“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.”
–Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
Bulwer-Lytton was one of the most well-known novelists of the 19th century (and, honestly, even Paul Clifford stands up reasonably well), but thanks to Snoopy (and snooty English majors), he is probably best known now for this sentence, and possibly not as an example of literary excellence.
For the last 36 years, the English Department at San Jose State University has run a Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest, where thousands of people from around the world attempt to create single-sentence entries in a series of categories. This is this year’s winner:
Cassie smiled as she clenched John’s hand on the edge of an abandoned pier while the sun set gracefully over the water, and as the final rays of light disappeared into a star-filled sky she knew that there was only one thing left to do to finish off this wonderful evening, which was to throw his severed appendage into the ocean’s depths so it could never be found again—and maybe get some custard after.
–Tanya Menezes, San Jose
And this is a runner-up winner in the Crime/Detective category:
Jimmy-The-Bull lay sprawled in a puddle of his own blood, which spread out like a bright-red Rorschach test, in which Detective Williams had so far identified a butterfly, a puppy and the Eiffel tower, but was vaguely disappointed that there was nothing resembling Jimmy’s trademark bull, although the coroner had seen a giraffe, which he claimed was close enough, since it was also a ruminant.
–Arlen Feldman, Colorado Springs, CO
You may notice that the author of that last literary gem is yours truly! I’ve entered a few times over the years, but this is the first time I’ve had an entry selected!
Although the winners were announced a few months ago, I didn’t actually find out that I was a runner-up until a few days ago. Every year at Mile Hi Con, we have a panel called the Turkey Read-off, where the panelists read excerpts from exceptionally bad books (usually from the ’70s and ’80s, but not always). I generally also read a few Bulwer-Lytton entries at the panel, and found my entry when I was going through this year’s winners.
I believe this gives me the distinction of being the first person to read their own work at the Turkey Read-off!
(Quick ad for Mile HI Con – it is a Sci-Fi/Genre/Literary Convention in Denver, Colorado, that has been running for 50 years, with dozens of authors, plus numerous speakers, panels and other fun stuff. If you are in or near Denver in October, I highly recommend it).
Here are a few of my other entries that did not make the cut (almost certainly for good reasons):
- It took a lot of experimentation, moving the coffins, the candelabras, the stone plinths and even the individual cobwebs until, finally, the flow of calming energy told him that everything was positioned exactly right, and that he, Dracula, was truly a master of Fang Shui.
- Testing the grandfather paradox turned out to be much riskier than John expected, since the old man had apparently read a lot of books on time travel, and had been waiting for him at the exit of the wormhole, gun in hand, smirk on his face, and no apparent interest in exploring the physics of retro-causality.
- William stood in his boss’s office, staring at his feet as the head bartender pulled the evidence of his thieving out of the bag where it had been hidden–lemons, limes, cherries, mint and cocktail olives all poured out on the desk, but, thankfully, after five minutes of being yelled at, his boss said that he wasn’t going to fire William–just garnish his wages.
- The satanic ritual was coming to its close, the victim’s blood dripping slowly from the nib of the practitioner’s fountain pen, waiting only for him to choose which of the sacred stone vessels should receive the victim’s blood, and, when he wrote out the spell, which sacrificial font he should use.
- The dame that walked into the detective’s office had a body that men would kill over, a face that could launch ships, and legs that just wouldn’t quit, which was convenient, since his office was on the 47th floor, and the elevator was broken.
- When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s an extinction-level event, and not nearly as romantic as, say, a nice bouquet of roses.