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In Defense of “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”

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.

This first sentence of “Paul Clifford,” penned by Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, has left quite a mark.

It inspired a prestigious international writing competition that since 1982 has challenged writers the world over to submit the first sentence to the worst possible novel to San Jose State University in hopes of recognition in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Bill White of The Morning Call half-heartedly defends that opening sentence, but he does produce Barbara Stoffa’s full-throated defense:

…His infamous sentence in its entirety is a long drink, surely. However, I challenge you to produce as good an opening sentence as ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ if it stands alone.

“Strong, ominous, visual, arresting. It’s great. Few would resist the urge to read on. Even if he had stopped at ‘in the streets’ it wouldn’t have been so bad…

 

The phrase has become widely known thanks, in large part, to Charles Schulz using those words in his Peanuts comic strip on July 12, 1965 and then make it a running gag (though he wasn’t the only one, or even the first one, to appropriate them).

Snoopy wrote so many stories beginning that same way it filled a book.

One of those stories was even adapted into a Batman comic:


above via Tor.com

The title of the above adaptation comes from a suggestion by Lucy:

 

Community Comments

#1 Mike Peterson
May/21/2020
@ 2:40 pm

Gaining its true fame from an old joke:

“It was a dark and stormy night. The men were seated around the campfire. The captain said, ‘Tell us a story!’ so one of the men began, “It was a dark and stormy night. The men were seated around the campfire. The captain said, ‘Tell us a story!’ so one of the men began, “It was a dark and stormy night …”

Repeat until grandchildren begin giggling. At least, that’s how my grandpa told it.

As for Bullwer-Lytton, he was a cheap writer of popular novels best forgotten except that he’s the cloth-eared idiot who persuaded Dickens to rewrite, cheapen and destroy the ending to “Great Expectations.”

So he not only wrote bad novels, but helped turn great ones into disappointments.

#2 Ignatz
May/22/2020
@ 4:28 am

It’s also the opening sentence of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time.” It’s delivered without a hint of irony, and I wonder if Ms. L’Engle intended it that way, or if it just wasn’t as much of a cliche when she wrote it.

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