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It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

A while back I received an email with what purported to be some winning entries to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC). During my 34 years of teaching French, I've graded my share of student compositions. Some things that students have written, not always intentionally, have made me laugh out loud. The most memorable is what one student wrote in a composition for second semester French - they have to write the first paragraph of a thriller. One student wrote (and I translate) something like "The man and his dog rounded the corner and found the baker lying in the alley behind the bakery with a spoon in his chest." This student had obviously not taken the time to look up the French word for "knife" in the dictionary and gone with her memory. I commented on her paper that that must have been a horribly painful way to die! I still laugh at this one, but the really humorous twist on this is that that student went on to minor in French and is now living in Paris, France, where she's been transferred to work for three years with the Ernst and Young accounting firm.

I did a little research online about this contest. If you go to the Bulwer-Lytton site, be warned that some of what you find may not be to your liking. I trudged through a lot to give you what I'm posting today. 😎 Here's some of what I learned from Wikipedia and from the official site for the BLFC:

Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (May 25, 1803—January 18, 1873) was an English novelist, playwright, and politician. Lord Lytton was a florid, popular writer of his day, who coined such phrases as "the great unwashed", "pursuit of the almighty dollar", "the pen is mightier than the sword", and the infamous incipid "It was a dark and stormy night." Despite the popularity in his heyday, today his name is known as a byword for bad writing. 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 first year there were only three entries, but the contest has really taken off since then.

Here's the opening sentence of Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford (1830): "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."

(And here I had always attributed "It was a dark and stormy night..." to Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse with his typewriter! Is nothing sacred?! The "Peanuts" beagle Snoopy plagiarized Bulwer-Lytton for years!)

"Lyttony" of Grand Prize Winners (I'm posting the ones I enjoyed most.)

The camel died quite suddenly on the second day, and Selena fretted sulkily and, buffing her already impeccable nails - not for the first time since the journey began - pondered snidely if this would dissolve into a vignette of minor inconveniences like all the other holidays spent with Basil. - Gail Cain, San Francisco, CA (1983 Winner)

The bone-chilling scream split the warm summer night in two, the first half being before the scream when it was fairly balmy and calm and pleasant for those who hadn't heard the scream at all, but not calm or balmy or even very nice for those who did hear the scream, discounting the little period of time during the actual scream itself when your ears might have been hearing it but your brain wasn't reacting yet to let you know. - Patricia E. Presutti, Lewiston, NY (1986 Winner)

Professor Frobisher couldn't believe he had missed seeing it for so long - it was, after all, right there under his nose - but in all his years of research into the intricate and mysterious ways of the universe, he had never noticed that the freckles on his upper lip, just below and to the left of the nostril, partially hidden until now by a hairy mole he had just removed a week before, exactly matched the pattern of the stars in the Pleides, down to the angry red zit that had just popped up where he and his colleagues had only today discovered an exploding nova. - Ray C. Gainey, Indianapolis, IN (1989 Winner)

Paul Revere had just discovered that someone in Boston was a spy for the British, and when he saw the young woman believed to be the spy's girlfriend in an Italian restaurant he said to the waiter, "Hold the spumoni - I'm going to follow the chick an' catch a Tory." - John L. Ashman, Houston, TX (1995 Winner)

The moment he laid eyes on the lifeless body of the nude socialite sprawled across the bathroom floor, Detective Leary knew she had committed suicide by grasping the cap on the tamper-proof bottle, pushing down and twisting while she kept her thumb firmly pressed against the spot the arrow pointed to, until she hit the exact spot where the tab clicks into place, allowing her to remove the cap and swallow the entire contents of the bottle, thus ending her life. - Artie Kalemeris, Fairfax, VA (1997 Winner)

The corpse exuded the irresistible aroma of a piquant, ancho chili glaze enticingly enhanced with a hint of fresh cilantro as it lay before him, coyly garnished by a garland of variegated radicchio and caramelized onions, and impishly drizzled with glistening rivulets of vintage balsamic vinegar and roasted garlic oil; yes, as he surveyed the body of the slain food critic slumped on the floor of the cozy, but nearly empty, bistro, a quick inventory of his senses told corpulent Inspector Moreau that this was, in all likelihood, an inside job. - Bob Perry, Milton, MA (1998 Winner)

Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum of the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother, and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life. - Dr. David Chuter, Kingston, Surrey, ENGLAND (1999 Winner)

A small assortment of astonishingly loud brass instruments raced each other lustily to the respective ends of their distinct musical choices as the gates flew open to release a torrent of tawny fur comprised of angry yapping bullets that nipped at Desdemona's ankles, causing her to reflect once again (as blood filled her sneakers and she fought her way through the panicking crowd) that the annual Running of the Pomeranians in Liechtenstein was a stupid idea. - Sera Kirk, Vancouver, BC (2001 Winner)

She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight...summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp's tail...though the term "love affair" now struck her as a ridiculous euphemism...not unlike "sand vein," which is after all an intestine, not a vein...and that tarry substance inside certainly isn't sand...and that brought her back to Ramon. - Dave Zobel, Manhattan Beach, CA (2004 Winner)


Here are some that weren't chosen as winners, and some were actually given "dishonorable mention!"

It was a day, like any other day, in that Linus got up, faced the sunrise, used his inhaler, applied that special cream between his toes, wrote a quick note and put it in a bottle, and wished he'd been stranded on the island with something other than 40 cases each of inhalers, decorative bottles, and special toe cream. - Chris Harget, Campbell, CA

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. - David C. Mortensen, Pocatello, ID

He loved her like no other, their romance developing quickly, like the rapid growth of farm swine which grow from 2 to 4 pounds daily until they're fully grown and put to market for slaughter, or like the rapidly growing cells that produce moose antlers until they fall off in early spring, and suddenly Bill sensed the imminent doom of his romance lying in wait. - Jeremy Perreaux, Sarnia, Ontario

She looked at her hands and saw the desiccated skin hanging in Shar-Pei wrinkles, confetti-like freckles, and those dry, dry cuticles - even her "Fatale Crimson" nail color had faded in the relentless sun to the color of old sirloin - and she vowed if she ever got out of the Sahara alive, she'd never buy polish on sale at Walgreen's again. - Christin Keck, Kent, OH

The victim said her attacker was nondescript - 5' 10 and 3/4", 163 pounds, with Clairol #83N hair (a hint of #84N at his temples) - and last seen wearing Acuvue2 contacts, a white Hanes 65/35% poly-cotton t-shirt with a 3mm round Grey Poupon stain on the neckband, Levi's 501s missing the second button, and Nike Crosstrainers with muddy aglets. - Linda Fields, Framingham, MA

Lisa moved like a cat, not the kind of cat that moves with a slinky grace but more like the kind that always falls off the book shelf when he's washing himself and then gets all mad at you like it's your fault (which it wasn't although it probably was kind of mean to laugh at him like that), although on the bright side, she hardly ever attacked Ricky's toes in his sleep. - Debra Allen, Wichita Falls, TX

When he heard the woman upstairs scream, the Maytag man's heart thumped in his chest like an off-balance washer full of heavy bath towels. - Linda Shakespeare, Elk Grove, CA (real name? I don't know - that's how it came! Rob adds on 15 Aug., 2007 - if you look at the comments to this post, Linda Shakespeare herself commented on this!)

Words cannot describe the exquisite loveliness of the brilliant azure sky with its cerulean striations of periwinkle, cornflower, and cyan. - Mary Barberio, Northville, MI

Like an over-ripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor. - John Renfro Davis, Conroe, TX

"This is almost worth the high blood pressure!" he thought as yet another mosquito exploded. - Richard Patching, Calgary, Alberta

Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do. - John Witschey, Alexandria, VA


Many have been asking how Megan and Drew are doing, so I'll give a quick update. Megan is steadily feeling better and stronger, though she is still anemic. Drew is still in the NICU, but he's gaining an ounce or two a day. Several times in the past few days, he has stopped breathing as he is eating. Each time this happens, it pushes his release from the hospital off by 48 hours. Jim is cheerful but tired - on top of his work schedule, he's got a lot of running around to do since Megan can't drive yet. It's hard to believe the baby is already two weeks old today! Wow! *So much* has happened in the past two weeks!

This week is our annual Bible Conference here on campus. It's been a great time of spiritual refreshment and fellowship. My wife and I have been invited to drop in on several class reunions tomorrow evening. I guess this is all part of our being among the "old timers" now. It's been great to run into people from all over the world and from many decades of my life and teaching!


"When was the last time your king heard your voice?" - Dr. Will Senn

=^..^= =^..^=

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

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5 Comments on “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…”

  1. #1 Sarah Calhoun
    on Mar 23rd, 2007 at 9:41 am

    These Bulwer-Lytton Fiction entries are great! I teach English Grammar and Comp module courses at a Bible Institute in Moncton, NB, and often draw on your ivman contributions for class. I have used puns to study parts of speech and sentence structure, poems and paragraphs about the vagaries of English to encourage the students, and a list of writing not-to-dos with deliberate errors to teach those concepts. I promised the students that I would give them some “fun stuff” each class day (that is, eight times), and you have provided more than enough.

    The classes have been completed for this school year, but if the Lord allows me to teach again in 2007-2008, I plan to include a page of these entries as examples of how NOT to write an opening sentence. 😉

    I didn’t catch the “eeking” pun at first and thought you had made a mistake; thought it should have been “eking.” Then I realized the mouse connection. Now I will add this pun as is to one of my fun pages of puns.

    Thanks so much (merci infiniment),
    Sarah (not afraid of mice)

  2. #2 Lori Ramey
    on Mar 23rd, 2007 at 9:55 am

    In past years, I have read these to my English students …. usually the entire class dissolves in a puddle of laughter and a few ambitious students attempt their own “worst first-line” entries. 😉

  3. #3 David McGuire
    on Mar 25th, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    Although they aren’t the opening lines of the great American novel, two of my favorite quotes from thirty-five years of reading student papers are:

    “Please bare with me.” I ALWAYS respond by replying, “I’d rather not!”

    And there is this historical fact that you never knew: “The Anabaptists were seeking refuse in the forests of Germany.”

    Oh, well . . .

  4. #4 Jeremy Perreaux
    on Jul 23rd, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    thanks, I’ve never had so many Google “o”‘s under my real name! So long as the fuzz keeps me off their radar before I become ultra-famous. Not to worry, I will remember the little people…

    Rob adds:

    Jeremy, it’s good to know that at least some, if not all, of the names given as winners are those of actual people! I always wonder when I post something to my blog – and it’s not always easy or effective to check each little detail with snopes.com. Glad you found http://blog.ivman.com when you Googled your name. Hope you come back!

  5. #5 Linda Shakespeare
    on Aug 15th, 2007 at 10:29 am

    Dear Rob and Readers,

    As implausible as it seems, my real last name is Shakespeare. Thank you for posting my Bulwer-Lytton sentence along with being very entertaining and charming all at the same time! Thanks for the info on the French word BLAGUE! I thought it was something that blogs contracted. Sorry, my mistake–it must have been a BLIRUS instead.


    Linda Shakespeare, Elk Grove, CA