Dark and Stormy Night
was a dark and stormy night." That sentence, Edward
Bulwer-Lytton's in "Paul Clifford," is often
considered the worst opening of a novel. But what's
so terrible? It makes a direct statement, identifies
setting, and creates mood. It's no worse--often better--than
others, even in celebrated novels. The full awfulness
of Margaret Mitchell's opening sentence in "Gone
With the Wind" is apparent when one substitutes
her heroine Scarlett O'Hara's flashy name with Mitchell's
first and adamant choice. Thus: "Pansy O'Hara was
not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught
by her charm, as the Tarlton twins were." (Try
reading that last limping clause aloud without having
to pause in order not to say, "'twere.") The
effect of a mighty name is again exemplified by the
acclaim awarded Herman Melville's otherwise ordinary
opening to "Moby Dick." "Call me Ishmael!"
Call me Sally? Call me Herman? Call me Pansy?
What might other writers
have done with Lytton's unjustly derided sentence to
make it supposedly less terrible? Or more so? With due
respect, borrowing inspiration from classic and contemporary
writers, I offer the following random possibilities:
"It was dark then,"
"Was it stormy then?"
"It was a dark and
stormy night," he said, "and that is when
courage runs rampant along the Avenida Espudida like
a castrated bull's cojones."
Jackie Collins: "It
was a dark and stormy night, and it was hot, like Luanna
Norman Mailer: "It
was a dark and stormy existential night. One detected
within it the essence of a woman."
Joyce Carol Oates: ("For
what is a dark and stormy night but the ghost of one's
fear of daylight?")
Marcel Proust: "I
was wakened, after a restless night by a scent that
had been stirred, I swiftly assumed, by the long dark
and stormy night. It was a scent I had detected before,
but not as plentifully, just as swimmers detect the
enormity of the ocean only upon dipping into it, discovering
myriad depths that open like the white flowers that
line the Rue de Pennegret, in early fall, and cause
strollers to pause to remark on their brief existence,
which bemused my great Aunt Mercresette as she strolled
by them with her loyal purse at her side lifted only
to banish insistent pigeons; so the wafting scent of
delicate wood--I was now sure of that--of trees nurtured
in spring when the sun is reluctant to assert its full
presence and so hides behind cloudy veils until, at
last, it will burst into summer, bringing to life all
the cedars of Escondeille, the oaks of Marceveille,
the sturdy scents of the plowed fields of Maripoisnais,
so the persistent scent I had detected on awakening
opened vistas of perceptions not yet discovered. And
suddenly it came to me, the origin of that scent. It
was the odor of cork, in my very room, the cork-lined
room that enclosed my silence like the womb of a reclusive
William Burroughs: "Big
storm busted up the night and scattered limbs of naked
tumbling gymnasts into orbit. Cowboy Dude growled, Ain't
those limbs of nekkid tumblin' gymnusts? Limbs flew,
legs tangled, heads bobbed. Cap'n Crockett snatched
at the parts, piece by piece. I made me a dam purty
nekkid gymnust, he said."
Gertrude Stein: "It
was a dark and stormy night. Was it dark and stormy?
It was a dark and stormy night. Was it? It was night,
it was dark and stormy. It was a stormy dark night.
Was it night? Was it stormy? It was a dark and stormy
Alan Ginsberg: "O
dark storm! O dark night! O dark stormy night! Night's
angels f...ed by hell's holiest vagrants on the flaming
plains of heaven scream, "O pain! O dark, stormy
night! O Moloch! Oh, more, more!"
"Dark and stormy? What is dark and stormy? The
sky can be dark and stormy. A night can be dark and
stormy. But a human being, dark and stormy?"
"Many dark and stormy nights later, as he prepared
to journey to the distant city of Anamaria de Crescendo,
where his father, Benjamin Orojos de Lucia-Anaparisse,
once sewed the hides of exotic camels of the desert
into tiny shoes for dolls, whose features his wife,
the industrious Carmelita Sorendia de Acosta-Malipor,
inked in with delicate strokes, at each stroke breathing
a prayer for souls in purgatory--may they finally be
ushered into heaven--Arturo Mendez-Cordoba de Castillo-Rojas-Beltran
de Alcaran-Saenz would recall the dark and stormy night
when he died."
Sandra Cisneros: "Era
una dark and stormy noche."
Djuna Barnes: "It
was an electric, brooding night, the air suffused with
the sweet decay of dead orchids, of roses fading into
umber, the satiated night lavish with the honeyed air
of opulent doom so intense that the woman, a silvery
silhouette carved into the dark night by the distant
flickering storm, appeared to have emerged out of that
extravagant miasma as she stood, poised, against a drape
of entangled purple vines."
Bret Easton Ellis: "The
suit was last season's Zegna, the shoes Berlutti, the
shirt Brioni, the wristwatch Girard- Perregaux, the
twisted tie pre-Donatela Versace, the cigarette--barely
clinging to the dead lips, its tip still glowing in
the dark and stormy night--was Salem Menthol."
T.S. Eliot: "Here we go then, you and I, into the
dark and stormy night that quivers at the edges of the
sky like a dying patient on a gurney."
Anais Nin: "Ensorcelled!--within
the dark and stormy night, gauzy veils of darkness thrashing."
And myself: "Later
I would think of America as one vast city of dark and
"It was a dark and
stormy night." Not bad at all, Mr. Bulwer-Lytton.
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