January 18: On this day in 1873 the novelist-historian Edward George Bulwer-Lytton died. Although widely read in Victorian England, Bulwer-Lytton is now mostly known for his influence upon other writers. Most famously, he told his friend Charles Dickens that his proposed ending to Great Expectations was too bleak, whereupon Dickens rewrote to bring Pip and Estella back together. Most infamously, he inspired the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest by penning this rambling wreck of a sentence, which opens his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford:
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. (from the 1830 novel Paul Clifford)
After twenty-eight years, the B-L Contest has a half-dozen compilations of contest entries published as books themselves — It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Son of It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Bride of Dark and Stormy, etc. — and now nine contest categories. Behold the Grand Prize Winner and Runner Up for 2009:
Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket Sound from the nor’ east and the dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May,” a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests. (submitted by David McKenzie, Federal Way, WA)
The wind dry-shaved the cracked earth like a dull razor — the double edge kind from the plastic bag that you shouldn’t use more than twice, but you do; but Trevor Earp had to face it as he started the second morning of his hopeless search for Drover, the Irish Wolfhound he had found as a pup near death from a fight with a prairie dog and nursed back to health, stolen by a traveling circus so that the monkey would have something to ride. (submitted by Warren Blair, Ashburn, VA)
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest website can be found at: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.