Calvino, who refers to the phrase — and the Peanuts cartoon — at length in the delightful If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Perhaps the Calvino novel should get a special achievment award from the contest.

The contest, the brain-child of Professor Scott Rice, involves submitting prolix, pretentious opening sentences for supposed novels, and Penguiin has published several volumes of the winners. Appropriate to such a spoof, hoaxes involving it abound (see the contest website) and supposed winners circulate on the net. My brother-in-law, Jay C. Rosenthal of Wilmington, Delaware, sent along the following batch of them:

10. "As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber he would never hear the end of it."

9. "Just beyond the Narrows the river widens."

8. "With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description."

7. "Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the East wall: "Andre creep... Andre creep... Andre creep."

6. "Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back alley sex change surgeon to become the woman he loved."

5. "Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eking out a living at a local pet store."

4. "Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do."

3. "Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor."

2. "Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn't know the meaning of the word "fear," a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death - in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies."

AND THE WINNER IS...

1. "The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, "You lied!"

Well, actually, it's not the winner! According to the contest website (which you definitely must visit): "WARNING, HOAX! The [above] is being falsely reported as the winner of this year's contest. It was the runner-up in 1983." Who would create a hoax about a spoof? I don't know, who would put literary parodies on such a serious site? Beats me.


Victorian Overview Bulwer Lytton

Last updated 22 April 2001