It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
We all hope to leave something behind after our death—a legacy, a small compensation for our mortality. But legacies are often beyond our control, particularly artistic legacies, which can take unexpected directions. Did popular Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, composer of the classically bad opener “It was a dark and stormy night,” expect to become linked to cartoon dogs, cocktails, strange cults and a genocidal dictator? Probably not. This map shows how it happened.
Eminent Victorian Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote nearly 30 novels (several of them best-sellers) and many plays and poems. His works were adapted as operas. He was a baron and member of the British Parliament. But today his accomplishments are overshadowed by his opening line “It was a dark and stormy night,” which has come to represent terrible writing. Few ever read the full sentence, a florid 58-word dandy that zigzags between points of view while describing a fairly ordinary bit of weather. And fewer bother to read the whole novel, the crime thriller Paul Clifford (1830).
If he were alive today, Bulwer-Lytton—a man who declined the offer of an admiralty post and convinced Charles Dickens to rewrite the ending of Great Expectations—would likely be horrified to find his artistic legacy reduced to seven words. Annually he would endure the implied derision of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst opening sentence for an imaginary novel. The last straw might be a cartoon beagle, Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s pet in Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts: In Snoopy’s short-lived career as a novelist typing atop the doghouse, the verbalizing canine always starts his turgid attempts at literature with the infamous line.
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest was founded in 1982 by Scott Rice, a San Jose State University English professor. It invites the curdled cream of the crop to write terrible first sentences for imaginary novels across various categories, including romance, crime, science-fiction and purple prose. Featured on the contest’s website (“Where ‘WWW’ means ‘wretched writers welcome’”) is Peanuts pooch Snoopy typing Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s infamous opener. But Snoopy uses only the first bit, failing to demonstrate the original’s misguided determination for detail or the clunky, clichéd, confused prose that motivated Rice. Here is the entire sentence: “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.” Shorthand: “There was a storm in London.”
Contestant Mary Barberio received a “dishonorable mention” in the 2006 Purple Prose category for her homage, “Words cannot describe the exquisite loveliness of the brilliant azure sky with its cerulean striations of periwinkle, cornflower and cyan.” Shorthand: “The sky is blue.”
Best remembered today for his “dark and stormy night” line, Edward Bulwer-Lytton also coined the phrases “the almighty dollar,” “the great unwashed” and “The pen is mightier than the sword.” For more than 100 years, critics have drawn their Bics to duel over his legacy as the champion of bad writing. They do all seem to agree that if his pen had been a sword, it was a dull one. Ironically perpetuating Bulwer-Lytton’s celebrity is the annual ignominy known as the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which rewards in his name the worst openers of imaginary novels.
And the badness is often brilliant. Take this 2010 Detective category runner-up by Dennis Pearce: “As Holmes, who had a nose for danger, quietly fingered the bloody knife and eyed the various body parts strewn along the dark, deserted highway, he placed his ear to the ground and, with his heart in his throat, silently mouthed to his companion, ‘Arm yourself, Watson, there is an evil hand afoot ahead.” And the 2011 overall contest winner by Sue Fondrie: “Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”
In Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts, novice canine author Snoopy commends himself for his “good writing,” but we grow skeptical as we watch him struggle for the perfect opener. He finally lands on “It was a dark and stormy night.” Snoopy’s Great American Novel is promptly and unkindly rejected, but in Snoopy’s defense, the first sentence is often the hardest. The 1987 film Throw Momma From the Train shows Billy Crystal’s character suffering a similar crisis while grappling with his own, finally screaming, “The night was humid!” The opening weather-report trope seems to have been universally ruined by Bulwer-Lytton’s howler. Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation (in the episode “The Royale”) reads Bulwer-Lytton’s stock line in an alien book and concludes, “Not a promising beginning.”
Real-life authors have had better luck with it. Madeleine L’Engle begins her award-winning young-adult fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962) with the line, employing a genuine playfulness, like a campfire storyteller commencing a scary tale. The first of her Time Quintet series, this story of three children who embark on extradimensional space travel is innocent and fun, yet behind these adventures lurks an ominous evil that threatens Earth.
Madeleine L’Engle begins her best-known book with a stock phrase from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but A Wrinkle in Time (1962) has more in common with another of the Victorian’s best-sellers, Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. In this 1871 science-fiction story, a reptilian band of philosophers, the Ana, who are superior to humans, live in a mine deep beneath the earth’s surface. They have discovered Vril, a mysterious substance capable of healing and destroying, a force that endows them with awesome powers.
In Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastic fictional world, high above the Ana’s domain, three shape-shifting immortals—Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—float through space and time. Though vague in name, they too master information well beyond the human ken as they move through galaxies, battling evil and metamorphosing into various guises.
The two books mimic one characteristic of the esoteric Rosicrucian religion Bulwer-Lytton studied: a secret group endowed with supernatural aspects and possessing oceans of knowledge. And the novels share an apocalyptic bent. In Vril, the Ana threaten to rise from their subterranean crypt and overrun the earth, while in Wrinkle, a villainous outer-space anomaly, the Black Thing, invades the planet. Dark and stormy dangers indeed.
In the early 1600s at the peak of the Renaissance, the Rosicrucian Order, a top-secret occult society, emerged with three manifestos that set Europe abuzz. For more than a hundred years the mysterious Rosicrucians, who numbered only eight members at a time, had allegedly roamed the world, healing the sick and helping the poor, then finding replacements for themselves before they died. It was a strange little group whose members claimed to have vast and secret mathematic and scientific knowledge. But there were two problems: Nobody knew who they were, and they wrote only in allegories. This caused a minor crisis among interested intellectuals. French philosopher Rene Descartes, for instance, embarked on a lengthy quest to find and interrogate the elusive members, without success. In fact, the Rosicrucians could originally have been a hoax: German Theologian Johannes Valentinus Andreae claimed to have authored the third manifesto as a ludibrium, or “plaything.” Hoax or not, Rosicrucianism has lured people to toy with it ever since, including Irish poet William Butler Yeats and English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Bulwer-Lytton studied Rosicrucianism and wrote two novels, Zanoni (1842) and Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871), imbued with Rosicrucian notions.
Modern-day Rosicrucians have boasted of famous names in their ranks, often with little evidence. Some members allege that English polymath Francis Bacon was a high-ranking official of the order who propagated Rosicrucian tenets through his pseudonym, William Shakespeare. If you say so….
But when, in 1939, the New York Daily Mirror (a William Randolph Hearst tabloid) claimed Adolf Hitler was a Rosicrucian, the Rosicrucians took noisy exception. They responded with a letter saying there was nothing to support the outrageous accusation and furthermore no Rosicrucian writings would have motivated Hitler’s actions.
No one knows if Hitler was a Rosicrucian, but occult theories continue to circle around the Führer. For instance, Hitler’s psychotic right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler, went on a secret mission to find the Holy Grail, driven by the idea that the chalice used at Christ’s last supper would give him supernatural powers and immortality. Perhaps he wanted to be like Zanoni, the eponymous protagonist from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1842 novel about Rosicrucianism. Zanoni is a supernatural being who roams the world, studying the occult, before losing his immortality by falling in love. Himmler, who failed to locate the Holy Grail, would not have had to worry about that.
Richard Wagner adapted Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1835 novel Rienzi as an opera of the same name, first performed in 1842. It launched the young, down-on-his-luck German composer to stardom. Almost 65 years later Adolf Hitler, then a struggling painter, had an epiphany while watching a performance of Rienzi and became obsessed with the anti-Semitic Wagner. (One of Hitler’s lifelong goals was to restrict stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal only to the festival where it premiered, in Bayreuth, Germany.) Rienzi also struck a deeper nerve in Hitler: He identified with the title character, the real-life 14th-century Roman rabble-rouser Cola di Rienzi, maintaining that the populist revolutionary had ousted a “corrupt Senate by reminding [Rome] of the magnificent past.”
Hitler saw himself as Rienzi’s German counterpart and stopped at nothing to actualize his delusion, allegedly even resorting to occult practices. He was rumored to be a member of the Vril Society, a group that dug mines to search for a supersubstance called Vril. While some conspiracists claim Hitler found Vril and even used it to power spaceships, this is, in a word, unlikely. After all, Edward Bulwer-Lytton had invented the elusive energy source for his 1871 science-fiction novel Vril: The Power of the Coming Race.
In 1870 French emperor Napoleon III ordered a million tins of beef for his army. When a million were unavailable, Scotsman John Lawson Johnston invented a meat extract nauseatingly named Johnston’s Fluid Beef, which could be diluted to make a nourishing beverage. In 1886, in dire need of a euphemism, it was rechristened Bovril—from bos (Latin for “cow”) and Vril, the energizing elixir in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Vril: The Power of the Coming Race.
More tempting is another beverage Bulwer-Lytton unintentionally begat: the dark and stormy. To make it, pour two ounces of, to be strict, Gosling’s Black Seal rum (the company holds a trademark on the name) and four ounces of ginger beer over ice. Garnish with lime. The drink originated in mid-19th-century Bermuda, where the British navy rationed two ounces of dark rum to each sailor. One mixed his with ginger beer and named the concoction after Bulwer-Lytton’s famous opening line. The sailor association survives in a dockside ritual of the Newport Bermuda Race, in which competitors are presented with the cocktail as they disembark, exhausted, from their sailboats. Few people read Bulwer-Lytton’s novels today, yet his storytelling endures in a highball’s chilly comfort.