A Dark and Stormy Night

"It 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:

     Earnest Hemingway:

     "It was dark then," he said.

     "Was it stormy then?" she said.

     "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 Mercedes Hamilton."

     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 woman."

     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 night."

     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!"

      Tennessee Williams: "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?"

     Gabriel Garcia-Marquez: "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 stormy night."

     "It was a dark and stormy night." Not bad at all, Mr. Bulwer-Lytton.


John Rechy
Los Angeles, California

1999-2006 John Rechy
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