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Maury Maverick, a Congressman from Texas, made up this word to mean “that terrible, involved, polysyllabic language those government people use down in Washington.” Richard Lanham calls the same thing “official prose.”
Gobbledygook is another word for overly wordy writing which is filled with passive voice constructions, weak noun forms instead of strong verbs, and deadwood which gets in the way of clear communication. Below is a good example of this kind of writing:
Although the Central Efficiency Rating Committee recognizes that there are many desirable changes that could be made in the present efficiency rating system in order to make it more realistic and more workable than it now is, this committee is of the opinion that no further change should be made in the present system during the current year. Because of conditions prevailing throughout the country and the resultant turnover in personnel, and difficulty in administering the Federal programs, further mechanical improvement in the present rating system would require staff retraining and other administrative expense which would seem best withheld until the official termination of hostilities, and until restoration of regular operation.
“All letters prepared for the signature of the Administrator will be single spaced.”
“Single space all letters for the Administrator.”
“It is required by this statue that ...”
“This act requires ...”
Gobbledygook Substitution Chart
Instead of ...
give consideration to
make inquiry regarding
is of the opinion
comes into conflict with
of an indefinite nature
in order to
in this day and age
today (or) now
with reference to
at this point in time
has the ability to
because (or) since
take the place of
to be cognizant of
end (or) fire
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — Looking for a good read? Here are some writers to avoid.
The winner — or loser — of an academic group’s Bad-Writing Contest announced Friday was Frederic Jameson, a professor of comparative literature at Duke University in North Carolina.
His book, “Signatures of the Visible,” opens with this sentence:
“The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer).”
Jameson has a significant academic following, contest organizers noted; for their part, they believed reading his prose “was like swimming through cold porridge.”
Telephone calls to Jameson’s home Saturday were not answered.
All the entries in the contest were gleaned from published academic works. The top three offenders were all English professors.
The judges observed: “This reliance on jargon is an indication of the death throes of English as an academic discipline.”
Second place went to Rob Wilson of the University of Hawaii, whose sentence reads, in part:
“If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the ‘now-all-but-unreadable DNA’ of the fast deindustralizing Detroit ...”
The third place-winner kept his sentence short, but to no avail.
“The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains,” wrote Fred Botting in his 1991 work, “Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory.” Botting is a lecturer at Lancaster University in England.
The contest showed that academics and major publishing houses have been so busy using the “magical incantations of jargon, they’ve forgotten what real thinking is,” said contest judge Denis Dutton, senior lecturer in the philosophy of art at Canterbury University in Christchurch.
Tuesday, July 11, 2000
Contact: Prof. Scott Rice
Department of English
408/924-4447 (W) 408/227-8159 (H)
The heather-encrusted Headlands, veiled in fog as thick as smoke in a crowded pub,
hunched precariously over the moors, their rocky elbows slipping off land’s end,
their bulbous, craggy noses thrust into the thick foam of the North Sea like bearded
old men falling asleep in their pints.
Los Gatos, CA
The person with the pet rock hanging from his neck can now add the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Gary Dahl, who launched the novelty gift sensation in 1975, is the 19th winner of the perverse competition that asks entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. The 63-year-old owner of an advertising agency in Campbell, California, admits to a 35-year career writing advertising copy, “which,” he says, “is why I am such an expert in bad writing.”
Conceived to honor the memory of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton and to encourage unpublished authors who do not have the time to actually write books, the contest challenges entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Bulwer was selected as patron of the competition because he opened his novel “Paul Clifford” (1830) with the immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Lytton is also responsible for the line, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and the expression “the great unwashed.” His best known work is probably “The Last Days of Pompeii.”
As has happened every year since the contest went public in 1983, thousands of entries poured in not just from the United States and Canada but from such countries as England, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Ireland, and New Zealand. The response owed in part to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Web page (http://www.bulwer-lytton.com), where all of this
year’s winners are posted.
The prolific Dahl also penned another strong contender:
Gwendolyn, a world-class mountaineer, summoned the last of her strength for one more heroic haul on the nylon strap (for she was, after so many failed attempts, dangerously close to exhaustion) and looked heavenward with resolve, aware that, in spite of her fatigue and anguish, she must breach the crevice in one well-coordinated movement, somehow cleave the smooth fissure with the flimsy synthetic strand even though she was chaffed raw by her repeated efforts, or more sensibly, just give the heave-ho to this new-fangled (and painfully small) Victoria’s Secret thong and slip into her well-worn - and infinitely more roomy - knickers.
In keeping with the stature and dignity of the competition, Dahl will receive the traditional first prize award, a mere pittance.
Jack Maverick, ex-federal agent, burst through the window of the drug lord’s palace with a sneer on his face and guns blazing, sending a sea of glass into the room that would take weeks for Hilda, the maid who came in every Tuesday and Thursday, to clean even if she worked unpaid overtime, which she didn’t since in today’s world it’s a seller’s market where maids who speak decent English are concerned.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Theirs was a love that transcended time, ran roughshod over moral dogmas, guffawed in the face of adversity, rent asunder the shackles of social convention and took a sledgehammer to the crumbling walls of religious doctrine: a passionate love, a tender love, a selfless love, an undying love: not bad for two gerbils born on opposite sides of the glass partition.
Barnet, Hertfordshire, England
Raven Hall — that gape-mouthed, gray gargoyle of County Cork — loomed above the misty Irish vales (the spring rains having recently abated) as young Deidre, bound in servitude to its drooling master so her beloved Bryan would be freed upon disembarkation at Australia’s prison colony where he was sent for theft of a twig to be used as kindling, approached.
Mary Ann Unger
His eyes bored into hers like the slowly turning bit of a 2.5 horsepower drill press set to slow speed to keep from scoring the surface of a priceless mahogany table being repaired for an estate auction that was not expected to bring in much, anyway.
Martin M. Conrad II
Colorado Springs, CO
Sarah was a blue-blooded mistress of the Main Line, but she couldn’t stop Jack from prowling the back streets and alleys of her mind, couldn’t stop him from renting a cheap room in her remembrances, for he dwelled in the seamy underside of her soul, and yet the memory of his infidelities burned a scar on her heart like a bad tatoo.
It could be said that Martha and Isaac had chemistry, but Martha had never been good at chemistry, and sex with Isaac had been like an experiment wherein she had accidentally mixed ammonia and bleach, burned her eyebrows off, lost all sense of smell for weeks, and never saw the family cat again.
Winner: Science Fiction
The night (like every night on Beta Forensis Epsilon (known to the members of the Star Guard ground station as BFE) where the 30-degree axial tilt, 12-hour rotation and ferocious radiation from Beta Forensis’ F5 perpetual thermonuclear blast churned the atmosphere like a rookie’s stomach during zero-gee training, was dark and stormy.
William D. Draper
The alien’s single eye glowed on its stalk like the headlight of a police motorcycle pursuing a speeder on a dark highway on a stormy night, its ears protruding from its head like an old Garfield toy beginning to fall off the suction cups sticking it to the rear winsdhield of a battered Lincoln Towncar, and its lips, thick and rubbery like a spandex bathing suit on an overweight retired bodybuilder, struggled to form the words, ‘I love you.’
Seth Miller and Cassandra Thomas
Becky Flatbush was the quintessential Girl Cop: wisecracking, shrewd, prone to PMS-inspired shooting “mistakes,” yet tender, compassionate, and actually very good with criminals when she was not feeling bloated and cranky and like she wanted to kill someone just to relieve her monthly depression.
How had he missed it, Detective Cali asked himself, when the signs were all there: the glazed look in his eyes, the tiny droplets of sweat that welled up on his forehead, the violent mood swings and of course the tell-tale white dust in his mustache—all pointed to his partner’s ravenous addiction to powdered donuts.
McKee City, NJ
Winner: Purple Prose
Jasper Tourmaline III was obsessed with thoughts of the lovely Coral Olivine—the toss of her amber hair and the sparkle of her sapphire eyes whenever she flashed her pearly whites through those pouting ruby lips that so starkly contrasted her opalescent skin—but her peerless beauty belied her diamond-hard heart, for Coral had told Jasper that she could never love a jeweler.
Jo-Jo, grabbed his tom-tom, while Lulu, a former cancan, now go-go, dancer seized her muumuu as they, along with their loyal canine Tin Tin (son of Rin), fled flu-ridden from a yo-yo so-so existence in Paw Paw, heading, by away of Walla Walla, for their tropical paradise in Pago Pago where they hoped to munch mahimahi, nibble on a bit of couscous, and pay an occasional visit to Bora Bora, or maybe even Wagga Wagga, finally saying “tata” forever to their life among the rah-rah Michigan set.
Santa Rosa, CA
Winner: Vile Puns (co-winners)
“We have created a monster, Doktor Frankenstein!” screech Igor, the doktor’s right and left hand man, his little body quivering with delight, and before the good doctor could stop him Igor waved various human limbs and organs in the patchwork face of the giant, howling, “Tell me, stranger, are you from these parts?”
It was the night before Christmas when Santa Claus’s sleigh team became one member short because of a sudden illness, and when an inflatable plastic reindeer was used to fill the void in the team so no one would take notice the missing animal, Regis, Chief of Elves, asked Santa, “Is that your vinyl Prancer?”
John L. Ashman
Sighing, the professor rapidly scanned the English 101 term paper on “Early American Railways” submitted by the class dunce, determined almost at a glance that large portions had been lifted verbatim and without attribution from Clemens’ “The Gilded Age” and “Innocents Abroad,” assigned a failing mark to the pathetic fraud, and scrawled in red across the cover sheet, “Come, sir, this is TOO, TOO TWAIN.”
Richard Raymond III
(540) 265-2437 email@example.com
After twenty years, twenty years as head avian keeper at Fleishacker Zoo, Norman sat distractedly on his Ethan Allen post-colonial solid mahogany settee, pulling at his nose, and going over one more time the stupidity that had cost him his labor of love, because he knew that he was responsible for putting the locks on all the bird cages—the Bald Eagles, the tropical Toucans, the Marbled Godwits, all of them—but that miserable Thursday evening he had missed a cage for the very first time as he had daydreamed on by the Bay Gulls enclosure, and they had escaped, and there went his job—all because he forgot to put the locks on the Bay Gulls.
Santa Rosa, CA
The sobbing, pregnant, kimono-clad bride, the sweaty groom with the odd shoes, the angry Japanese man with a look of nobility and a really big sword-all the makings of a shogun wedding.
Rev. William F. Charles
Lance Corporal Murphy stood in mute shock at his court martial for stealing a book of Shakespeare’s works from the camp library, ignoring the advice of his fellow Marines that he couldn’t take a Hamlet without breaking a few regs.
Kevin P. Craver
Plays on “It was a dark and stormy night”: Winner
Jesse rolled his eyes heavenward as Caleb, his neo-Amish cousin, nearly fainted as they passed by the mini-mall’s Victoria Secret window display, explaining to Caleb that “It was a stocking store, Mennonite!”
In late 19th-century France, the Catholic Church leaders became increasingly uneasy that French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s “Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse” might be drawing priests and theologians away from the established church and faith, so the Church Fathers advised their clergy to, when reading Durkheim’s work, concentrate on a simple mantra, so as to counter any dissuasive effect the sociologist’s writing might exert on their faith: “E. Durkheim, stir me not!”
It was a dark and stormy night . . . well, not too dark, actually, since the moon was full and shining brightly, the streetlights were all functioning for once; and as for stormy, I suppose the occasional, almost listless flash of heat lightning combined with a haze created by the steady, mist-like drizzle meeting the hot pavement underfoot could qualify, were one give to over-dramatization or hyperbole.
Winner: Sword and Sorcery
With mighty, gargantuan, and somewhat overdeveloped thews, the barbarian chieftan raised his titantic sword ever higher over his fallen, but unsubdued, adversary, and, with a grunt equal to his gigantic frame, reversed the course of his upwardly mobile blade to send it whistling its lethal four-foot, six-inch length through the body of his prostrate foe and into two feet of protesting soil, rock, and assorted particles of humus.
Henry V. Taber
St. Louis, MO
(314) 263-4497 x170
Winner: Modern Romance Novel
With killer apps, high-speed penetration rates, and a way with the customer premises equipment, she was no plain old telephone service provider, thought Bob, plugging and praying for a next-generation, real-time wireless connection.
Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mentions:
“Genevieve ran toward the door as it slowly closed and grabbed Emil by the lapels of his rain-soaked camouflage jacket, drawing him into her warm embrace, burying her tear-streaked face in the nape of his neck and weeping uncontrollably, as might a mother clutching her son returned home from the horrors of the battlefield, a response Emil could scarcely recall receiving from other WalMart greeters.”
Randy Groom RRGROOM@ci.visalia.ca.us
What Mr. Cox really loved about psychoanalysis—he mused while sinking into the overstuffed sofa which so reminded him of the bed he was forced to share with his irritatingly precocious little brother, who was nonetheless the clear favorite of their distant and overbearing father, doubtless due to the superficial similarity provided by their carroty red hair, in marked contrast to the long lush raven-black tresses of his beloved and saintly mother—was the process of free-association.
“Well, Mummy,” replied little Felicity in response to her mother’s chiding, “I know for a fact you are lying to me and that I was not left on the doorstep by gypsies, as you are fond of telling me, for gypsies are not in the habit of abandoning infants on the twentieth floor of New York apartment houses, and furthermore there is absolutely no room on the street for them to park their horse and wagon, so-when you are old and in need of custodial care-we shall then see who has the last laugh as I abandon you in a substandard adult care facility.”
Penhook, VA 24137
Like her famous ancestor Hercules, Hercula always felt she carried the weight of the world on her sagging shoulders & so traipsed from doctor to doctor only to find one misdiagnosis after another - was it a tumor the size of a pumpkin? an enlarged nymph . . . er, lymph node? and to her IMMENSE relief, a correct conclusion came at last: it was merely the team of acrobats from the Cirque du Soleil practicing their balancing act for an upcoming world tour.
Chomedey, Laval, Canada
It was a sultry August night in Seattle and I lay awake fitfully listening to the dew on the roof, shattering the skylights in the gazebo, whilst my beloved, Dr. Antonia Lippencott, lay in her thatched boma, given her by a grateful tribe, kept from her well-earned repose by the relentless puffing and adding of the puff adders.
Intoxicated, partly, but not altogether drowned, the cockroach made one last gallant attempt to reach the frothy surface of Paddy O’Donnel’s pint of Guinness clutched with stoic determination by the dejected and arguably oblivious pub patron who seconds later would send the roach hurtling down his oesophagus as if shooting the rapids in a cascading torrent of foam, observed silently, nay, reverently by the departing crowd responding to the publican’s punctual and expected “It’s time, gentlemen.”
Stig R. Hokanson
Loganholme, Queensland Australia
“I want some red roses for a blue lady,” crooned Raoul, stopping at the florist’s on his way to the morgue.
Sedrick Whistlebottom the Third observed with some consternation and a modicum of dismay that no amount of adhesive tape could smooth out the pained look upon his latest impeccably laid out client’s face whose body lay ramrod stiff through Sedrick’s family’s own ‘secret’ method, a method which earned Sedrick not only much acclaim from his fellow morticians but also accounted for the numerous broomheads that the garbagemen found each week at the rear of the mortuary.
Richard H. Weiner
North Vancouver, BC
As the tentacled creature placed its little sucker pads all over Stephanie’s scantily clad, glistening, and moist body, the young girl shuddered both with fear and with anticipation of the pleasure she knew she would feel when those little sucker pads were peeled off, and she couldn’t help but worry that it might ruin the tan she had fought so hard to maintain, not to mention how she would explain all the hickeys to her boyfriend after she returned home from spring break.
South Windsor, CT
Someone later remarked that the day had flown by, but to Werner Davis, it had seemed an eternity, passing like a kidney stone-slowly and excruciatingly- through the ureter of his life.
Trish, lovely jelly fish of a girl, found herself floundering, drowning amid octopi and squid, her arms flailing, legs akimbo, sinking ever deeper, down to the bottom of ‘Walleyed’ Dick’s exotic saltwater aquarium, her ten-dollar admission ticket soggily clenched between her teeth, as though she knew what she was doing from the moment she ventured away from her group, now staring at her, wide eyed and disbelievingly, with their noses pressed tightly against the glass wall, making them look like the hog fish she’d seen photos of in last month’s Aquatic World.
Los Angeles, CA
Valerie@Elson.Com AND/OR Silverlake@Magicplace.com
Jasper stared at the gleaming gem-like creature in his hands, a bejeweled piscine perfection magnificent beyond reason, its shining scales iridescent chips of lapis lazuli gleaming like the diamond-slick surface of its aquamarine world, its glistening crystalline gills heaving in time with the turquoise waves as it struggled to suck in precious oxygen, its opalescent eyes pearl-like sapphires of polished cubic zirconium filled with the long-lost secrets of ancient deep-sea treasure, and decided it was time to bash its head against a rock.
“The password,” Lord Chichester chortled, “is deceptively simple; you merely repeat to the guard, ‘Let the lady with the ladle thread the noodle through the needle, while the fellow with the tallow puts the putty in the pot,’ and once you’ve mastered that, entree through the Secret Sluice of Subversity into the Tunnel of Tenuous Torture is all but a foregone conclusion,” and with that he handed the video-game joystick over to his drooling accomplice, gave him a prankish tap on the sconce, and vanished.
Purposely awful poetry, karaoke, stand-up find willing participants, appreciative audiences
An anticipatory hush falls over the Blue Room, an avant-garde art gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District, transformed for one night into a performance poetry space. Plastic folding chairs creak under the weight of squirming bodies. Someone muffles a cough. A cell-phone bleat is stifled. The microphone crackles with feedback.
But it is utterly, almost uncomfortably, quiet by the time poet Dave Hadbawnik finally steps to the microphone. He is dressed up for the occasion, in a chocolate brown suit without a shred of natural fiber. This ill-fitting get-up, a ‘70s creation he found on the sidewalk for 2 bucks, will seem fitting attire in retrospect. No one scoffed at the shabby suit at the time, though, so engrossed were they in the artist and his “art.”
Hadbawnik begins to read a free-verse masterpiece he wrote two decades ago, at age 18. Its subject, naturally, is the prom. His delivery is sincere, impassioned; the poesy earnest, wrenching, straight from the gut.
“For now let us dance across this wedding cake floor/ Knowing in the back of our dream drunk minds/ We will talk of this night/ Long after the helium has seeped out of these cheap balloons.”
Nervous titters and chuckles from the audience . . .
“I will spin you round and round until we create our own gravity/ Until we can’t see the lies floating up from the dance floor like signals from a satellite.”
Laughter bounces off the walls . . .
“But we will stand alone, naked/ Shaded by trees of the most luscious fruit/ Hearing more truth in the silence than in the transient promises of a serpent’s whisper.”
Full-throated guffaws, followed by wild applause . . .
This tour de farce, by a published poet with a creative writing degree from Wayne State University in Detroit, was a highlight of a recent two-hour festival of bad poetry. Intentionally bad. The wink-wink, get-the-irony kind of bad. The expose-yourself-to-ridicule-and-laughs bad. Ten Bay Area poets, some also published novelists with high literary street cred, shared their clunky castoffs, mangled metaphors and asinine alliterations for the fun and amusement of an audience that actually paid to hear it.
Why? Because it’s entertaining.
You’ve heard the expression “It’s so bad it’s good,” right? Well, in this postmodern, ultra-ironic age, purposely bad performance by both professional artists and just plain folks seeking outlets of self-expression has become as hip, as de rigueur, in the Bay Area as using foreign words to feign sophistication.
Last month’s “bad poetry” reading filled the seats and no doubt made scores of people log on to Amazon.com to find actress Suzanne Somers’ seminal chapbook of free verse, “Touch Me.”
At the Odeon bar in the Mission, Monday is Bad Karaoke Night, where the powerful combination of off-key singers and wretchedly sappy pop tunes entertains scores until last call. And, appearing somewhere unannounced on a Muni bus near you, a duo called the Sub-Standard Comix entertains riders with purposely awful stand-up material — perhaps to make the long ride seem even longer.
There’s more bad out there. Lots more.
BAD CAN BE GOOD
In Fremont, a laid off dot-commer has found her true calling — and significant Web traffic — by launching a site (www.miserablemelodies.com) devoted to achingly bad cover versions of popular songs. And San Jose State’s annual salute to purple prose, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, receives scores of really good bad entries each year. The winners have the media calling them as if they had won a Pulitzer.
It is not a new concept, by any means. Bad art has been around since, well, art. Purposely creating it, and taking pleasure from its bitter fruits, is another matter, though.
Call it a “mirror reversal ethic,” says Oakland writer Rephah Berg, this year’s Bulwer-Lytton winner.
“Bad works, done the right way, are funny,” Berg said. “Normally we expect people to perform adequately at whatever they’re doing. If they don’t, a conflict exists between expectation and reality. That conflict can be exploited for the sake of humor.”
Or, put another way, it’s fun to mock the talentless. Even if it’s yourself.
“It’s a post-irony thing,” said Michael Smoler, one of the organizers of the Bad Poetry night. “You’ve got to get to the other side of irony because it can become too fixed. Doing a bad reading is just breaking the monolith of taste. Art and poetry aren’t there to tell people what’s good.”
Perhaps, but people know bad when they see it.
“I asked my brother, Greg, why people knowingly seek out bad movies, etc., and he replied, ‘Because people like to look at accidents,’ “ said Sean Finney,
one of the poets featured at the event. “I see it as a way for people to communicate.”
THEN THERE’S JEWEL
At the start of the poetry event, Smoler pointed to a table where a copy of turgid poems by pop princess Jewel was on display. The crowd laughed, ready to mock her as they later would the Somers offering. But Smoler gave the elite audience something to think about.
“OK, Jewel’s poetry — but is it really bad?” he asked. “Maybe it saved somebody’s life once. Maybe a girl didn’t slit her wrists, and so that’s good, right? Another question: Do we, as poets, need to be invited to be bad?”
Bad is subjective, of course. The line between sentiment and schmaltz can be thin and ever changing. Andrew Felsinger, a poet and editor of the online art magazine VeRT, devoted an entire issue to the subject of bad art. He read a few of the poems he published in his magazine, to howls of laughter from the audience. But when Felsinger told the crowd in advance that his next line was written by Walt Whitman — “Through the scent of armpits in an aroma finer than prayer . . .” — the audience remained respectfully quiet.
“If it had been me who had uttered those words without the Whitman (attribution), it would have almost brought the house down,” Felsinger said.
It wasn’t all smirking irony at the poetry event. Hadbawnik said that the event showed the “doubt and uncertainty” some of the city’s best poets feel, how a well-intentioned poem can go bad. The poets can “get bogged down in the sentiment or the ego or trying too hard, which can be beautiful in its own way. “
Hadbawnik said that even bad poetry has value because it’s sincere. He had to look no farther than his high-school masterpiece about prom night.
“When I wrote it, if someone had laughed at it the way people were, I would’ve been crushed,” he said. “It was not written to be bad or funny — which makes it even funnier, I know. . . . In the unintentional comedy of it you could also be touched or moved by the sincerity, the naivete.”
GROANERS ON MUNI
Insincerity, however, oozed across town at the intentionally bad stand-up comedy gig. San Francisco resident Al Cummings, the mastermind behind the Sub- Standard Comix, says he and his anti-comedic troupe want to anger “people who are expecting a high standard and convince people that anyone can do this and this is a fun part of it, also.”
Last spring, Cummings and pals, fueled by several drinks called Chernobyls (Mountain Dew and vodka), stood up in a crowded Muni 31-Balboa bus and told awful jokes that elicited groans and perverse laughter. Example: “How do crazy people go through the forest? They take the psycho path.”
Cummings’ art may have been lost on some Muni passengers. But he recently did a set at a nightclub on California Street, and, he said, people “got” his willful badness. Cummings pointed to the cult success of anti-comic comic Neil Hamburger — who purposely tries to be bad and succeeds every time, and even has had a few decent-selling CDs — as the template for awful stand-up.
“I mean, we label ourselves ‘substandard’ so people will know,” Cummings said. “It’s an ironic play on the whole stand-up thing.”
At the Odeon bar, where Monday nights are dedicated to bad karaoke — on- key singing is forbidden — irony is scoured away. The participants are free to belt out a tune as agonizingly out of tune as they dare, without fear of mockery.
D.J. Paul DeJong has hosted the bad karaoke for the past three months, and he knows what you’re thinking: Isn’t all karaoke bad karaoke? Yes, but he gives people permission not to even strive for mediocrity.
“We’re not mocking the people singing at all,” he said. “It’s more interactive. People will join in to help someone struggling through a song. It’s refreshing to have someone step out of their normal role. Some karaoke singer who had really practiced and is good, that’s just not as entertaining.”
Karaoke crooner Scott Mary, who performed a dicey version of Elvis’ “Teddy Bear,” said he liked the Odeon’s noncompetitive style.
“I feel intimidated at most karaoke places because everyone’s going to take you seriously,” Mary said. “I lived in Nashville this past summer, and you had people seriously trying to get discovered at karaoke bars. I like this type of atmosphere because it’s a human performing. You see the screwups and the real emotion.”
B MOVIES AND BEYOND
Amateurs such as the Odeon’s singers can be excused for singing poorly and accepted as entertainment on a benign level. But when celebrities produce truly bad works, it seems more satisfying for regular folks to mock. The Internet is chock full of sites devoted to B movies and the Ed Wood oeuvre.
That was the thinking behind Fremont resident Marion Briones’ Web site dedicated to butchered songs, ones that started with good intentions but ended horribly. She pores over old vinyls at Rasputin Records, looking for gems such as William Shatner “singing” the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” She’s built up quite a collection, too, and shares them on her site, which she says averages about 1,000 hits a day.
“My husband asks me how I can listen to this stuff,” Briones said. “I’m (a) classically trained (singer) and perfectly pitched. I don’t know, it just strikes a funny nerve in me. Other people like it, too. To me, it wouldn’t be funny if they were trying to be bad. But here we have pros who go into the studio and think they’re producing real art.”
Briones said that last year she received an e-mail from a woman in Bosnia saying she appreciated the laughs.
“Another woman went into premature labor when she heard my copy of this frail, elderly German woman named Gerty Molzen singing Lou Reed’s ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side,’ “ Briones said. “Wait until people hear my latest find — my father has an album of old San Francisco 49ers singing holiday songs. It’s a classic.”
Perhaps. But it will have a hard time beating out San Francisco fiction writer Beth Lisick’s interpretation of Suzanne Somers’ musings:
“Touch me in winter, when darkness comes early and softness of fur surrounds my face/ Touch me not like a cat/ Or a tree or even a flower/ For I am more than all of these, but akin to them/ Touch me, I am a poet, a woman.”
Contact: Prof. Scott Rice
Department of English
On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.
Ms. Rephah Berg
The winner of San Jose State University’s 21st annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is Oakland resident Rephah Berg. With 25 years of editing experience, she also occupies herself by producing puzzles for newsstand magazines and what she calls “bursts of wit” for lapel buttons. In her spare time she also tends to plants and animals and does volunteer work with an agency for the visually impaired. Her first name is pronounced REE-fa and her last name rhymes with the final syllable of “iceberg” (which is conveniently spelled the same).
In the musty world of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, also known as the Bad Writing or Dark and Stormy Night Contest, Ms. Berg qualifies as a recidivist or repeat offender, meaning that she has entered before. Last year she won the Detective Category with the following entry:
The graphic crime-scene photo that stared up at Homicide Inspector Chuck Venturi from the center of his desk was not a pretty picture, though it could have been, Chuck mused, had it only been shot in soft focus with a shutter speed of 1/125 second at f 5.6 or so.
An international literary parody contest, the competition honors the memory if not the reputation of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). The goal of the contest is childishly simple: entrants are challenged to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Although best known for The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal words that the “Peanuts” beagle Snoopy plagiarized for years, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
The contest began in 1982 as a quiet campus affair, attracting only three submissions. This response being a thunderous success by academic standards, the contest went public the following year and ever since has attracted thousands of annual entries from all over the world. This year category winners came not just from the United States but from Brazil, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
The professor looked down at his new young lover, who rested fitfully, lashed as she was with duct tape to the side of his stolen hovercraft, her head lolling gently in the breeze, and as they soared over the buildings of downtown St. Paul to his secret lair he mused that she was much like a sweet ripe juicy peach, except for her not being a fuzzy three-inch sphere produced by a tree with pink blossoms and that she had internal organs and could talk.
St. Paul, MN
Chief Inspector Blancharde knew that this murder would be easy to solve-despite the fact that the clever killer had apparently dismembered his victim, run the corpse through a chipper-shredder with some Columbian beans to throw off the police dogs, and had run the mix through the industrial-sized coffee maker in the diner owned by Joseph Tilby (the apparent murder victim)—if only he could figure out who would want a hot cup of Joe.
Detective Driscoll had fallen off the wagon like a frozen turkey from a Goodwill helicopter and, like a talking elephant reunited with his old circus buddies after 50 years, he reminisced about the most memorable collars of his career — and he guffawed so hard that he fell off the barstool like another turkey from another helicopter as he recollected the time he arrested a mime for shoplifting and had to say “You have a right to remain silent . . .”
The jangling phone disturbed the fly, the blue bottle fly, the blue bottle fly performing precise, low-swooping wingovers above my four-sugar coffee while the potted palm made a feeble attempt at photosynthesis with the naked 25 watt bulb that hung from the cracked plaster of my low-rent office on a less-than-desirable (unless you were vermin) stretch of Pico.
It was a warm, rank odor that hit Detective Swatworth’s nostrils, breaking into components that seemed hauntingly familiar, reminiscent of dangerous deeds past, lighting up every wary fiber in his torso, warning him to be wary of what lay ahead, on guard, finger on the trigger, then relaxed again as he realized it was coming from his own armpit.
Winner: Purple Prose
The blood dripped from his nose like hot grease from a roasting bratwurst pierced with a fork except that grease isn’t red and the blood wasn’t that hot and it wasn’t a fork that poked him in the nose but there was a faint aroma of nutmeg in the air and it is of noses we speak not to mention that if you looked at it in the right profile, his nose did sort of look like a sausage.
Henrietta slept like a log; not your garden variety log, mind you, but one of those phenomenally enormous old-growth South American rain forest logs that is completely enshrouded with luxurious plush green moss and encircling vines with those unworldly twisted rope-like root structures wrenched from the earth and sitting there on its side in the mud and when you try to wake it up just lies there like the enormous moss-covered, vine-enshrouded log in the mud that it is.
Martin F. Melhus
Sheila was easy as opening a jar of pickles, not one closed by a man who has virility doubts and closes a jar so women and young boys get hernias opening it or at least the boys get them; although I heard about a woman who had a hiatal hernia so I guess women get them too but doctors don’t ask them to cough unless their malpractice covers sexual deviance but a jar closed by some ninety-year-old whose grip on the jar as well as reality has slipped.
Warren T. Smith
The cracked, cement-colored, wooden steps to the cellar of the old haunted mansion lead down to the basement, which also had a creepy cement color on the walls, although they were constructed from drywall.
He slumped in his chair like a sack of flour slung over the shoulder of an aging warehouse man who had seen too many midnight shifts in a town where second chances were left only to the savvy souls who knew enough to skip out of this forgotten bastion of whorehouses, rotting fish carcasses, and a third-tier law school.
Leslie A. Pardo
As her tears blurred his receding figure into a ghostly memory, she realized how thoroughly he had broken her heart, like a steamroller grinding the shards of a perfume bottle into splintered, dusty oblivion, at least as much as one can “break” a squishy organ composed of 70% water by weight; heck, let’s be honest, you can no more break a heart than you can perform an appendectomy with a spoon, which is perhaps a better analogy for her pain in the first place.
The tropical island rose abruptly from the jade-green sea like some ancient leviathan skimming the surface for krill and imperceptibly deflected the warm, spice-tinged trade winds that had once propelled Drake, Cook, and Chichester on their momentous voyages, but which made no difference whatsoever to Forbes MacVane as he stood shivering in the “Windy City,” waiting for his contact to alight from the EL.
APO AE 09469
Winner: Science Fiction
It was a dark and silent night in Pluto, a planet nobody had ever taken seriously because of its name, which reminded us of the funny cartoon dog, and it being so far from the sun and having no atmosphere, which seemed unimportant as it was, obviously, lifeless - we thought - in those happy and carefree days when all the world had to worry about was war, famine, pestilence, and death.
Sao Paulo, Brazil
The controls looked normal—the beeping thing was beeping, the humming thing was humming, the blue number display was displaying blue numbers, the yellow number display was displaying yellow numbers, everything seemed OK, but the redundancy of this interplanetary trip left Col. Mountain feeling troubled, troubled like a beeping thing not beeping, or a humming thing not humming, or a blue number display not displaying blue numbers, or a yellow number display not displaying yellow numbers; nothing felt right.
Cedar Park, TX
It had started off as a prank, but when Major Elyse Livesay discovered (during her solo space walk, no less!) the tarantula that the boys in the crew had slipped into her spacesuit, she knew that while in space no one could hear you scream, it was damn sure not for lack of trying.
Doc Parker looked down as Sheriff Eddie LaDuke lay desperately gasping his final breaths in the dusty sun-baked Arizona desert, knowing there was little he could do as the outlaw’s bullet had shredded Eddie’s internal organs like fresh coleslaw, leaving Doc to ponder his next move equipped only with his pistol, some chewing tobacco, and now, one extra horse.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
It was a long and boring flight to Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport and when Special Agent Jasper Smoot debarked and walked into the restroom marked “Dama” in Cyrillic he might have found the woman there attractive except she had more whiskers than a Civil War general and was pointing a crossbow at his head.
Hermann lay with Esmerelda, entwined with one another among love-tangled sheets and he thought how this one constant yet mercurial woman was one whom he could hold in his arms forever, although eventually he’d have to get up to go to the bathroom.
Seattle, WA 98103
Ralph awoke groggily, and after searching through the overflowing ashtray on the nightstand for a half-smoked cigarette, looked over at the rumpled form of Lila sleeping next to him in bed and wondered idly why making love with her made him feel as though his body had been pounded by heavy surf.
Berrien Springs, MI
As she lay in the embrace of her lover’s arms following their ardent lovemaking, Sharon quietly hoped the moment could last forever, well, not really forever, since she had a pedicure in two hours, followed by lunch with her former college roommates, but at least for a long while or so.
Winner: Vile Pun
It wasn’t a dark and stormy night when the Russian space station burned up in its final descent through the atmosphere, so it cast a glow on the face of a young Fiji girl sitting on the beach, causing her boy friend sitting next to her to utter, “Bei MIR bist du schoen.”
Jerome Radding, M.D.
Laguna Woods, CA
The giant ape’s broken body lay upon the asphalt and I didn’t know which had finally done him in — the planes’ machine guns, the fall from atop the building, or maybe just a broken heart — but it was all so heart-wrenching, so tragic, his climbing the Empire State Building just to get a glimpse of that woman’s gorgeous derriere, and the sheer waste of it all finally prompted me to pronounce my own benediction over his great, furry carcass: “‘Twas booty killed the beast!”
The Sultan, having dutifully consulted with his palace sages, historians, and theologians, was finally convinced that nothing in the lore of his religion could guide him in the selection of a Network Operating System, and the conclusion was now clear to him, that though most computers in the Palace Administration should run under WINDOWS, yet the Harem Management must be served by UNIX.
Mr. Harry W. Hickey
What though the steed that carried the young knight over the streets of old Prague was foaled in far Araby, what though the sword at his side came from distant Spain, what though his armor had been formed on German anvil, yet the patriot heart of the warrior was all that mattered; in that mail there was a Czech!
Mr. Harry W. Hickey
709 N. Frederick Street
This is a story of twin Siamese kittens, or, more specifically, of their shared appendage; it is a tail of two kitties.
Palo Alto, CA
Dispatched to the steamy tropics by crusty editor, Warren Pease, to interview renowned spiritualist, Serrafima Raire, in her grass shack, which he truly feared would exacerbate his chronic asthma, London Times ace reporter John Donne found her dying of jungle fever, forcing him to write despairingly in his cable to the home office, “Medium Raire not well - Donne.”
Allan W. Eckert
The sun beat like a molten hammer upon the sand that Jasper trudged upon, scorching his bare skin, baking his eyeballs dry, boiling his brains in his skull, and bleaching his hair to that lovely yellowy shade that perfectly matched his taupe shirt, the one that he could wear with either his suede jacket or the denim one.
Bundaberg QLD Australia
(61 7) 4152 1383
Ungaloo, although he found the new washer and dryer fair dinkum for washing his cutoffs, could only wonder at the occasional loss of a single stocking, something he attributed to his Aboriginal ancestors, thoughtfully considering the footwear as going sockabout.
Seattle, WA 98103
The late afternoon sun cast long shadows across the veldt, but the hot air still shimmered above the ground, heavy with the pungent melange of dust and acacia and animal musk—no relief for Weatherby, crouching in silence for hours in the shelter of the giant thornbush, clinging to hope and recalling the baleful warning of the old Masai: “Don’t drink the water.”
San Diego, CA
I traveled long and hard to get here, blindfolded by suspicious gunmen, riding donkey-back for hours across inhospitable terrain, with no idea of whether the next valley would contain an ambush or a bomb, cut off from communication and denied the basic amenities of civilization, but finally I was able to meet with the terrorist leader and see the Polaroids of how silly I had looked riding blindfolded on a donkey.
(301) 253 0263
Boris, the flying monkey, shot a glance backwards and although it missed he did glean that the enemy F-18 was hot on his tail and the serpentine limb was beginning to smolder and smoke like plump persimmons that have been in the oven too long.
Rio Rancho, NM
Dorothy could hardly believe her ears as the uniformed Munchkin reeled off the citations: flying without a license, flying an unregistered building, reckless flying causing injury or death, parking in an unauthorized place, double-parking (vertical), failure to give way to pedestrians, failure to indicate, 2nd-degree witchslaughter, and closing her eyes she fervently prayed, “Please, I want to go home . . .”
Auckland, New Zealand
Pulling her red coat tightly around her and running the gauntlet of wolf whistles from the nearby building site as she made her way to the short cut through the woods, Maureen wondered yet again why her grandmother could not do her shopping on-line or at least get the super-market to deliver.
South Shields Tyne and Wear, England. UK
“Oh dear, Mr. Hippity Hop the Bunny is late, and if he does not arrive soon, we shan’t be able to hold a birthday party for Good Old Busy Beaver before it is time for me to leave the Fluffy Forrest, which shall be most disappointing indeed,” said Susan, because she was completely smashed on the narcotics she had purchased in the alleyway behind the club from a foul-smelling yet reputable dealer called “Skullz.”
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Miss Francesca often lounged in the tiny wood beyond the stile, and here she lay languidly watching days pass into night; for it was in that good night that Miss Francesca crept so very stealthily amongst the daffodils, finding baby bunnies and mice, tearing their heads off and dragging their lifeless bodies to the back porch door of kindly old Mr. Marvenschire.
Albert T. Keyack
“After many years of constant striving, during which Timmy the Tree grew to be the tallest pine in the forest, men from the National Lumber Corporation visited the Magic Woods and told Timmy that he was to be cut down and used as fuel to further the interests of big business, and in the process he would add to the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, eventually unbalancing the planet’s ecosystem and destroying all life on Earth, all because he’d simply tried too hard.”
Winner: Dark & Stormy Night Category
It was a stark and dormie night at the University of Texas as the on-campus residents poured into the central quad, where the shimmering, wafting, piercing, soaking beams from an authentic Longhorn cheese moon lit the walls of the encircling buildings the way a really large flashlight using AA batteries dimly brightens a cavernous mineshaft, for the results of the city leaders’ baking contest, hoping that they’d be able to shag some pies from the Austin Powers.
Santa Rosa, CA 95409
Toadstool, the lackey of the evil black wizard Dar Kand who had kidnapped and hid Off-White’s knight in shining armor (Snow Off-White was a princess by birthright and a detective by profession), had his head stuck between the floor and one of Off-White’s leather boots; Off-White’s question was simple, “Where did Dar Kand store my knight?”
Marie-Antoinette, the dusky-eyed Comtesse de la Belle Blague that is, rather than the more famous wife of Louis XVI, although coincidentally she was in fact descended from the same aristocratic stock, looked out across the windswept, storm-lashed terrace where her soiree had been in full swing up until a few minutes ago and apologized seductively to her English guest: “C’est vraiment une nuit sombre et orageuse, but later per’aps I can make amends . . .”
Mouans Sartoux, France
Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mentions:
While Karen hand-made bows on her pixie bow maker, and Calvin designed photo nametags on his computer, he couldn’t help but wonder if Martha Stewart could see them, would she invite them for drinks by a fire started from rubbing sticks together on a hearth she masoned herself with stones hauled by reindeer over the North Pole from a remote Norwegian quarry, while cherubs entertained them with flutes hand-hollowed from Jordan River bamboo and preserved for centuries in Palestinian prune sauce at room temperature?
It was just as she had always imagined celebrity would be, Cindy thought as she stepped dramatically into the limelight created by the flash of what seemed to be hundreds of reporters’ cameras all going off at once as they screamed her name in hopes of getting just a moment of her attention-well, except for the handcuffs, the tack orange overalls, and the decidedly unglamorous sheriff’s deputies leading her into the courthouse.
Wichita Falls, TX
My underwear stuck to my backside like an All-Pro cornerback to a rookie wide receiver as I browsed through the seed catalog that had mistakenly found its way into my mailbox.
Phil Peppercorn tiptoed timidly up to the bleak, nail-encrusted door that would become the entrance to his so-called home for the next eight years of his life in the fabulous underground society of bread-makers, pastry chefs, and other leavened-product producers.
Cameron Park, CA
As Borson turned around slowly to face the source of the ridicule he was receiving, crushing the empty tin can in his powerful grip, heedless of the extra sorting that would ensue for the four teenagers working in the recycling plant for 6.85 per hour from 6:00 am EST to 5:00 pm EST on weekdays, but significantly shorter hours on weekends, the entire bar fell silent.
As he gazed over at his aged and sickly wife lying at his side, he remembered the woman he had once known - the vibrant exciting beauty with a heart of gold and a head full of dreams - and instantly wished he had married her instead.
Ladyfingers crackled like knuckles in the distance, and a string of Black Cats was a more substantial reminiscence of back and shoulder joints, but it was the flatulent hissing and keening of the younger kids’ Vesuvius Fountains and Whistling Chasers that enlightened Lee Bob: he hated the Fourth of July because it sounded like getting up in the morning.
(316) 685-2030 (home)
(316) 838-0805 (office)
She walked around the corner and caught Big Jake ripping his boot off with his teeth once again and she could just hear the words in his growl, “What moron ever thought it was a good idea to put boots on a dog?!”
Brenda A. Getsinger
“They say danger is the most compelling emotion of them all,” purred Evangeline Jones, my trench coat-clad one-time arch-nemesis, with something like a trace of real regret, if by trace you mean drawn through a translucent piece of paper over another piece of paper, that other piece of paper being the regret she was copying, like a petulant school-girl with her daddy’s knives and too much time on her hands in a poorly-lit balloon factory.
Hickam AFB, HI
808 448 8062 x182
Listless, Dr. Jekyl returned home to sift through an endless sea of undergraduate term papers, stacks of late of credit card bills, and a pile of crusty week-old dishes, but his mind was back in the laboratory, where earlier that same day his one and only dream had come to a sudden end, his prized experiment had failed miserably and he finally had to accept the fact that frozen pizza would never be any good and there was nothing science could do about it.
Kingston, Ontario, Canada
“All rise,” said the Judge of The Company vs. Workers’ Comp., “except for those with tendonitis, eyestrain, headaches, neck pain, pinched nerves, carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive stress injuries, lumbosacral sprain, ruptured disks, temporomandibular joint pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, traumatic brain injuries, Axis II mental disorders, smoke inhalation, amputations, electrocutions, Gulf War Syndrome, Agent Orange exposure, anthrax poisoning, or pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” leaving only the two Workers’ Comp. lawyers standing in the courtroom, looking sheepishly at their feet.
San Mateo, CA
There was a time when she did not relate to life as though it were on the other side of a mesh screen on which she would press her nose close, inhale dust that was embedded in the corners of the little squares in the grid, sneeze, and back away.
New York, New York 1
As Professor Wincklespoon took a sip from his coffee, craving the caffeine that scalding hot water had seduced from the beans, his eyes fell on an old equation he had written down years ago, metaphorically speaking, for the falling of his eyes should not be taken literally, and suddenly it struck him, as if his mind had been cleared by the same stormy wind that had brought a dark cloud overhead, two million volts of electricity from that same cloud and gone were the man and his equation, the solution to the theory of everything.
Sander van Daatselaar
Amsterdam , The Netherlands
Throwing his moccasined feet forward with the delicate assurance of a skilled tracker, Silver Cloud Stevens paused to cautiously swing a flaxen braid over his manly right shoulder, and in that brief pause became intensely and intoxicatingly aware of the one sixtieth Navajo blood surging through his veins and steering him toward the grey SUV he had earlier nestled somewhere in the vast metallic foliage of the mall parking lot; his instincts whispered “Row J, near the Cinnabon.”
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
It was then that Caroline remembered her kitchen back in Montana, with a stove that she might or might not have turned off, and so with a heavy sigh, she put down the penguin.
Mona E. Xu
Forest Hills, NY
You don’t know about me vitout you have read a book—vell, to tell da trute, you vouldn’t know me anyvay, because no book is out dere already dat tells about my earlier vacky adwentures vit anudder kid; so vat I’m gonna do is describe to you here in my wery own vinsomely vhimsical dialect da yootful escapades of yours truly, a scrappy liddle Norvegian, radder dan dose of some scrappy liddle Finn.
“Uncle Albert!” shrieked the chubby-faced cherub of a niece who dashed excitedly through the parlor, leaping toward the arms of her favorite relative, until stopped abruptly by the sliding glass door she had failed to notice, leaving her for a moment curiously suspended in space like a happy, golden-curled pancake with special anti-gravity powers, before slipping slowly to the floor.
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
“If I may beg your pardon, my dear lady, I happened to catch your eye from across the room and I was entranced by the beauty therein, the pure and unveiled light of honesty flashing bravely at me, the sweet coyness couched in the depths of your green iris like a dolphin in the sea, the smooth marble of your soul in my hand which drew me hither to you,” said the dark stranger, returning the glass orb to his hostess, who gratefully popped it back in place with a soft sucking sound.
New Haven, CT
And so rosy-fingered Dawn awakened him, first with light counterclockwise strokes, then with gentle kneading, and finally with relentless ticklings that made him rue ever buying her finger paint.
Riverdale, New York
“No use crying over spilt milk” she laughed as she handed him a paper towel to clean up the milk from the toppled carton, which had, in a torrent, poured across the table (a gray formica and chrome art deco reproduction), slowing to a trickle by the time it came to the edge, where it finally dripped to the floor, the droplets exploding on contact and looking like those in the photograph in that old advertisement for the Milk Advisory Board.
San Juan Bautista, CA
Jenny’s water broke at the most inopportune time—just as her daughter was rounding third base in her first tee-ball game, pigtails flying backwards under her batting helmet, pudgy legs piston-like in her bright blue baggy nylon shorts, the coach yelling “Run! Run!” in the same rhythm that Jenny’s husband had used when he impregnated her and with which he urged “Breathe! Breathe!” during their Lamaze class.
Wendy Chatley Green
4390 Clearwater Way #3210
To put it in a nutshell - though, not an ordinary hazelnut-shell, because this would be far too small - and not a walnut-shell either, though it is bigger in size but too rounded - unfortunately, a cashew nut is too crooked - a peanut would come pretty close in length but it is too narrow - a chestnut has too odd a form to be suitable - and a Brazil nut is too unknown and not suitable either - it is more or less a complete virtual nutshell I am talking about: to put it in such a nutshell this story has nothing to do with nuts at all.
Lady Eva floated down the stairs like a luminescent ghost with lush, over-ripe, jungle-berry scented décolletage, surveyed the room, pausing momentarily to brush a yogurt splotch from her vintage Dolce and Gabbana velvet bodice, and then boldly approached Lord McCreary, whose bald pate gleamed like the Grand Prize trophy of the ninth annual Oregon Trail Lanes League Bowling Competition.
St. Helens, OR
Green, not blue as for some who stare endlessly in to sky or out to sea, gaping to find some thing of interest backlit by azure or cerulean or buried in navy or cobalt, nor red as for those who would scan field and forest for smudges of scarlet or crimson, for smears of cherry or ruby, nor yet yellow as for others who all their lives lust for gold or long for blond, nor even purple as for some who think God feloniously offended should they not notice violet or lilac, lavender or plum, is my second favorite color.
“Mummy’s gone to Paris to buy hats, and Daddy’s pranged the Bentley,” Fiona responded with a mélange of wry acceptance and distant promise, her ring-less fingers playing slippily on the moist champagne flute in a way that suggested to the normally jaded Sir Jeremy far more than merely imbibing Bucks Fizz .
Mrs. Juliet Toland
Muang, Phuket, Thailand
The moon looked like a discarded toenail clipping submersed in a puddle of saliva on a black formica countertop.
Having opened my 40th birthday present from my husband-a kitchen window fan-and now on my way to the bakery to pick up my cake, I started thinking: What if I get hit in this intersection, and, struck with amnesia, I hobble to the edge of the highway, hungry and confused, and am picked up by a lonely trucker headed for McDonald’s and since I have no memory, I’ve forgotten I hate McDonald’s, so I hop in, and he-just thankful for the company-figures I’m a middle-aged housewife looking for love in all the wrong places and he’s got several of them?
Cynthia Mizner Walgren
(308) 432.9974 (h)
(308) 432.6312 (w)
Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. The contest (hereafter referred to as the BLFC) was the brainchild (or Rosemary’s baby) of Professor Scott Rice, whose graduate school excavations unearthed the source of the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” Sentenced to write a seminar paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose the man with the funny hyphenated name, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was best known for perpetrating The Last Days of Pompeii, Eugene Aram, Rienzi, The Caxtons, The Coming Race, and—not least—Paul Clifford, whose famous opener has been plagiarized repeatedly by the cartoon beagle Snoopy.
Conscripted numerous times to be a judge in writing contests that were, in effect, bad writing contests but with prolix, overlong, and generally lengthy submissions, he struck upon the idea of holding a competition that would be honest and—best of all—invite brief entries. Furthermore, it had the ancillary advantage of one day allowing him to write about himself in the third person.
By campus standards, the first year of the BLFC was a resounding success, attracting three entries. The following year, giddy with the prospect of even further acclaim, Rice went public with the contest and, with the boost of a sterling press release by Public Information Officer Richard Staley, attracted national and international attention. Staley’s press release drew immediate front-page coverage in cultural centers like Boston, Houston, and Miami. By the time the BLFC concluded with live announcement of the winner, Gail Cane, on CBS Morning News (since defunct through no fault of the BLFC), it had drawn coverage from Time, Smithsonian, People Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Manchester Guardian, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Radio, and the BBC. Most important, over 10,000 wretched writers had tried their hands at outdoing Bulwer’s immortal opener, with the best entries soon appearing in the first of a series published by Penguin Books, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1984).
Since 1983 the BLFC has continued to draw acclaim and opprobrium. Thousands continue to enter yearly, the judging has been covered by all the major American television networks, and journalists and pundits from Charles Osgood to George F. Will have commented on the BLFC phenomenon. And each year the winners continue to be announced by both national and international media, including such worthies as the BBC, Australian Radio, Radio South Africa, and Radio Blue Danube from Vienna. To sustain the momentum, the Penguin collections of entries have reached five, each an indispensable addition to the bookshelves of discerning readers and collectors (lamentably, they are now all out of print, a commentary on the misplaced and mercenary values of modern publishing companies).
In the meantime, Lytton’s fame has not rested solely on his literary accomplishments. In 1989 he came (albeit unbeknownst) to our attention when his ancestral estate at Knebworth was chosen by Tim Burton as the setting for “stately Wayne Manor” in the movie Batman. White water enthusiasts will also be gratified to know that “the rafting capital of British Columbia,” located at the dramatic confluence of the Thompson and and Fraser Rivers, takes its name from our hero, acknowledging his tenure as Interior Secretary, when he was responsible for building numerous roads in Australia and Western Canada. In the off chance you are interested in the assessment of species diversity in the Montane Cordillera Ecozone near Lytton, B.C., go here. In the greater likelihood that you do not give a rat’s patootie about the biogeography for selected taxa belonging to some of the major phylogenetic groups in the eastern Rockies and western Cascades of British Columbia, we suggest that you loiter at our site.
The rules to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are childishly simple:
* Sentences may be of any length (though you go beyond 50 or 60 words at your peril), and entrants may submit more than one, but all entries must be original and previously unpublished.
* Entries should be submitted on index cards, the sentence on one side and the entrant’s name, address, and phone number on the other.
* Entries will be judged by categories, from “general” to detective, western, science fiction, romance, and so on. There will be overall winners as well as category winners.
* The symbolic deadline is April 15 (a date Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories), but we accept entries right up until we announce the final results, i.e., late June.
Send your entries to:
Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest
Department of English
San Jose State University
San Jose, CA 95192-0090
Visit Knebworth, ancestral home of the Lytton family, and before the first Baron’s writing desk the guide informs you that although he was a very famous novelist in his day nobody reads him any more. This is not much of an exaggeration. The last of his books to be popular was The Last Days of Pompeii, a cruder work than his best historical novels, though credited with inspiring Madame Blavatsky to her adventurous career as mystical hierophant and founder of the theosophical society. But it would be wrong to conclude from the fact that he is not read to the judgement that he is not worth reading. Why has this idea taken hold?
Born Edward Bulwer in 1803, he was educated at Trinity College Cambridge. He began writing to finance an extravagant lifestyle as man of fashion. He was Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1858. For his achievements as novelist, playwright and statesman, he was elevated to the peerage in 1866. For forty years he was known as Bulwer, for twenty-two, having added his mother’s surname on inheriting Knebworth, Bulwer-Lytton, and the last seven as Lord Lytton. He died in 1873.
Lytton’s work expresses some of the most significant intellectual currents of the nineteenth century, several of which are far from are exhausted. He treated intelligently and interestingly perennial themes of good and evil, of freedom and despotism, egoism and altruism, life affirmation and the power of will. His treatment can seem all the fresher partly because he is no longer familiar. His influence was world-wide. It was notable in Germany, whose deep and thoughtful culture he both affected and was affected by. He was influenced by Schiller (whom he translated), and by Goethe, sharing something of the latter’s eclectic liveliness, and exploring subjects that strongly suggest his speculations about the daemonic. His novel of thirteenth century Italy, Rienzi, inspired Wagner’s third opera.
Britain and Germany have often seemed far apart culturally, looking to different types of philosophy, and separated by a degree of mutual contempt. British writers deplore Germany’s tendency to obscurity and dangerously misguided enthusiasm, Germans British pedestrianism of ideas and arrogant insularity. To some continental critics, the stranglehold of the old universities has adversely affected the whole of English cultural life. Such criticism was by no means unechoed in Britain.. Some of Bulwer’s thoughts upon power and charisma suggest a discontent that a complacent English culture has often felt able to dismiss as typical of an alien tradition.
Coleridge and Carlyle are examples of that enthusiasm for Germany that was a significant strand in nineteenth century British culture. Many in Victorian times had ideas of Germany as a kind of alternative England, a place of new possibilities, romantically rich, a new country to be constructed. We may think of the creation of an original German culture as an international project, with a not altogether happy outcome. Viewing Bulwer as part of this is to guard against thinking solely in terms of English literature. For the German connection see ZIPSER Richard A., Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Germany,: Berne & Frankfurt/M.: Herbert Lang, 1974.
Allan Conrad Christensen, author of one modern study (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the fiction of new regions, Athens, GA University of Georgia Press 1976), asserts that Lytton was ‘not one of the very great novelists’ and that he is interesting for his ideals and aspirations more than for the perfection of his work. He says that he throws valuable light on the thought of the Victorians, on their view of the world. Though he also argues for his intrinsic interest, many might think that Bulwer is mostly of concern to historians, and students of the Victorian age, and that for literature we should read other novelists. That he was original and influential no one would deny. Others have surpassed him in some, perhaps most, of the genres in which he worked. Vanity Fair has been called the masterpiece of the fashionable, Oliver Twist of the Newgate school. Some conclude that his influence has passed on, into other and greater writers, with the implicit suggestion that he has nothing to say to us. This is very disputable, certainly in view of much of the nineteenth literature that still continues to be read. Many of the ideas expressed are as lively and relevant today as they were when he wrote.
As for Bulwer’s deficiency in purely literary qualities, that is less decisive than some critics have held. Understanding something of what his ideas are, we no longer judge him by some simplistic canon of what is or is not ‘great literature’. Supposed weaknesses of style like his unfashionable archaism, need not obstruct appreciation. Admittedly he has acquired an unfortunate reputation for corniness. The opening lines of his Paul Clifford (1830) have inspired a number of childish jokes, largely through the influence of Schultz’s Peanuts strip cartoon. The sentence runs: - “It was a dark and stormy night and 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.” This is supposed to be so laughable that someone is offering an annual ‘Bulwer-Lytton prize’ for bad writing.
Another obvious obstacle is the sheer diversity and range of his work. No one is likely to be drawn to all of it. I only feel qualified to argue for the interest of some of it, and to indicate a few of his more notable themes. Far from being superseded, his best work is unique in English literature, of permanent interest, and quite unfairly ignored. It would be surprising if someone who made so many successful hits never attained to lasting originality Admittedly the idea of having to plough through his whole oeuvre would be dismaying. I am prepared to concede that a work like Ernest Maltravers (1837)* may well be dead for the rest of time, though I would not want to pontificate on the subject. Who could say where a Lytton revival might lead?
We can certainly see him as a representative Victorian, with his roots appropriately in an earlier era. He was a survivor from the days of George IV. His first poetry was published in 1820, his first novel in 1827. All his life he cultivated a dandy image which came to seem worse than old fashioned. It inspired counter accusations of effeminacy from Tennyson, whom he had himself accused of girlishness. This inspired a lifelong feud.
The young Bulwer, who began as an admirer of Byron, found a new hero in Bentham, entering parliament in the reform interest in 1831. At this period he wrote of the need to balance the urge to self fulfilment with more social concerns. His Pelham (1828) allegedly changed the fashion from Byronism to the moral earnestness of the Victorian social reformers. For amoral individualism, the Byronism of the 1820s had prefigured the Nietzscheanism of the end of the century. After the 1820s people tired of egoistic assertion for a season, much as, following a similar reaction, was to happen with Nietzsche. Bulwer found fertile material in the dialectic of egoism and idealism. The tension between the two suggests what Aleister Crowley, the prophet of Magick and thelema, and admirer of Lytton’s work, said of the conflict between his own Beast personality and his utopian, Shelleyan side, though in his case it might all reduce to egoism. He remarks on Zanoni’s sacrifice in language that time has not softened into respectability.
“We have a sentimental idea of self sacrifice, the kind which is most esteemed by the vulgar and is the essence of popular Christianity. It is the sacrifice of the strong to the weak. This is wholly against the principles of evolution. Any nation which does this systematically on a sufficiently large scale destroys itself. The sacrifice is vain, the weak are not even saved. Consider the action of Zanoni in going to the scaffold in order to save his silly wife. The gesture was magnificent; it was evidence of his own supreme courage and moral strength; but if every one acted on that principle the race would deteriorate and disappear”.
With the reaction against rationalism and a new cultural climate, Bulwer’s lifelong occult interests gained a new relevance. He was a living link between the original Romantic Movement, and the belief in the power of the imagination that characterised the aesthetic revolt. His conception of the ideal world and the soul prefigured the principles of the symbolists and decadents who made up romanticism’s second wind. The symbolist movement was largely underpinned by occult philosophy. Mystery was intrinsic to the reaction against the supposed rationality of the high Victorians. Bulwer had a rich and genuine occult learning that earned him the respect of all the leading figures of the occult revival. He had made an intensive study of magical writers like Iamblichus, Psellus, and Cornelius Agrippa, and was not above claiming secret knowledge and initiation into the Rosicrucian brotherhood.
The concern with egoism led to a preoccupation with villainy. In defence of the subject matter of his Newgate novels, Bulwer argued that crime reveals deep truth about human nature. This was another of his seminal ideas. Arbaces the magician in The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), last descendant of the Egyptian royal line, is a gloomy, sensual aristocratic criminal. The theme was more deeply explored in his occult stories. In The Haunted and the Haunters† (1857), he presents a malevolent character who transcends the Byronic to create a fascinating image of daemonic will. In the full version of the story, he is encountered in his contemporary embodiment as Richards, the mysterious long-lived being responsible for the hauntings. Sometimes described as the best ghost story ever written, this is arguably his masterpiece. He cut it short in later editions, because he wanted to develop the theme into a full-length novel. It became A Strange Story (1862), where the same malignant will is personified as Margrave, an evil character who wants to live forever. This desire comes across as a powerful image of life affirmation, though in the form of black magic.
White magic is portrayed in the earlier Zanoni (1842). Zanoni stands for the virtuous version of daemonic will. He has lived for many centuries as a member of a wise circle of initiates who have discovered the secret of eternal life. Taking another’s place on the scaffold, during the Reign of Terror, he offered the pattern for Sidney Carton’s sacrifice in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Lytton stated that this novel represents the fullest expression of his thought. We can think of it as a Rosicrucian novel of ideas. It brought to a nineteenth century audience the timelessly fascinating Rosicrucian alchemical tradition. The character of Zanoni represents his synthesis of these ideals. For its treatment of these, it belongs with his historical novels.
Late in his career, Bulwer turned against the pretensions of scientific rationalism, expressing hostility towards Marxism, Darwinism and socialist utopias. Other of his contemporaries expressed comparable reservations, not least Tennyson, whose Locksley Hall Sixty Years After shows his discontent with the ideals of progress he had done so much to hymn.The Coming Race (1873) has sometimes been interpreted as one of the earliest blasts in a dystopic tradition that was to culminate in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, books which for a few decades offered powerful prophylactics against some disturbing modern tendencies.
How much his thoughts on will derived from philosophical sources like Schopenhauer, if at all, and how much from humbler sources like Balzac, has been a subject of argument.
Whatever his inspiration there are fertile possibilities in the subject. The Coming Race explores some of them in the form of science fiction. Vril is will power made into the direct energy source of society. (The word survives on the supermarket shelf as Bovril). Like Huxley’s Brave New World, the novel included speculations about interesting technological developments, but set in the framework of an inhuman and unacceptable future. The scientific perfection of this society is that of another species, and really intolerable to the human being.
High claims have been made for this book, and even for the idea of vril, which has been described as anticipating nuclear energy. As science fiction it long predated Wells who was impressed by it,
His idea of historical romance is outlined in his introduction to Harold, or the Last of the Saxon Kings (1848), serious history mixed with romance. This offers a natural framework for such themes as the perils of a political career, and the meaning of aristocracy, subjects unfortunately prone to easy trivialisation. The historical novel itself is a genre that has sometimes been degraded to the level of feminine emotional pornography. With the debased romanticism of ‘romantic fiction’ the aristocratic ideal becomes little more than a form of titillation for female readers. So the seriousness and originality of Bulwer’s treatment may be overlooked. The eras he writes about he chooses not just for their dramatic interest. At his best he was writing historical novels of ideas. The Last Days of Pompeii, for all its merits, has presumably had its day. Brilliant entertainment for its time, its concessions to popular sentiment give an inadequate image of his powers. Modern readers who want that sort of thing seem to prefer Robert Graves’s evocations of the Roman Empire in his Claudius series. Pompeii gives some intriguing insights into the Victorian imagination. But the interest of Rienzi (1835), and The Last of the Barons (1843) goes much further. In these novels, important universal issues are treated, unresolved arguments aired.
Bulwer teaches a history that deserves to be better known, bringing it imaginatively alive, and revealing a lot about nineteenth century British attitudes towards it. Rienzi expresses something of his social radicalism. It anticipates the intellectual atmosphere that generated fascism in its engrossing concern with charisma, the nature of political leadership, nationalism and ambition. He says that the Roman people rejected Rienzi’s leadership because they were not worthy of him. He holds that it was the same with the English who rejected Cromwell’s republic. His description of Charles II, as “the lewd pensioner of Louis”, reveals something of his political position. The aristocratic families of the Orsini and the Colonna come across as negative and destructive forces, though their point of view is by no means presented without sympathy.
The Last of the Barons was his next novel after Zanoni. Most critics acknowledge it to be one of his best. Perhaps we can trace a link with the heroic theme of its predecessor. Much as Zanoni is a hero held up for our admiration, it could be argued that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, represents his ideal in a more earthly form. This is nobility benevolent and not simply Byronic. He based his writing on a thorough study of contemporary sources, including the chroniclers like Hall that Shakespeare read for his tetralogy on the Wars of the Roses. This epoch was England at its most self absorbed, the time when English literature retreated north of the border and perpendicular architecture developed in virtual isolation from continental influences. Perhaps such history is not of world-wide interest; its concerns reflect deep into the essence of English nationhood. Bulwer has an intriguing thesis that Warwick the Kingmaker had a better vision of England than did Edward IV and his Tudor successors. It cannot be said that the thesis obtrudes. We are hardly aware of it till the end of the book. Viewpoints of other, often opposed, characters are treated very sympathetically. The novel may even at first seem to be about the rise of the new middle classes, with heroes like Nicholas Alwyn, the ambitious goldsmith, and Master Warner, the inventor, who looks back to Friar Bacon and forward to the industrial revolution. Warwick is far from a mere apologist for the power of exploiters. Far more than the old order, he represents England in all its contradictions. Considerations of policy are always tempered by a deep sense of traditional liberties. The value of aristocracy becomes apparent where liberty is overridden in the name of reform.
In this feudal vision is a wonderful lost cause to compare with Jacobitism. As a lost cause it could even have more appeal than that of the Stuarts, who might be perceived as primarily a Scottish dynasty. Bulwer links it with his own pride of ancestry; one of his own ancestors is periodically mentioned throughout the book as fighting on the Lancastrian side. The value of lost causes has often been understood as far more than that of doomed classes or misfit individuals. Even in their failure they are somehow liberating, a challenge to the idea that justice lies with the victors. The eighteenth Whig settlement with its all embracing claim to represent freedom and reason was confronted by an alternative. The defeated cause, especially after 1745, inspired the most romantic emotions, as captured in Lady Nairne’s beautiful songs. This book does something the same for the equally well known Tudor settlement.
In the very notion of the lost cause there is a world of emotional possibilities to enrich the present. A settlement that is found oppressive may be countered by this spirit. We live in a world in which a number of cultures and countries have recently experienced defeat. In a demoralised culture, it is important to find some compensation for defeat. Factors such as material wealth and erotic enjoyment generally offer consolation. What is most oppressive is that we are told that what we experience as defeat is not defeat, that it is really a triumph we are simply too backward to understand. We are under pressure to think what the dominant group in society means us to think, confounding power with wisdom. Despite the occasional encouragement when dissenting points of view find their way into the newspapers, it is hard for such attitudes to sustain themselves. Bombarded with orthodox propaganda, it is hard to reject what we feel we ought to reject. How can we resist the idea that we live among reasonable people worthy of respect?
That other values than those in authority live and flourish within our society goes without saying, but typically their official status is low, and they are derided as outmoded, or unenlightened. Those who live by them are under pressure to change. Theirs is denied to be a perspective from which much develops. Against this tyranny art can operate as a subversive force. As a way of memory and of crystallisation, it opens the gate to enjoyment that is otherwise barred. Artists and writers create separate worlds where it is possible to ignore the pressure of outside opinion. The Last of the Barons is such a work. As a novel of a lost cause, preserving as literature Warwick’s vision of aristocracy based on popular affection, lies much of its aesthetic value. In this sense we can see the book as successful and satisfying, the creation of a self contained other world where ideas and values do not keep changing into one another.
Even as a historical novelist Bulwer-Lytton is universally held to be inferior to such masters as Hugo, Dickens and Scott, presumably as regards character, psychological drama, and other pure literary qualities. But he has a different sort of interest. He participates in the intellectual climate in a different way. He was writing a different sort of novel, whose interest is largely in its ideas. I strongly deny that his books have lost their relevance. They maintain interesting historical theses. It is recognised that the Last of the Barons is more historically accurate than Scott’s novels, certainly than his English ones. Bulwer’s historical research was deep and thorough. But even Scott is little read now.
One thesis is that the mediaeval barons were the foundation of English liberty. Even by Warwick’s day, as Bulwer points out, they were still half Norman. He puts forward an argument for the value of feudalism, contending that English liberty grew out of the feudal past, the Norman freedom of the barons, their history and traditions. These values were to lay dormant for 150 years to re-emerge in the Cromwellian republic. This view is an alternative to the Saxonism that is emphasised in Harold, and sits more easily with the cosmopolitanism of the post war era. Feudalism involves voluntary commitment to rightful authority. Against this was the new monarchical absolutism with its basis in Machiavelli, appealing to the thrusting new middle class, and promoted by Edward IV, Richard III and the Tudors. Bulwer presents the young Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III, as a serious student of these new ideas. Not only is he intelligent, ruthless and brave, as Shakespeare portrays him, but also a more sympathetic character, in his own way an idealist rather than a mere villain.
Machiavelli represents rationalisation. We may think of him as a revolutionary, the Marx or Lenin of his day. One dispenses with morality for the duration of the revolution; after that it is presumably to return. Machiavellianism means cynicism about power and about the immovable beliefs of the people, to which hypocrisy has to be paid as tribute. Some basic questions of political philosophy present themselves. How much can a society be based upon true beliefs? There is a dialogue with Shakespeare, especially on the character of Gloucester, the significance of Machiavelli and the merits of the Tudor despotism. We see how much Shakespeare was writing Tudor propaganda.
There are various sub themes that might have some contemporary resonance. The descriptions of the court of Edward IV in the Tower of London reveal much about nineteenth century ideas of effeminacy. Despite Edward’s military prowess and somewhat brutal courage when called upon, he presides over a frivolous feminine culture, preoccupied with fashion, entertainment and display. Another theme is the political use made of hypocritical piety. Another is that of the newly created aristocrats, represented by Hastings, relatives of the Queen, pitted against the old baronage in the effort to undermine its power. And it is instructive to see Warwick as putting Edward IV in power then regretting what he had done.
Today, when England is looking for a new identity, it is worth looking at earlier settlements. For this reason alone The Last of Barons would be worth rereading. Even for making modern points, it can be useful to focus on something from history. There is much in national life that is only tolerable once we have risen to a vision, one might call it illusion, of mutual agreement. Where there are few we can agree with completely, politics becomes a matter of alliances. To be against something can give a feeling of unity, though our individual voices are unheard. The unifying cause here is regret at the triumph of a modernising despotism. Here is a vision of England in one of its most formative eras, as engaging and thought provoking as much of Shakespeare.
New Labour’s reforms seem likely to create a nostalgia for the things it is setting out to destroy. Most obvious of these is the vestigial political power of the old hereditary nobility. Encouraged by this attack, new voices are raised against the monarchy. Soon the nation itself may be called upon to give up its sovereignty to join a new European federation. Also some people are talking about the crisis of English identity as Scotland and Wales make moves away from the union, and the Union Jack is decried as a racist symbol. There is potential solace in the England before the Tudors, and a lament for freedoms and values that went into eclipse. This is not jingoism. There is little imperialism in The Last of the Barons, unless against the French who are still regarded as fair game. And it is a perfectly readable book, certainly as much so as much of what is still published in popular paperback editions and expected to be taken seriously as great literature. Much of its merit is its intellectual content. It is meaty enough in this respect. Also it evokes a believable picture of a unique, complex and little known era, and compelling psychological portraits of interesting historical characters. There are riches for which there is no space in this introduction. It is hard to think of any significant feature of the period that has been altogether omitted.
Until recently the motive for this journey into the roots of English national feeling and identity would have been generally obvious. The former is increasingly marginalised to the frivolity of football and out of the way places like Northern Ireland. In some quarters it is so unfashionable as to have become almost incomprehensible. In others it is identified with a narrow party line. Historical understanding is obscured by the moralistic prejudices of right and left. The Last of the Barons is good enough to bear a new interpretation. This well constructed book with its far from happy ending can speak a new message as much of the mere background becomes a source of illumination to a generation that is forgetting what once was common currency. It relates to a traditional image and interpretation of England that has played a large role in history and if only for this reason would be worth remembering.
Enthusiasts for reform may be tempted to dismiss the whole idea of such an artistic value as mere right wing tosh. In one sense, of course, romanticising the lost cause is inevitably a reactionary idea. But that is not exactly the point that is being made. The object is not directly political, it speaks more to frustration of the will, disillusion and disgust with politics. For aesthetic purposes the lost cause is often far more valuable than the live political option. With the revolt against a one-sided, often philistine, rationalism, comes restoration of imaginative balance. A vision, even a fantasy, of historical rootedness offers an antidote to the rootless metropolitanism of an obnoxious zeitgeist. Such a counteragent is not necessarily rightist, unless as conflicting with certain current loyalties, self righteously assured of their unimpeachable rationality.
The camel died quite suddenly on the second day, and Selena fretted sulkily and, buffing her already impeccable nails—not for the first time since the journey began—pondered snidely if this would dissolve into a vignette of minor inconveniences like all the other holidays spent with Basil.
—Gail Cain, San Francisco, California (1983 Winner)
The lovely woman-child Kaa was mercilessly chained to the cruel post of the warrior-chief Beast, with his barbarous tribe now stacking wood at her nubile feet, when the strong, clear voice of the poetic and heroic Handsomas roared, “Flick your Bic, crisp that chick, and you’ll feel my steel through your last meal.”
—Steven Garman, Pensacola, Florida (1984 Winner)
The countdown had stalled at T minus 69 seconds when Desiree, the first female ape to go up in space, winked at me slyly and pouted her thick, rubbery lips unmistakably—the first of many such advances during what would prove to be the longest, and most memorable, space voyage of my career.
—Martha Simpson, Glastonbury, Connecticut (1985 Winner)
The bone-chilling scream split the warm summer night in two, the first half being before the scream when it was fairly balmy and calm and pleasant for those who hadn’t heard the scream at all, but not calm or balmy or even very nice for those who did hear the scream, discounting the little period of time during the actual scream itself when your ears might have been hearing it but your brain wasn’t reacting yet to let you know.
—Patricia E. Presutti, Lewiston, New York (1986 Winner)
The notes blatted skyward as the sun rose over the Canada geese, feathered rumps mooning the day, webbed appendages frantically peddling unseen bicycles in their search for sustenance, driven by Nature’s maxim, “Ya wanna eat, ya gotta work,” and at last I knew Pittsburgh.
—Sheila B. Richter, Minneapolis, Minnesota (1987 Winner)
Like an expensive sports car, fine-tuned and well-built, Portia was sleek, shapely, and gorgeous, her red jumpsuit molding her body, which was as warm as the seatcovers in July, her hair as dark as new tires, her eyes flashing like bright hubcaps, and her lips as dewy as the beads of fresh rain on the hood; she was a woman driven—fueled by a single accelerant—and she needed a man, a man who wouldn’t shift from his views, a man to steer her along the right road, a man like Alf Romeo.
—Rachel E. Sheeley, Williamsburg, Indiana (1988 Winner)
Professor Frobisher couldn’t believe he had missed seeing it for so long—it was, after all, right there under his nose—but in all his years of research into the intricate and mysterious ways of the universe, he had never noticed that the freckles on his upper lip, just below and to the left of the nostril, partially hidden until now by a hairy mole he had just removed a week before, exactly matched the pattern of the stars in the Pleides, down to the angry red zit that had just popped up where he and his colleagues had only today discovered an exploding nova.
—Ray C. Gainey, Indianapolis, Indiana (1989 Winner)
Dolores breezed along the surface of her life like a flat stone forever skipping across smooth water, rippling reality sporadically but oblivious to it consistently, until she finally lost momentum, sank, and due to an overdose of fluoride as a child which caused her to lie forever on the floor of her life as useless as an appendix and as lonely as a five-hundred-pound barbell in a steroid-free fitness center.
—Linda Vernon, Newark, California (1990 Winner)
Sultry it was and humid, but no whisper of air caused the plump, laden spears of golden grain to nod their burdened heads as they unheedingly awaited the cyclic rape of their gleaming treasure, while overhead the burning orb of luminescence ascended its ever-upward path toward a sweltering celestial apex, for although it is not in Kansas that our story takes place, it looks godawful like it.
—Judy Frazier, Lathrop, Missouri (1991 Winner)
As the newest Lady Turnpot descended into the kitchen wrapped only in her celery-green dressing gown, her creamy bosom rising and falling like a temperamental souffle, her tart mouth pursed in distaste, the sous-chef whispered to the scullery boy, “I don’t know what to make of her.” —Laurel Fortuner, Montendre, France (1992 Winner)
She wasn’t really my type, a hard-looking but untalented reporter from the local cat box liner, but the first second that the third-rate representative of the fourth estate cracked open a new fifth of old Scotch, my sixth sense said seventh heaven was as close as an eighth note from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so, nervous as a tenth grader drowning in eleventh-hour cramming for a physics exam, I swept her into my longing arms, and, humming “The Twelfth of Never,” I got lucky on Friday the thirteenth.
—Wm. W. “Buddy” Ocheltree, Port Townsend, Washington (1993 Winner)
As the fading light of a dying day filtered through the window blinds, Roger stood over his victim with a smoking .45, surprised at the serenity that filled him after pumping six slugs into the bloodless tyrant that mocked him day after day, and then he shuffled out of the office with one last look back at the shattered computer terminal lying there like a silicon armadillo left to rot on the information superhighway.
—Larry Brill, Austin, Texas (1994 Winner)
Paul Revere had just discovered that someone in Boston was a spy for the British, and when he saw the young woman believed to be the spy’s girlfriend in an Italian restaurant he said to the waiter, “Hold the spumoni—I’m going to follow the chick an’ catch a Tory.”
—John L. Ashman, Houston, Texas (1995 Winner)
“Ace, watch your head!” hissed Wanda urgently, yet somehow provocatively, through red, full, sensuous lips, but he couldn’t you know, since nobody can actually watch more than part of his nose or a little cheek or lips if he really tries, but he appreciated her warning.
—Janice Estey, Aspen, Colorado (1996 Winner)
The moment he laid eyes on the lifeless body of the nude socialite sprawled across the bathroom floor, Detective Leary knew she had committed suicide by grasping the cap on the tamper-proof bottle, pushing down and twisting while she kept her thumb firmly pressed against the spot the arrow pointed to, until she hit the exact spot where the tab clicks into place, allowing her to remove the cap and swallow the entire contents of the bottle, thus ending her life.
— Artie Kalemeris, Fairfax, Virginia (1997 Winner)
The corpse exuded the irresistible aroma of a piquant, ancho chili glaze enticingly enhanced with a hint of fresh cilantro as it lay before him, coyly garnished by a garland of variegated radicchio and caramelized onions, and impishly drizzled with glistening rivulets of vintage balsamic vinegar and roasted garlic oil; yes, as he surveyed the body of the slain food critic slumped on the floor of the cozy, but nearly empty, bistro, a quick inventory of his senses told corpulent Inspector Moreau that this was, in all likelihood, an inside job.
—Bob Perry, Milton, Massachusetts (1998 Winner)
Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum of the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother, and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life.
—Dr. David Chuter, Kingston, Surrey, ENGLAND(1999 Winner)
The heather-encrusted Headlands, veiled in fog as thick as smoke in a crowded pub, hunched precariously over the moors, their rocky elbows slipping off land’s end, their bulbous, craggy noses thrust into the thick foam of the North Sea like bearded old men falling asleep in their pints.
—Gary Dahl, Los Gatos, CA (2000 Winner)
A small assortment of astonishingly loud brass instruments raced each other lustily to the respective ends of their distinct musical choices as the gates flew open to release a torrent of tawny fur comprised of angry yapping bullets that nipped at Desdemona’s ankles, causing her to reflect once again (as blood filled her sneakers and she fought her way through the panicking crowd) that the annual Running of the Pomeranians in Liechtenstein was a stupid idea.
Sera Kirk, Vancouver, BC (2001 Winner)
On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.
Rephah Berg, Oakland CA (2002 Winner)
The rain splattered down on the tables of the cafe like raisins dropped by uncaring gods.
—Patricia A. Folkerth, Columbia, South Carolina
“Fightin’ Joe” Steerforth thought he was tough until the day he met Annie (“Big Bucket”) McGillicuddy and she left him battered and spent like a punch-drunk prizefighter on the ropes of love.
—John Stark Bellamy II, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the toad’s deception, screaming madly, “You lied!”
—Barbara C. Kroll, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Grimelda’s heart was on the ship with Lord Touchnot, but her feet were planted firmly in the soil of her native land; she felt she could not endure the pain.
—Mary Virginia Brown, Ventura, California
The surface of the strange, forbidden planet was roughly textured and green, much like cottage cheese gets way after the date on the lid says it is all right to buy it.
—Scott Davis Jones, Sausalito, California
Yes, Cathy could ingest a full-grown rat when she was in the mood, then wash down the rodent with great quantities of diet cola (when she knew perfectly well one shouldn’t mix hairy proteins and artificial sweetener).
—Rix Quinn, Forth Worth, Texas
Just beyond the Narrows the river widens.
—Warren Tupper Way, Wayzata, Wisconsin
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“Nothing is so Powerful as a Bad Idea
Whose Time Has Come”
“Why, you silly little pussycat,” he chuckled warmly, “of course I’ll make love to you!”
—W. R. C. Shedenhelm, Ventura, California
With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.
—Alice A. Hall, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Once upon a time there was a little boy—just like you!—name Jeff, and he lived in a yellow house with a big yard, along with his mother and father and sister and brother and his bunny rabbit (until it got loose and Mr. Koberly’s dog ate it) and his goldfish (that his brother flushed down the toilet one day when he got mad at Jeff) and his puppy, Squitters, that ran in front of car just a few weeks after Jeff’s mom had to go to the hospital for an operation (only the operation didn’t work, and Jeff’s mommy went to Heaven); but before Jeff got leukemia and died, he and his puppy had this exciting adventure . . .
—Cynthia Conyers, Warner Springs, California
Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the east wall: “Andre creep . . . Andre creep . . . Andre creep.”
—David Allen Janzen, Davis, California
“You can call it ‘a celebration of life’ all you want,” said Snow White caustically to the seven little men looking up at her, “to me it sounds suspiciously like a gang-bang!”
—Robert F. Pollock, Newton, Massachusetts
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1974: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
The horizon coughed up the morning sun much as if Atlas had lowered the world from his mighty shoulders and given it the Heimlich maneuver.
—Bruce K. MacDonald, Scarborough, Ontario
“This is almost worth the high blood pressure!” he thought as yet another mosquito exploded.
—Richard Patching, Calgary, Alberta
Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back-alley sex-change surgeon—to become the woman he loved.
—John L. Orman, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Thadump, thadump, thadump, the incessant pounding of Marge’s breast against his forehead was aggravating, but Lars wasn’t about to complain, for this was the closest he’d ever been to a real woman.
—Tim Burns, Indianapolis, Indiana
Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eeking out a living at a local pet store.
—Richard W. O’Bryan, Perrysburg, Ohio
It was Sammy Slug’s first day of school, and was he ever excited!—because he’d meet lots of other little worms, but he had to watch out for salt crossing the street on his way to school, his mother said, because if the patrol slug waved him and his glob of little friends across the busy, dangerous street that had been salted because of the snow, before Sammy knew it his little body would be sucked dry, and his poor mama would never see Sammy drag his slime across her doorstep again.
—Enid Shomer, Gainesville, Florida
As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the sound chamber he would never hear the end of it.
—David C. Mortensen, Pocatello, Idaho
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Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do.
—John Witschey, Alexandria, Virginia
Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.
—John Renfro Davis, Conroe, Texas
The silent snow fell relentlessly, unceasingly, mercilessly from the sordid, sullied surreality of the sky as if some enormous, ethereal diner were shaking grated Parmesan on the great soggy meatball that was Earth.
—Joan Mazulewicz, Liverpool, New York
Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn’t know the meaning of the word “fear,” a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death—in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies.
—Eddie Lawhorn, Huntsville, Alabama
The poor little wooden boy could only sit helplessly and watch while the old puppet maker, who was now his father and whom he had just told how a good fairy had turned him into a living boy without strings, worked on a life-sized puppet of a young woman with really big hooters.
—Michael E. Wear, Calgary, Alberta
The she-wolf, who had spent the night pacing the floor of the cave and biting her lips, greeted her finally returning mate with a snarled, “All right, who is the bitch?”
—Sheila H. Benson, Gallipolis Ferry, West Virginia
“There is no free will,” said the old sage, “for you may not choose your parents nor the hour of your birth, neither may you select the time and manner of your death, nor may you have any voice in what passes in between, although if you can afford a good plastic surgeon, you might be able to pick your nose.”
—Brian Holmes, San Jose, California
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“Best not pester Mr. Buster’s sister Hester, blast her, lest her blisters fester,” rasped our flustered pastor.
—Gwen Fuller, Menlo Park, California
After ravaging the pansies, the gastropod turned his attention to the roses: “So many beauties,” he sighed, “so little slime.”
—Mary Anthony, Grand Rapids, Michigan
The Supremes, responding penitently to the judgment of their critics, changed their group’s name to the Earnest, Moderately-Talented Young Women Who Sing for a Living.
—Rev. William F. Charles, Cassopolis, Michigan
Fierce, icy winds mercilessly whipped the naked trees into splinters and sent birds wheeling into the horizon as Nick Savage mushed his heavy sled on through the blinding whiteness; next time, he thought wearily, I’m hooking up the dogs.
—Leann Roberts, Iron Station, North Carolina
“You shall bear many children,” he toasted, “and feed them with your ample breasts,” and I was sure I’d married the right man.
—D. Weisman, Boston, Massachusetts
Little Gustifer loved to eat Gummi Worms, chewing and chewing them or putting them into his mouth and drawing them out his nose while singing, “The worms crawl in; the worms crawl out/the worms play pinochle in your snout!” little realizing that very soon he would be run over by a car and become food for worms himself.
—Marina True, Berkeley, California
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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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which they were situated,—and tended inquiry for some article or another which did not seem easily to be met with. All the answers he received were couched in the negative; and as he turned from each door he muttered to himself, in no very elegant phraseology, his disappointment and discontent.
At length, at one house, the landlord, a sturdy butcher, after rendering the same reply the inquirer had hitherto received, added,—”But if this vill do as vell, Dummie, it is quite at your sarvice!” Pausing reflectively for a moment, Dummie responded, that he thought the thing proffered might do as well; and thrusting it into his ample pocket he strode away with as rapid a motion as the wind and rain would allow. He soon came to a nest of low and dingy buildings, at the entrance to which, in half-effaced characters was written “Thames Court.” Having at the most conspicuous of these buildings, an inn or alehouse through the half-closed windows of which blazed out in ruddy comfort the beams of the hospitable hearth, he knocked hastily at the door. He was admitted by a lady of a certain age, and endowed with a comely rotundity of face and person. “Hast got it, Dummie?” said she quickly, as she closed the door on the guest. “Noa, noa! not exactly—but as I thinks as ow . . .” “Pish, you fool!” cried the woman interrupting him, peevishly. “Vy, it is no use desaving me. You knows you has only stepped from my boosing ken to another, and you has not been arter the book at all. So there’s the poor cretur a-raving and a-dying, and you . . .” “Let I speak!” interrupted Dummie in his turn. “I tells you I vent first to Mother Bussblone’s, who, I knows, chops the whiners morning and evening to the young ladies, and I axes there for a Bible, and she says, says she, ‘I ‘as only a “Companion to the Halter!” but you’ll get a Bible, I thinks, as Master Talkins,—the cobbler, as preaches.’ So I goes to Master Talkins, and he says, says he, ‘I ‘as no call for the Bible—’cause vy?—I ‘as a call vithout; but mayhap you’ll be a-getting it at the butcher’s hover the vay,—’cause vy?—the butcher’ll be damned!” So I goes hover the vay, and the butcher says, says he, ‘I ‘as not a Bible: but I ‘as a book of plays bound for all the world just like ‘un, and mayhap the poor cretur mayn’t see the difference.’ So I takes the plays, Mrs. Margery, and here they be surely!—and how’s poor Judy?” “Fearsomo! she’ll not be over the night, I’m a-athinking.” “Vell, I’ll track up the dancers!” So saying, Dummie ascended a doorless staircase, across the entrance of which a blanket, stretched angularly from the wall to the chimney, afforded a kind of screen; and presently he stood within a chamber, which the dark and painful genius of Crabbe might have delighted to portray. The walls were white-washed, and at sundry places strange figures and grotesque characters had been traced by some mirthful inmate, in such sable outline as the end of a smoked stick or the edge of a piece of charcoal is wont to produce. The wan and flickering light afforded by a farthing candle gave a sort of grimness and menace to these achievements of pictorial art, especially as they more than once received embellishment from portraits of Satan, such as he is accustomed to be drawn. A low fire burned gloomily in a the sooty grate; and on the hob hissed “the still small voice” of an iron kettle. On a round deal-table were two vials, a cracked cup, a broken spoon of some dull metal, and upon two or three mutilated chairs were scattered various articles of female attire. On another table, placed below a high, narrow, shutterless casement (athwart which, instead of a curtain, a checked apron had been loosely hung, and now waved fitfully to and fro in the gusts of wind that made easy ingress through many a chink and cranny), were a looking glass, sundry appliances of the toilet, a box of coarse rouge, a few ornaments of more show than value; and a watch, the regular and calm click of which produced that indescribably painful feeling which, we fear, many of our readers who have heard the sound in a sick chamber can easily recall. A large tester-bed stood opposite to this table, and the looking-glass partially reflected curtains of a faded stripe, and ever and anon (as the position of the sufferer followed the restless emotion of a disordered mind), glimpses of the face of one on whom Death was rapidly hastening. Beside this bed now stood Dummie, a small, thin man, dressed in a tattered plush jerkin, from which the raindrops slowly dripped, and with a thin, yellow, cunning physiognomy, grotesquely hideous in feature but not positively villainous in expression. On the other side of the bed stood a little boy of about three years old, dressed as if belonging to the better classes, although the garb somewhat tattered and discolored. The poor child trembled violently, and evidently looked with a feeling of relief on the entrance of Dummie. And now there slowly, and with many a phthisical sigh, heaved towards the foot of the bed the heavy frame of the woman who had accosted Dummie below, and had followed him, haud passibus aequis, to the room of the sufferer; she stood with a bottle of medicine in her hand, shaking its contents up and down, and with a kindly yet timid compassion spread over a countenance crimsoned with habitual libations. This made the scene; save that on a chair by the bed-side, lay a profusion of long glossy golden ringlets, which had been cut from the head of the sufferer when the fever had begun to mount upwards; but which, with a jealously that portrayed the darling littleness of a vain heart, she had seized and insisted on retaining near her; and save that, by the fire, perfectly inattentive to the event about to take place within the chamber, and to which we of the biped race attach so awful an importance, lay a large gray cat, curled in a ball, and dozing with half-shut eyes, and ears that now and then denoted, by a gentle inflection, the jar of a louder or nearer sound than usual upon her lethargic senses. The dying woman did not at first attend to the entrance either of Dummie or the female at the foot of the bed; but she turned herself round towards the child, and grasping his arm fiercely, she drew him towards her, and gazed on his terrified features with a look in which exhaustion and an exceeding wanness of complexion were even horribly contrasted by the glare and energy of delirium. “If you are like him,” she muttered, “I will strangle you,—I will!—ay—tremble! you ought to tremble, when your mother touches you, or when he is mentioned. You have his eyes,—you have! Out with them, out!—the devil sits laughing in them! Oh! you weep, do you, little one! Well now, be still, my love,—be hushed! I would not harm thee! harm—O God, he is my child after all!”—And at these words she clasped the boy passionately to her breast and burst into tears! “Coom now, coom!” said Dummie, soothingly. “Take the stuff, Judith, and then ve’ll talk over the urchin!” The mother relaxed her grasp of the boy, and turning towards the speaker, gazed at him for some moments with a bewildered stare: at length she appeared slowly to remember him, and said, as she raised herself on one hand, and pointed the other towards him with an inquiring gesture,— “Thou has brought the book?” Dummie answered by lifting up the book he had brought from the honest butcher’s. “Clear the room, then!” said the sufferer, with an air of mock command so common to the insane. “We should be alone!” Dummie winked at the good woman at the foot of the bed; and she (though generally no easy person to order or to persuade) left, without reluctance, the sick chamber. “If she be a-going to prey!” murmured our landlady (for that office did the good matron hold), “I may indeed as well take myself off, for it’s not werry comfortable like to those who be old to hear all that ‘ere!” With this pious reflection, the hostess of the Mug, so was the hostelry called, heavily descended the creaking stairs. “Now, man!” said the sufferer, sternly: “swear that you will never reveal,—swear, I say! and by the great God, whose angels are about this night, if ever you break the oath, I will come back and haunt you to your dying day!” Dummie’s face grew pale, for he was superstitiously affected by the vehemence and the language of the dying woman, and he answered as he kissed the pretended Bible,—that he swore to keep the secret, as much as he knew of it, which, she must be sensible, he said, was very little. As he spoke, the wind swept with a loud and sudden gust down the chimney, and shook the roof above them so violently as to loosen many of the crumbling tiles, which fell one after the other, with a crashing noise, on the pavement below. Dummie started in affright; and perhaps his conscience smote him for the trick he had played with regard to the false Bible. But the woman, whose excited and unstrung nerves led her astray from one subject to another with preternatural celerity, said, with an hysterical laugh, “See, Dummie, they come in state for me, give me the cap—yonder! and bring the looking-glass!” Dummie obeyed, and the woman, as she in a low tone uttered something about the unbecoming color of the ribands, adjusted the cap on her head; and then saying in a regretful and petulant voice, “Why should they have cut off my hair?—such a disfigurement!” bade Dummie desire Mrs. Margery once more to ascend to her. Left alone with her child, the face of the wretched mother softened as she regarded him, and all the levities and all the vehemences,—if we may use the word,—which, in the turbulent commotion of her delirium, had been stirred upward to the surface of her mind, gradually now sunk, as death increased upon her,—and a mother’s anxiety rose to the natural level from which it had been disturbed and abased. She took the child to her bosom, and clasping him in her arms, which grew weaker with every instant, she soothed him with the sort of chant which nurses sing over their untoward infants; but her voice was cracked and hollow, and as she felt it was so, the mother’s eyes filled with tears—Mrs. Margery now re-entered; and, turning towards the hostess with an impressive calmness of manner which astonished and awed the person she addressed, the dying woman point to the child and said,— “You have been kind to me, very kind, and may God bless you for it! I have found that those whom the world calls the worst are often the most human. But I am not going to thank you as I ought to do, but to ask of you a last and exceeding favor. Protect my child till he grows up: you have often said you loved him,—you are childless yourself—and a morsel of bread and a shelter for the night, which is all I ask of you to give him, will not impoverish more legitimate claimants!” Poor Mrs. Margery, fairly sobbing, vowed she would be a mother to the child, and that she would endeavor to rear him honestly, though a public-house was not, she confessed, the best place for good examples! “Take him!” cried the mother hoarsely, as her voice, failing her strength, rattled indistinctly, and almost died within her. “Take him,—rear him as you will, as you can!—any example, any roof better than . . .” Here the words were inaudible. “And oh! may it be a curse, and a . . . Give me the medicine, I am dying.” The hostess, alarmed, hastened to comply; before she returned to the bedside the sufferer was insensible,—nor did she again recover speech or motion. A low and rare moan only testified continued life, and within two hours that ceased, and the spirit was gone. At that time our good hostess was herself beyond the things of this outer world, having supported her spirits during the vigils of the night with so many little liquid stimulants, that they finally sunk into that torpor which generally succeeds excitement. Taking, perhaps, advantage of the opportunity which the insensibility of the hostess afforded him, Dummie, by the expiring ray of the candle that burnt in the chamber, hastily opened a huge box (which was generally concealed under the bed, and contained the wardrobe of the deceased), and turned with irreverent hand over the linens and the silks, until quite at the bottom of the trunk he discovered some packets of letters;—these he seized, and buried in the conveniences of his dress. He then, rising and replacing the box, cast a longing eye towards the watch on the toilet-table, which was of gold; but he withdrew his gaze, and with a querulous sigh, observed to himself, “The old blowen kens o’ that, od rat her! but howsomever, I’ll take this; who knows but it may be of sarvice—tannies to-day may be smash tomorrow!” and he laid his coarse hand on the fold and silky tresses we have described. “‘Tis a rum business and puzzles I! but mum’s the word, for my own little colquarren.” With this brief soliloquy Dummie descended the stairs, and let himself out of the house.
Gentle Reader, what do you think? What’s to like or not like in the Bulwer’s opening chapter? What can an aspiring writer learn from him about the proper unfolding of a tale? By modern standards, his method is ponderous, even maddeningly slow. His language is filled with euphemisms and circumlocutions.
Still, he does understand the principle of delayed revelation, heeding the advice of his contemporary, Wilkie Collins, who said that a good story should “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” After the first paragraph we wonder why that stranger is “wending his solitary way” on a stormy night. It turns out he is going door to door in search of something, a book. But what book? Then we learn it is a Bible. But he returns with a book that only looks like a Bible. Why does he need it? And why might something suffice that only looks like a Bible? Ultimately, the reader learns that someone on a deathbed wants to swear someone else to a promise.
Bulwer’s opening raises a series of questions or complications, answering some but leaving others unresolved. At chapter’s end the reader is left in doubt about the parentage of the boy, especially the identity of the father whose eyes he has. And what upbringing will he receive at the hands of his unlikely foster mother, a stranger and an alcoholic? And what will be in the letters that Dummie hid in his clothing?
What do you think? Any comments you wish to add? Does Paul Clifford have any redeeming literary merit? Is Bulwer the victim of his own ineptitude or of changing literary tastes? Do you find some of the same shortcomings in Dickins, Collins, Trollope? Why are they now read with much greater frequency? Could it be time for a Lytton revival?
Several years ago I read most of B-L’s novels when I was preparing the entries for a reference book entitled Dictionary of British Literary Characters. Pretentious, bombastic, snobbish and overblown? Yes indeed. But still a very interesting novelist who pioneered a number of new genres which others later developed with far more talent. I refer particularly to his crime genre of “Newgate Novels,” of which Paul Clifford is one. I can recommend The Coming Race (1870)* one of his last and quite short. It is a variety of science-fiction novel in which the protagonist visits a society which exists under the earth and in which the women are larger, smarter and stronger than the men. Given B-L’s views on women and treatment of his own wife, this is very interesting. His wife, Rosina, also published novels—most of then thinly disguised attacks on B-L himself—they were bitterly separated after about 10 years of marriage but lived to torment each other for several decades. . . . I must own to liking The Last of the Barons (about Warwick the Kingmaker). Also in Pelham, What Will He Do With It, and a few others B-L shows what the young men are doing when they are not in the drawing room with the ladies. A very interesting writer, but one who can really put off the reader.
—Barbara J. Dunlap, New York, New York
[Note: The Coming Race is more than a prototypal science fiction novel with elements of the occult. It is credited with inspiring a secret society inside Hitler’s SS, a society of hyper-zealots convinced of their innate superiority and the inevitability of their world dominance. It was called the Vril Society, named after the power source that enables Lytton’s subterranean people, the Ana (pronounced Arna) or Vril-ya, to operate and govern their world (a few children armed with vril-powered rods are said capable of exterminating a race of over 22 million threatening barbarians). Served by robots and able to fly on vril-powered wings, the vegetarian Vril-ya are—by their own reckoning—racially and culturally superior to everyone else on earth, above or below ground. It seems to be their destiny someday to emerge on the surface and subdue and perhaps exterminate the barbarians who live there (hence, the coming race). At one point, the narrator concludes (from linguistic evidence) that the Vril-ya are “descended from the same ancestors as the great Aryan family, from which in varied streams has flowed the dominant civilizations of the world .”
Ignoring the satire of its dystopian vision, the Nazis were conveniently selective in drawing from The Coming Race. The Vril-ya, for example, have banished ambition and greed as social motivators, and lead relatively inactive lives, leaving children to do all the work (which is never arduous, given their command of vril). Significantly, the Vril-ya have also banished social hierarchy, so their society is extremely democratic, no individual, regardless of wealth or position, having more prestige than another. In other words, the Vril-ya suffer no Fuhrers. On the down side, Vril-yan society has become so democratic, and distinctions of all kind have been so thoroughly eliminated, that its inhabitants are too indolent and under-stimulated to originate anything—ideas, inventions, even art. Lytton himself, by the way, at least in his earlier career, was extremely liberal in his social and political opinions, and in Parliament supported many major reforms. He would have been amused at the literal reading given his novel by the Nazis.
Granted, it is a fulsomely salutary experience to parody bad writing, to comment on The Sad State Of Literacy by composing deliberate travesties of literary ineptitude. That is what the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is all about (that and the universal improvement of mankind). But how can people of our kidney rest there? The cause of enlightenment—the promotion of clear, effective communication and the future of civilization itself—demands that we take a more direct and muscular approach. It demands that we move from generalities to specifics. It demands that we rattle the cages of the offending scribes.
The aforesaid having been said, we propose a new pastime for Bulwervians everywhere. We the custodians, guardians, and stewards of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest propose a new game. We propose that you locate, isolate, and otherwise identify samples of bad published writing (that is, writing by those who are paid to write), and that you submit them to this page along with any commentary you wish to provide.
That is right! We are offering you the opportunity to display your wit and judgment at someone else’s expense, the expense of someone fortunate enough to be paid to write. With a little luck, you may even threaten someone’s livelihood. If this is not incentive enough, you may at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you are contributing to An International Dialogue on Literacy (sniff!).
A few simple guidelines:
* You may address any kind of literary offense, be it (or they) of style or content, but
* Try to keep your examples relatively brief, and
* If you wish, comment on what you find offensive or amusing (for extra points, you can even use the passage to point some wholesome, salutary, and constructive lesson about fine writing).
Oh, and because we cannot expect total consensus, we will also permit responses to your submissions. After all, someone else’s fancy may be tickled by the very thing you loathe, abominate, and even dislike (and vice-versa). Now, because a few examples are better than a thousand explanations, we will implement the rotation of the sphere:
“She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco.”
—Danielle Steel, Star
In this case, we are viewing a pristine instance of syntactic incompetence. The phraseology suggests that her father brought her eyes from San Francisco, not a dress, although the latter is the writer’s obvious intention. You can argue that sense overrules the word sequencing, but should the reader have to guess what a professional writer is trying to say (“You said this but you meant to say that!”)? Granted, reading is a participatory act, and every piece of good writing carries the implicit instructions, “Some assembly required.” Good books demand good readers, even nimble readers. Put another way, good writing asks the reader to play Ginger Rogers to the writer’s Fred Astaire. Nevertheless, Fred would never signal Ginger that he was doing the Fox Trot when he was really doing the Tango.
From Steel’s sentence we learn that clear writing is a matter of effective sequencing. A sentence, whether it is in a novel or a technical report, is a sequence of information. Good writing is good sequencing. At least in this reporter’s opinion.
The word on the street, by the way, is that Danielle does not actually “write” her books. She dictates them to a tape recorder, then lets someone else type them up. Apparently, to borrow what Hemingway said of Gertrude Stein, revision is an activity that gives her no pleasure.
[Contributor: Scott Rice, San Jose, CA]
I was reading - attempting to read - a book over the weekend which brought Dark and Stormy to mind. The majority of sentences are over 60 words. Picked at random are a few shorter sentences for your interest.
a) “He spun round in the doorway with a violence that was tangible, surveying her bitterly with hard, blazing eyes before banging the door so savagely that the whole room shuddered and whimpered before sinking into an unearthly silence.”
b) “They had only known each other for the last four months, Claire having come to work at the surgery following a long spell in hospital after a severe road accident, but the two of them had immediately hit it off.” (Apart from this enlightening entry Claire has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the book.)
c) “The possessiveness in his voice was deep and strong, its triumphant throb cutting through the layers of sexual delight as thoroughly as a knife through warm butter, and it hit her like a deluge of cold water.”
d) “Donato nodded in a sharp little bow, clicking his fingers at Antonio, who reached behind her for the case, his pock-marked face beneath its chauffeur’s cap of blue and gold apologetic.”
e) “The fifty-or-so-mile drive to Donato’s magnificent villa in Sorrento would be no problem - the Mercedes’ excellent air conditioning added to the fact that the late-April temperature was only just touching seventy degrees made travelling at midday still a pleasure, unlike in high summer - but sitting in close proximity to Donato for well over an hour was a different matter.”
—Helen Brooks, Husband by Contract (Harlequin)
[Contributor: Su Irons, Auckland, New Zealand]
Your new “Sticks & Stones” category wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Norman Mailer’s misplaced modifier in the first line of “Harlot’s Ghost” (Random House, 1991), the first novel to cost more than $30, which began:
“On a late winter evening in 1983, while driving through fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.”
The pundits had a field day with this one, correctly inquiring as to how “recollections” could “drive.” It also inspired my own BLFC entry as follows:
“Driving along the main coastline, my recollections clasped the leather stickshift of my 91 Harlotte and shoved it into overdrive, catapulting the lengthy vehicle past three ten-spots; past a random house; and finally past the limits of Hyperbole, into the uncharted depths beyond.”
[Contributor: Chuck Myer, Colfax, CA (1997 BLFC Western runner-up)]
No, he looked like a compassionate rapist.
“Anthony Rowley didn’t look like a self-confessed sadistic rapist.”
—Sarah Lovett, Acquired Motives
I was at the check-out counter at the grocery store and happened to pick this up. I know a good opening sentence is supposed to grab the reader, but where? The implied formula here seems to be: sensationalism=good writing. I want a little more subtlety in my reading, something that assumes I have some brains and an attention span.
[Contributor: Gene M., Yakima, Washington]
“Why do nuts women always have cats? Why not dogs, dogs who are just as excited to see you after you drive up to the corner to get milk as they were when they first met you, instead of cats, who, as Pat always said, regarded people as warm-blooded furniture? To keep her eyes to herself, Beth stared down at Loreta’s ample thigh in its armor of polyester, a blue that did not exist in nature. Why did nuts women aged about sixty-five who kept cats also wear stretch pants? With flowered blouses that looked chosen carefully for their potential to make the wearer look like ten miles of bad road under a tablecloth? Because something like these clothes had looked good on them when they were young? Because everything else looked worse? As she let her glance slide upward to Loretta’s tightly furled perm, like a head of late-spring buds, she heard the woman ask Candy, “So, do you want me to do a trance? Or just give you some impressions?”
—Jacquelyn Mitchard, The Deep End of the Ocean (p. 106)
The Commentary: You’ll have to pardon me for such a lengthy submittal, but rest assured that I omitted the first part of the paragraph which, in its entirety, might in itself contain enough exemplary material for an entire course in how not to write. The sentence fragments. Since when did “nuts” become an adjective? We’re all just lucky that the author didn’t enter this material in the BLFC, or we would all be one step lower in the rankings. At least.
[Contributor: Larry Sherman, Fremont, California]
And this,” Pauline continued, indicating the largest of the three men, “is Mr. Earl. He’s your security guard, and he’ll shadow you until the jewels are returned all in one piece.”
Laura smiled charmingly at the beefy young guard, whose massive shoulders and biceps threatened to split the seams of his rented dinner jacket.
“‘Ello, Miss,” he said, politely touching his forehead with a finger in a kind of salute. “It’s a right ‘onor. ‘Course, my old mum an’ I, we seen all yer pictures. She’s a great fan ‘o yers, is me mum”
—Joan Collins, Hell Hath No Fury (unpublished)
This is my favorite excerpt from the unpublished oeuvre of actress/author(?) Joan Collins. The work was never published because Random House, with whom she had a contract to write two books, alleged that the manuscript she delivered, Hell Hath No Fury, was unusable and sued her for the return of their advance.
[Contributor: Jeff Vorzimmer, Austin]
With little fanfare, in 1988 or 1989, possibly the worst written book ever published came out. Zebra press, known for its “Men’s Adventure” novels, released Bodysmasher by Jan Stacy. The premise gave notice of how bad it was to be; something to the effect of “Not only is Rick Harrison the world’s best professional wrestler, he’s also the CIA’s most top secret operative.”
Despite touching on just about every cheesy cliché from the mad scientist who wants to destroy the world, to the evil Russian wrestler who kills people in the ring (hey, it was the cold war still!!) and, of course, the mysterious Asian spiritual mentor, this classic gave us such literary gems as: “She wanted to wrap her legs around him the way a tree wraps itself around a mountain” and the ever popular “She rode astride him like a bucking bronco in the rodeo of the flesh.”
[Contributor: Colin Fisk, Fremont, CA]
“He was as guarded as a virgin, but infinitely more experienced.”
This, um, remarkable statement refers to the heroic Irish terrorist Seaneen O’Sullivan in Cathy Cash Spellman’s novel An Excess of Love . In truth, I found this book, which follows the fortunes of two sisters around the time of Ireland’s Easter Rising in 1916, very entertaining. I even picked up a little history. However, it’s been at least five years since I read An Excess of Love, and I still remember how I howled with laughter upon reading this line, which, when taken in context, does not appear to have anything to do with Seaneen’s sex life.
[Contributor: Kate Nagy, Bethesda, MD]
The following excerpt is from “The CNE Study Guide” written by David James Clarke, who attempts an analogy to help better the understanding of the term “Flow Control” in networking.
“Let’s say you’re moving to a bigger, better home. You’ve been working all day, lugging around boxes, and you’re thirsty. Unfortunately, the soda’s on the counter and your hands are full of boxes. So what do you do? You ask your friend to give you a drink. He or she pours it down your throat with no sense of when is enough. After a few gulps, you decide you don’t want to drown in Coke and start waving your arms and nodding you head. Your friend gets the message and stops pouring the drink. This is flow control.”
To start with, how can one wave their arms if they’re full. That’s what prompted this stupid analogy in the first place. Next, if they started nodding their head, the soda would be spilling all over the place. Not a pretty picture. But, let’s face it, this whole scenario could be elevated if this person just had enough sense to put the boxes down and get the drink on their own. Some people are just lazy.
[Contributor: Wallace Frost, Media, PA]
As you may know, the New York Times began this very week to publish color photographs in the Living Arts Section. One must occassionally accept such clumsy lurches into the modern era. However, lurking behind the visual gloss was an even more menacing species of written dross. The following was excerpted from the Op. Ed. page of today’s NYT. Both great art and great crap routinely defy description, so I present them unadorned without the handicap of my own ornate, brocade, reticulated, spiffy commentary. These are just a few of my favorite passages. True Bulwerians will wish to relish the whole tamale.
“Rising from some elusive and overwrought part of the equatorial sea at least five degress hotter than it’s supposed to be, El Nino is a mysterious U.F.O. of rain and wind thousands of miles wide hovering mysteriously out in the Pacific, the monstrous meteorological butterfly that flaps its wings on the other side of the world and gives you a balmy winter in Manhattan.”
“Tremulous hopes of Pacific disaster spring eternal in the East Coast hearts. We know this; you hate us; it’s O.K. In the Moment of the Held Breath (author’s long shorthand for California) we’ve lived with the resentment of the age as routinely as we live with the news of El Nino because, as old hands at apocalypse, our own particular narcissism is such that we not only expect El Nino, but we also hope for it.”
“Living in California, we define ourselves by chaos; the pending cataclysm, whatever it might be at any given moment, reminds us who we are. As with the house I live in [note: author describes it as “launching out from a hillside and over a chasm below, away from the land and into the air.”] the very occupation of California—a fractured, partially liquefied terrain of arid deserts, hostile mountains, dense woods and craggy seashores—is an act of recklessness, it’s motivated by both the hubris of transcendence and the rapture of self-annihilation. More than merely believing we’re the only ones who actually deserve El Nino, we need (author italicizes ‘need’). Take our apocalypse from us, and we are nothing.”
And finally . . .
“As it happens, maternity wards report that veritable monsoons of babies are born during storms and full moons, and since our kid’s due date coincides not only with the the rains but with the full moon as well, we’re preparing for him to come blowing out of my wife in such a gust that it will take the combined efforts of doctors, nurses, midwives, orderlies, physical therapists, security guards, parking attendants and previously comatose patients to lash the little sucker down. He will be an El Nino baby lit with demon moonlight, a child of chaos like the rest of us, counting down the minutes to the end of the world like the drops of rain that would wash us away.”
—Steve Erickson, “Cloudy, Chance of Annihilation”
“El Nino” is colloquial Spanish for the Christ Child. Heaven help us, writing like this must be a sin.
[Contributor: John Ormsby, Berkeley]
Lytton was not the only bad writer of his day, not by a long shot. As a mangler of prose, he had plenty of company. One group of purple prose artists was featured in “The Lily Series,” a stream of wholesome novels spewed forth on both sides of the Atlantic. The publishers explained their morally uplifting (and doubtlessly lucrative) mission this way:
“The design of this Series is to include no books except such as are peculiarly adapted by their high tone, pure taste, and thorough principles to be read by those persons, young and old, who look upon books as upon their friends—only worthy to be received into the Family Circle for their good qualities and excellent characters. In view of this design, no author whose name is not a guarantee of the real worth of his or her work or whose book has not been subject to rigid examination, will be admitted into the ‘Lily Series.’”
By the time Faith Gartney’s Girlhood was released in the series, seventy-eight titles had displayed sufficient “high tone, pure taste, and thorough principles” to pass the publisher’s “rigid examination.” Among the classics of the series were Quinnebasset Girls, How Marjorie Helped, and Madeleine: A Story of French Love (which couldn’t have been as interesting as the title sounds). As for the stylistic standards, well, they were downright Lyttonian:
“East or West, it matters not where—the story may, doubtless, indicate something of the latitude and longitude as it proceeds—in the city of Mishaumok, lived Henderson Gartney, Esq., one of those American gentlemen of whom, if she were ever canonized, Martha of Bethany must be the patron saint—if again, feminine celestials, sainthood once achieved through the weary experience of earth, don’t know better than to assume such charge of wayward man—born, as they are, seemingly, to the life-destiny of being ever ‘careful and troubled about many things.’”
—Adeline Dutton Whitney, Faith Gartney’s Girlhood, 1863
Whitney’s mortal pen also gave those “who look upon books as upon their friends” A Summer in Leslie Goldthwaite’s Life.”
[Contributor: Stanley Perks, Boca Raton, Florida]
Herewith two actually published snippets. The first is from the recently published The Atonement and Other Stories Louis Auchincloss; it’s the opening sentence of the story “Ars Gratia Artis”, and comes as close to Paulcliffordism as anything I’ve seen. (Perhaps Auchincloss aspires to a Bulwer laureateship?) The second is the opening of a godawful Victorian novel, The History of Sir Richard Calmady : A Romance, by Lucas Malet.
“Living in the past is constantly derided, particularly by those who like to pride themselves on being abreast, if not actually ahead of, the passing moment, but there comes a time in life for some of us, alas, when it seems the only place where we can live; and that is certainly the case of an infirm and antiquated bachelor living alone (except for a loyal caretaker and an uncertain cleaning woman) in his old family stone gentilhommie’re (I’m sorry; I like the French term) on the Yorkshire moors.”
“In that fortunate hour of English history, when the cruel sights and haunting insecurities of the Middle Ages had passed away, and while, as yet, the fanatic zeal of Puritanism had not cast its blighting shadow over all merry and pleasant things, it seemed good to one Denzil Calmady, esquire, to build himself a stately red-brick and freestone house upon the southern verge of the great plateau of moorland which ranges northward to the confines of Windsor Forest and eastward to the Surrey Hills. And this he did in no vainglorious spirit, with purpose of exalting himself above the county gentlemen, his neighbours, and showing how far better lined his pockets were than theirs. Rather did and comely, and as the natural outgrowth of an inquiring and philosophic mind.
[Contributor: Fr. John Woolley, Denver]
COMMENT: This is a first-person narration. Would you criticize Marlon Brando for Stanley Kowalski’s speech? [Or Tennessee Williams?]
Dennis Mahony : firstname.lastname@example.org
“Actually, you might say that it’s more accurately been a battle between warring factions of fans who, for more than 30 years, have chosen sides, gathered behind the flapping banners of either the Mustang or Camaro, and proceeded to cross swords at virtually every drag strip and roadrace course in the country (as well as any intersection with a red light that eventually turns reen).”
—Guy Spangenberg, “Ford SVT Mustang Cobra vs. Chevrolet Camaro Z28”, Road and Track, November, 1997.
[Contributor: Greg George, Cincinnati, Ohio] [#14]
“Trying to diffuse the crisis, Secretary General Kofi Annan offered yesterday to send a mission to Iraq to defuse the crisis.”
The above appeared under a Reuters and New York Times byline in an article published in the Toronto Globe and Mail. It deals with Sadaam Hussein’s refusal to allow Americans to be part of a UN weapons inspection team. Apparently, Mr. Annan wants others to share in the U.S.’s problem by spreading it around.
[Contributor: Boris Krivy, Toronto]
Every time I go to the library, I like to get out a few books by authors I have never heard of, just to make sure I’m not missing out on good books merely because they aren’t well known. Occasionally, this effort turns up gold. Frequently, however, it brings me into contact with authors whose obscurity is eminently justifiable. The most recent example of that kind had me worried when I encountered the following line in the first paragraph:
“She popped the elastic at the top of the second sock and pushed her sexually ambiguous Timed watch up along the blond hairs of her handsome forearms.”
—POB2, A Love Story, Steve Whalen
First - Sexually ambiguous watch? I have yet to meet a watch whose gender I could not identify - they don’t have one. Or perhaps Mr. Whalen means the watch is attracted to both men and women? Second - A semi-reasonable meaning can eventually be grasped for the above, at least after wading through some of the more vivid images the odd phrase brings to mind, but what on earth does the verb “popped” mean in this context? What precisely is she doing with her second sock? Third - Why does NEARLY EVERY NOUN have an at least one adjective? Do we really need to be informed, all in the same sentence, that it was the “second” sock and a “sexually ambiguous” watch and there were “blond” hairs on her “handsome” forearms? This trend is continued throughout the book - in the next paragraph, she straightens a comforter her grandmother made, and as she stares at the “antique” headboard and “fading” bedspread she can see the “gentle, arthritic” hands of the “old” woman etc., etc., etc. Part of bad writing is an uncanny knack for choosing the wrong word - the word that doesn’t quite mean what the author wants, or makes the sentence cliche, or is odd without being interesting, or boringly repetitive, or just plain wildly inappropriate. This author, in a very short space, has managed all of those - an impressive achievement.
In addition, the sex scenes in the novel are among the most boring I have ever read in my life.
[Contributor: Jeffry Herman, Somerville, MA.] [#16]
“ Even before the deal with Straker had been consummated (that’s some word all right, he thought, and his eyes crawled over the front of his secretary’s blouse), Lawrence Crockett was, without doubt, the richest man in ‘Salem’s Lot and one of the richest in Cumberland County, although there was nothing about his office or his person to indicate it.”
This comes from Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot, and for me, the imagery of those happy little eyeballs is a bit startling to say the least!
[Contributor: Kaye Bellot, Modesto, CA]
“Eighteen years ago, on the night of her eighth birthday, in a seaside cottage on Key West, Chyna had squirmed under her bed to hide from Jim Woltz, her mother’s friend. A storm had been raging from the Gulf of Mexico, and the sky-blistering lightning had made her fearful of scaping to the sanctuary of the beach where she’d retreated on other nights. After committing herself to the cramped space under that iron bed, which had been lower slung that this one, she had discovered that she was sharing it with a palmetto beetle. Palmettos were not as exotic or as pretty as their name. In fact, they were nothing more than enormous tropical cockroaches.”
— Dean Koontz, Intensity
Frankly, this passage frightens me on a number of levels.
[Contributor: Jordan J. Earl, Asheville, NC]
Am I overreacting? The first sentence of chapter one reads:
By the end of the alley the fine hairs in my nostrils were starting to twitch.
— Lindsey Davis, Shadows in Bronze
I am still trying to interpret this!
“Having had time to think it over, Andrew had decided that he did not believe in this for a moment. If he had not been so unfortunate at different times during the last few years as to become involved in the solution of a murder or two, so that he was more inclined than he would have been before he had been drawn into that rather gruesome activity to think that his own wild guesses were sometimes perhaps to be taken seriously, he would not even have considered such a possibility.”
— E X Ferrars, A Murder Too Many
[Contributor: Sue D’Arcy, Northern Territory, Australia]
On October 17, 1997 Matt Hayes of the Jacksonville Times Union wrote:
“The son called his mother two days ago, hundreds of miles and two countries separating a voice of anticipation.”
The son was Jesse Palmer a University of Florida quarterback; his mother lives in Canada. Would those two countries be Michigan and Wisconsin?
[Contributor: Bill Weldon, Bell, FL]
This San Jose Mercury News writer, Patrick May, has definable talent. He should visit your classes and describe the manner in which he develops his purple prose. The following was in the Sunday paper (January 18, 1998):
“Shrouded in Winder fog, trapped in the gullies of the Mother Lode, the ghosts of a thousand mining camps toss in a fitful slumber. Down in Dead Mule Cañon, up on Chicken-Thief Flat, the pick and shovel clang in muffled knell. A century and a half after that first golden glint caught James Marshall’s eye, after the lust and liquor scattered lost souls over every hill and hollow, these foothills still tremble.”
He continues, “The Gold Rush wsa the largest mass migration in American history. It ws the champagne bottle smashed over California’s bow.”
[Contributor: Rick Sherman, San Jose, CA]
I would like to introduce you to Ms. Sally Small, the video review columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, which is the only English-language daily paper in the area.
Ms. Small writes in a misspelled stream-of-consciousness style that, while probably intended to be chatty, mostly comes off as schizophrenic. She leaps from one incoherent phrase to the next, springing random unprovoked attacks on “liberal” celebrities. Religious holidays are an excuse for orgies of Christian prosyletizing. She recently informed her readers that a certain Asian actor resembled Number Two Son from the Charlie Chan movies.
Eventually, after an entire page of this drivel, she offhandedly gets around to mentioning the video that was the purported reason for her miserable column in the first place. Here’s the best part: The people she’s attacked in her column are usually NOT EVEN IN the video being reviewed!
I would go on, but words fail me. I’ll let the anti-writer speak for herself. I dunno, maybe YOU can figure out what the hell it is she’s trying to say.
“Initiatively offended by this ‘prudish remark,’ that’s what my friend of the opposite sex wanted to shrug it off as, Al asked me to elaborate.”
“At first, ‘Event Horizon’ seems to be the regulated sci-fi thriller.”
“But, it’s THIS ludicrous episode that calls for the smelling sauce: ...”
“If that’s not enough torture, guess who’s skinny again. Oprah. The sentimental, talk show queen willingly shares her holiday diet secrets. Hoo, hoo, please spare us. Excuse me, but aren’t we looking at a possible Iraqi situation?”
“Sometimes, cheesy TV writers are fortunate enough to squeeze the blood out of an egghead’s dumb mistakes.”
This is the agony we must endure in San Antonio. The damned Hearst press has a lot to answer for.
[Contributor: David Bryant, San Antonio]
(A little history: a member of Copyediting-L, a list server for copy editors, submitted the following for comment:
This opening paragraph appeared in a news story in the Boston Globe. Does anyone else think it sounds as if Louise Woodward handled the baby while the polygraph examiner was interviewing her?
Louise Woodward, who will appeal to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to dismiss her manslaughter conviction next month, apparently contradicted her sworn testimony about how she handled baby Matthew Eappen during an interview with a polygraph examiner, according to a review of court records.
A number of people suggested corrected versions. What follows is my suggestion. I’ll warn you that a number of people on the list, particularly those from Britain and New Zealand, were terrifically offended by this offering. On the other hand, a lot of people loved it, and a couple of them recommended I send it along to you.)
Louise Woodward leaned back in her chair like an Eskimo sliding into in a hot tub, a cigar clamped in her teeth like a walleye in a mousetrap. The laugh that escaped from her throat was half purr, half growl, and as warm as San Antonio in August, but behind those silty blue lashes her eyes were as cold as a hospitalization insurance claim reviewer’s heart. With a murmur of silk, she crossed one leg over the other, and the needle on my polygraph wasn’t the only thing that jumped. Later on, in court, she would deny it, but the way she kept tossing that baby from hand to hand gave it away: Ms Ice Maiden was as nervous as a nun at a nudist camp. Smoke curled around her shoulders like a ferret. Cuban cigar smoke. This babe wasn’t kidding when she said she was friends with the pope.
[Contributor: Kristine Batey, Northwestern University]
This is from a student publication which, unfortunately, I lost. This “novel” was one of those overwrought fantasy deals where there’s an eternal struggle between the angelic blond brother, the “Light One,” and his demonic, black-haired twin, “the Dark One.” Light hair? Dark Hair? Twins? You mean the way Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito are twins? This guy needed a continuity assistant big time, since on one page, a sword would be iron, and on the next, gold. He also wrote such gems as, “The dark trees crouched on the barren landscape.”
But the sentence that I will take to the grave is this one: “His priest-blessed sword was forged in the boiling feces of the Damned.”
It’s a classic.
[Contributor: Amy Bown, Rochester]
Bad published writing? My own personal accolade (?) goes to the novelization of Murder By Death, a wonderfully funny movie (with a notably good script by Neil Simon) which was unfortunately given to some fellow named Henry Keating to do with as he pleased. A few excerpts from the first chapter:
“Lionel Twain, eighteenth richest man in the world—no, sorry, seventeenth: reports have just come in of the unfortunate decease of the current No. 17, who had triplet heirs—the seventeenth richest man in the world, flung the book he had just finished all the way from one end of his library to the other.”
Which is what I felt like doing to Murder By Death. If there is one thing Strunk, White, and I agree on, it’s keeping to a single tense unless there’s a damn reason not to.
“In the viewing room at No. 22 Lionel Twain watched the three of them set out, Dick carrying his martini bravely before him, Dora hugging her wow of a dress closely around her—not that it was possible for it to be much closwer in most places—and Myron trotting along at the end of his leash. Inspired perhaps by Dick’s noble example, Twain rang for Benson and a large martini, with olive.”
I will give him points for parallel structure. Not many, but a few.
“‘What a godforsaken spot to get lost,’ she drawled, her cheerfulness not having been kept even at simmering point by frequent applications of alcohol.”
“Only his clothes were not the epitome of Old China, consisting as they did of a dark suit of conservative cut, a good thick topcoat of guaranteed antifog qualities with a solid black derby to keep the cold from the all-important head area.”
Even aside from the puzzling question of how the derby was attached to the topcoat, this just scares me.
Another book presumably written on controlled substances and printed by close relatives of the author: Simon Hawke’s The Ambivalent Magician. The author places himself into the narrative and concludes somewhat hastily (though none too soon) with a note from his psychiatrist, stating that he has had a nervous breakdown from the resulting existential paradoxes. I nearly had one too, but that should be construed as no compliment. The worst cop-out ending since “Then I woke up—it had all been a horrible dream—or HAD IT???”
[Contributor: Lindsay Jones, Iowa City]
This comes from a 1927 edition of The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald.
“One very wet day, when the mountain was covered with mist which was constantly gathering itself together into rain-drops, and pouring down on the roofs of the great old house, whence it fell in a fringe of water from the eaves all around it, the princess could not of course go out. She got very tired, so tired that even her toys could no longer amuse her. You would wonder at that if I had time to describe to you one half of the toys she had. But then you wouldn’t have the toys themselves, and that makes all the difference; you can’t get tired of a thing before you have it. It was a picture, though, worth seeing—the princess sitting in the nursery with the sky-ceiling over her head, at a great table covered with her toys. If the artist would like to draw this, I should advise him not to meddle with the toys. I am afraid of attempting to describe them, and I think he had better not try to draw them. He had better not. He can do a thousand things I can’t, but I don’t think he could draw those toys. No man could better make the princess herself than he could, though— leaning with her back bowed into the back of the chair, her head banging down, and her hands in her lap, very miserable as she would say herself, and not even knowing what she would like, except to go out and get very wet, catch a particularly nice cold, and have to go to bed and take gruel. The next moment after you see her sitting there, her nursegoes out of the room.”
Why does this author feel it is so important that he tell us, several times, that he is writing this story for us to read? Do we really need to know this?
[Kate Johnston, Sunnyvale, CA]
I would like to propose a new category for entertainment of the masses, College Course Catalog Copy, and offer a real entry as an example:
127Q-128Q. General Chemistry
Either semester. Four credits. Three class periods and one 3-hour laboratory period. (Students who have passed CHEM 137 or 153 may take CHEM 128.) (Students who have passed CHEM 122 will receive only 2 credits for CHEM 127 but 4 credits will be used for calculating QPR scores. A student who has a very high standing in CHEM 122 may be permitted, with the consent of the instructor, to take CHEM 128 without 127.) CHEM 127 is not open for credit to students who have passed CHEM 129 or 137 or 153; and CHEM 128 is not open to students who have passed CHEM 130 or 138 or 154.
This course is designed to provide a foundation for more advanced courses in chemistry. The topics covered include the atomic theory, the laws and theories concerning the physical and chemical behavior of gases, liquids, solids, and solutions. The properties of some of the more familiar elements and their compounds are discussed. The laboratory work in the first semester involves quantitative measurements illustrating the laws of chemical combination . In the second semester particular attention is given to equilibrium in solutions and to the qualitative reactions of the common cations and anions.
May this inspire the creative juices of more curriculum committees.
[Contributor: Dr. Thomas R. Burkholder, Department of Chemistry, Central Connecticut State University]
From The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. The heroine is in trouble:
“Oh, think! think! think! of what she should do.”
“Wait! wait! wait! how long?”
“No! No! No! No! Oh, God in heaven! this cannot be!”
All sentences occur within two pages.
Despite her inability to articulate extreme fear, Baroness Orczy remains a shining example of what you can accomplish with a self-indulgent, overwritten prose style — but a great plot.
[Contributor: Lee Clinch, San Francisco]
I can’t claim responsibility for discovering this sentence; I merely found it on a web site of a fan of the author, and have not had the opportunity to see the book. However, this particular sentence so closely resembled a Bulwer-Lytton contest entry that I felt an obligation to warn Dr. Rice of this author’s existence, lest anyone should attempt to submit this sentence - or another from this author’s works - as his own.
For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s “Barr-Bag” which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2163 pearl buttons; nor of—in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel—or Suing Sophie!
from Riddle of the Traveling Skull in 1934 by Harry Stephen Keeler.
[Contributor: John Savard, Edmonton]
Here’s one for ya! From the Harlequin Superromance Nobody Does it Better by Jan Freed
The hero and heroine are trying to escape a hit man as they climb up the side of a mountain, and this sentence occurs (page 247):
“She stuck to his prime-grade A tush like shrink-wrap to a rump roast.”
[Contributor: Shannon Walker, Belmont, CA]
I came across a good one in the Southern Reporter (Scottish Borders local paper).
“Prince Charles will be paying a surprise visit to the Borders next month.”
Some surprise now—especially as it went on to give details of his 2 engagements!
— [Contributor: Damian Sharp, Scotland]
Inspired by this site about appalling excuses for literature, I went and dug out the cheesiest horror novel I could find in the hope of discovering some humerous literary blunders. Class Trip, by the curiously-named author Bebe Faas Rice, yeilded two examples of note:
“Knowing Christabel..., it was obvious that she had mixed up somehow in James’s emotional breakdown. If she hadn’t been, she would have had no problem airing James’s dirty laundry.”
Curious. Apparently, James’s emotional state is linked to the cleanliness of his clothing. Take note also of this little gem:
“Ron was acting like an entirely different person from the one I was used to seeing at school. Christabel’s put-downs were getting to him, cutting him off at the knees and leaving him off balance and uncertain.”
Well, I’m no expert, but I imagine cutting someone’s legs off below the knees leaves them slightly more than off balance.
[Contributor: Philip Alderman, U.K.]
“To understand why the house makes so much money at the craps table, you first have to understand why.”—Roger Gros, How to Win at Casino Gambling, Carlton Books (1996) p.74
I realise this doesn’t qualify as literature (even bad literature) but I think it is important to recognise contributions to the bleeding obvious from all types of writing.
[Contributor: Stephen Hart, Sydney, Australia]
After reading the examples of bad prose now being listed, I chanced upon the following passage in a horror novel entitled The Night Seasons by J. N. Williamson, who is touted on the cover as a grandmaster of horror. I’m unfamiliar with this fellow’s work, but this is truly scary writing:
“With a cockeyed sense of elation and drunken mission, I stumbled down the apartment steps and lurched out of the front door of the building. Perspiration clouded my vision along with alcohol, and the slanting parking space lines in the parking lot were making me dizzy. I located my ‘79 Omni (so undesirable it could be safely left anywhere - nobody even seemed to want its parts) in the late-night darkness that was like thick, malefic, homemade jelly.”
Every sentence is richly deserving of comment. First, what is a “cockeyed sense of elation?” The second sentence makes it sound as though perspiration is clouding the alcohol, and includes the acutely inept phrase “parking space lines in the parking lot.” The parenthetical observations about the ‘79 Omni are add nothing to the picture and are redundant. And finally, my favorite, “malefic, homemade jelly.” Is that Satan’s family recipe?
[Contributor: Rick Gilbert, Lexington, MA]
“We stopped for a light and I saw a young woman give her ration book to a woman who wore a flowered housedress in exchange for a ten-dollar bill.”
—Gloria Goldreich, That Year of Our War (1994) p. 46
Was ten dollars the price of the housedress? That’s fairly expensive for the 1940s. Did someone pay the young woman ten dollars to wear the dress? If so, why? I had quite a chuckle at Ms. Goldreich’s expense and, for the next couple of weeks after reading it, shared this quotation with anyone who would listen.
[Contributor: Joyce Gero Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada]
In my continuing search for bad writing, my attention fell upon that bastion of children’s literature, Enid Blyton. I’m easily amused.
She tucked the little thing under her fur coat and only its quaint little pointed nose looked out. The four children, watching from the window of the waiting-room, thought it was a little dear!
— The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage, By Enid Blyton
Since when did you describe a dog’s nose as “quaint”? Note also that the children are convinced that the dog is expensive (“dear”).
The new-comers made such a stir and commotion that the four children came out of the waiting-room to watch. Everyone was very hilarious.
Everyone was very hilarious?? Unusual turn of phrase, Mrs. Blyton. Using similar methodology, you could describe a tree as being Very Growing, or a car as being Very Moving. I’m not sure whether this counts as bad writing or just poor proof-reading, but it caught my attention.
Nyssa touched Tegan on the shoulder and said quietly:’Tegan ...I don’t know what’s happening to the Doctor - none of us understands it. But I do know that panicking is no use.’ Nyssa touched Tegan on the shoulder and said quietly:’Tegan ...I don’t know what’s happening to the Doctor - none of us understands it. But I do know that panicking is no use.’
—Doctor Who - Castrovalva, by Christopher H. Bidmead
Hmm. ‘Nuff said.
[Contributor: Philip Alderman, Luton, the UK]
I thought you might appreciate this for the “Sticks and Stones” page. From The Lion in the Valley: An Amelia Peabody Mystery by Elizabeth Peters (1986):
“The blood that had abandoned her countenance rushed into his.”
A very interesting transfusion, at any rate!
[Contributor: Laura Sauer, Vernon, CT]
Some true literary atrocities have been committed by nature writers. Here’s a particularly horrible example from Hummingbirds of North America: Attracting, Feeding, and Photographing Them, by former TV weatherman Dan True (author of What Do Women Want from Men?), published in 1993 by University of New Mexico Press:
“Since then I have learned of a very good but very expensive commercial hummingbird mix for sick hummingbirds from Germany used by the San Diego zoo called Necton.”
It’s a pity that most of the book is at least marginally more readable than this, because there are more scientific inaccuracies in this one slim volume than in the last 20 years worth of books on hummingbirds. Though True makes many mistakes of his own, a substantial number of errors lie in extensive passages quoted from outdated sources. Maps of hummingbird distribution bear suspicious resemblances to those a fairly recent, reputable work (with their original captions largely intact, though nonsensical in their new context). One of the most astonishing parts of this work is its bibliography, specifically this self-referential citation:
True, D. 1993. A history of hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds of North America: Attracting, Feeding, and Photographing Them. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Such a monstrosity cannot be the work of just one man; only through spectacular editorial incompetence could this work achieve such depths. One has to hope that the editor wasn’t a product of the University of New Mexico’s English Department.
[Contributor: Sheri Williamson, Bisbee, Arizona]
Larissa MacFarquhar launches her interview with Nicolas Cage in “Stranger in Paradise” in Premiere Magazine (June 1997) with:
“Three little wrinkles like a stack of tiny pancakes sit just at the top of Nicolas Cage’s nose, held in place by his bushy, Italian-guy eyebrows, which extend out and down like two hairy arms around his for-the-moment strangely vacant blue eyes.”
[Contributor: Name withheld, San Francisco]
You want bad writing - I got bad writing. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you. Star Trek— First Frontier by Diane Carey and Dr James I Kirkland. Doctor Kirkland is credited as the dinosaur expert, since the story is set on prehistoric earth. I hesitate to guess what Ms Carey’s field of expertise may be, since it certainly isn’t writing clear, literate English prose. The book is littered with cherishable errors - at a rate of one or two biggies every four or five pages. Particular favourites include a resolute refusal to use the phrase “He (or she) said” if at all possible. So we have:
Kirk clipped, Chekov bolted. (While not moving from his seat), he malaised, Kirk distilled....., he resigned (While not going anywhere) Kirk impugned.
Though see Chapter 29 (below) for my all time favourite.
Chapter 23 starts with the entirely incomprehensible sentence: “Head down into the storm they went, pressing barehanded to their chests an unshielded sense of peril.”
There are so many pleasing subjects for speculation here. How does a group of humanoids have multiple chests but only one head? Do you sometimes need gloves to press unshielded senses of peril to your chest? Do senses of perils usually come shielded and they took the shield off, or did they put a shield on and then took it off afterwards? And if so, why?
But all these pale into insignificance before the panoply of riches which is Chapter 29.
We have a Klingon who “gazed up at Kirk with roguish languor.”
A dinosaur described as a “shriven corpse on the floor.” As I Catholic, I find it curiously reassuring to know that Confession was available to prehistoric reptiles. A human is endowed with a twenty-foot arm. (apparently only the one, though) and the best of the “he said” alternatives.
“Pushing, Kirk under-girded, “But........”
And I haven’t even mentioned the rest of the book : Kirk leering at the bridge screen, the seconds that went by like surgical time (faster? slower?) the chap who cloyed to his work, Kirk reeling with respect for someone, disinterest used for uninterest, Kirk’s surfeiting nod, vilification used as a synonym for hatred, and disdained for despised.
BTW What happened to the sarky comments on The Eye of Argon? They were the best bits.
[Contributor: C Carter, North Yorkshire, England]
Sacrifice of Isaac, by Neil Gordon (Bantam Books)
Although I managed to finish this 300+ page novel, the whole thing was written so awkwardly that I just felt compelled to highlight some of the more glaring examples:
“She wore a sleeveless black leotard that showed shoulders sloping from a fine, long neck; small, round breasts; a firm stomach above womanly - not girlish - hips.”
After telling us her hips are womanly, do we really need to be told they aren’t girlish?
“The walls were covered with glass cases of the the sort that might have housed a lawyer’s Napoleonic Code in a story by Balzac but that showcased, instead, a variety of small objects; a polyurethane-cased page of illuminated manuscript, an alabaster swallow, a copper kohl vial on which Luke recognized the fluid curves of Arabic script.”
Who cares what they MIGHT have housed?! “This time he answered in heavily-accented English. ‘Business, my dear.’”
Then in French again, as if she were an old friend: “Like Count Mippipopolous? With his arrow wounds?” It happened that she had read The Sun Also Rises and remembered the count well.”
Good for her, what about us? Please, this literary name-dropping (“Gee, he’s read Balzac AND Hemingway”) is irritating instead of impressive . . . And shouldn’t “count” have a capital “C”?
“Later, the sun rising to noon height, another reality - the yang of Nicole’s yin - introduced itself.”
“Nor, she thought, could they see the very Benami-esque courage they carried into their strange rebellions.”
Call me a wet blanket, but something about turning a surname into an adjective just seems pretentious . . .
[Contributor: S. Pearson, S. Korea]
I present the following, even though it is not technically published writing, on the grounds that it may well explain some of the other contributions to “Sticks & Stones.” It comes from a rejection letter I received recently from a literary agent, Core Creations, LLC.
“Though potentially marketable, due to fierce competition not enough of us here were enthusiastic about your material to validate an offer of representation at this time. If you write something else, feel free to consider us again.”
Of course, it has the merit of being the only rejection letter I’ve ever received that made me feel as if I’d just dodged a bullet. Like everyone else who reads, however, I must sleep at night knowing that there is apparently a potential market for people who write like nitwits, and their job is screening manuscripts. Or validating offers of representation, whatever that means.
[Contributor: Doris Dungey, Des Moines, IA]
This isn’t nice. The guy who used to run the parking lot at the newspaper where I work had a book published in 1984 by a vanity press. The title was catchy: ‘Beg Before You Die.’ It was a Mickey Spillane-tough-detective genre book, set somewhere in the southwest. It got off to a really bad start, though, with an opening paragraph that left you wondering what was going on:
“It was a long hot drive this afternoon, I was telling Kay, who was sitting with her back against the right front door, her nicely tanned left leg under her; the back of her right knee was swinging back and forth off her instep, keeping a sort of tempo with the soft music that was coming over the car radio.”
He goes off his narrative halfway through the first sentence, getting tangled in the contortions of Kay, the pretzel lady, and finishing with a desperate appeal to the reader: Look! This car has a radio!
By page 10, the protagonist and Kay have pulled into a drive-in to eat. Among other features perfectly irrelevant to the story is the presence of a Mexican-American carhop. After eating ( “ ‘The chicken is delicious,’ I said.” ) Kay changes out of shorts and into a dress in the back seat of the car. Although it has nothing to do with story or character, the author evidently felt that what happened next was a roaringly funny scene and had to be included:
“The carhop came over to the car and asked if we would care for anything else. “ ‘No thanks!’ “Then it dawned on her. The first two trips the girl had made to the car, Kay had been in the shorts and halter and now she was fully dressed. She must have thought she had drunk too much tequila.”
[Contributor: Dave Matheny, Ramsey, Minnesota]
Edgar Rice Burroughs is a natural Bulwer-Lyttonian. The opening sentence to Synthetic Men of Mars seems to me a close stylistic match to our hero’s archetypical evocation of nocturnal tempestuousness by virtue of the hydrological subject matter and the curious blending of the melodramatic and the quotidian.
From Phundahl at their western extremity, east to Toonol, the Great Toonolian Marshes stretch across the dying planet for eighteen hundred earth miles like some unclean, venomous, Gargantuan reptile - an oozy marshland through which wind narrow watercourses connecting occasional bodies of open water, little lakes, the largest of which covers but a few acres.
[Contributor: Lew Mammel, Jr., Wheaton, Illinois]
Generally, if I don’t like a book I stop reading it. Doom: Hell On Earth by Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver, however, was an exception. I work in the computer game industry, and since this is a novelization of a computer game, someone thought I wanted it. I did in a way. It’s the most consistently bad piece of writing I’ve ever encountered.
There are too many examples to quote—you could pretty much include the entire book. This one is a favorite, though:
“The truck stuck close to our bumper through the totally porous checkpoint. After that, we just drove in typical L.A. style, weaving drunkenly between zombie-driven trucks, leaning on our horn, all the time heading for the ever popular LAX. I wanted to give the airport the biggest laxitive it had ever had with Lemon Marine Suppositories. Cleans out those unsightly monsters every time!”
One wonders how often the staff at LAX gives the airport a laxitive to make the planes take off more smoothly. And why the Marine Suppositories are flavored.
[Contributor: Steve Honeywell, De Kalb, IL]
[#46] Colin Dexter, The Secret of Annexe 3 (one of the Inspector Morse novels).
“Soon the two friends were seated facing each other in the lounge bar, the surgeon resting his heavy-looking dolichocephalic skull upon his left hand.”
“But these minor worries could hardly compare with the consternation caused on the Monopoly front by a swift-fingered checker-out from a Bedford supermarket whose palm was so extraordinarily speedy in the recovery of the two dice thrown from the cylindrical cup that her opponents had little option but to accept, without ever seeing the slightest evidence, her instantaneously enunciated score, and then to watch helplessly as this sharp-faced woman moved her little counter along the board to whichever square seemed of the greatest potential profit to her entrepeneurial designs.”
“She could recall, quite certainly, clearing away after the soup course; picking up the supernumary spoons and forks that marked the place of that pusillanimous spirit from Solihull, Doris Arkwright; standing by in the kitchen as a Pork Normandy had slithered off its plate to the floor, to be replaced thither after a perfunctory wipe; drinking a third cocktail; dancing with the Lord High Executioner; eating two helpings of the gateau in the kitchen; dancing, in the dim light of the ballroom, a sort of chiaroscuro cha-cha-cha with the mysterious ‘Rastafarian’ - the latter having been adjudged the winner of the men’s fancy-dress prize; telling Binyon not to be so silly when he’d broached the proposition of a brief dive beneath the duvet in her temporary quarters; drinking a fourth cocktail, the colour of which she could no longer recall; feeling slightly sick; walking up the stairs to her bedroom before the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’; feeling very sick; and finally finding herself in bed.
I think these sum up the faults of Dexter’s writing: inappropriately complex words, archaicisms and over-long sentences. Dexter - via Morse - often pushes on the reader his prescriptive views on grammar and spelling, and seems to come from the school of writing that views pomposity as clever and stylish.
[Contributor: Ray Girvan, Topsham, Devon, UK]
Do you accept bad sentences from non-fiction books? Here are two from The University in Ruins, by Bill Readings, 1996:
“Hence, Shakespeare, not the Greeks, is positioned by the English as the prelapsarian moment of a spontaneous immediate organic culture that the nation-state must seek to regain by means of the rational mediation of University education.”
“First of all, the British proletariat is not the product of a theorization of the effects of industrial society by a Communist Party, is not born like Athena from the head of Zeus with the Communist Party as midwife.”
An awkward and an unlearned simile: Athena’s midwife was Hephaestus, who brought her into the world by taking an axe to Zeus’ skull. If Readings had completed the simile, he might have a clue to why the English workers have chosen to disappoint Marx’s plans for them.
[Contributor: Mark O’Bannon, New Orleans]
Here’s something short and terrible that you may like to consider for the Sticks and Stones section:
“He looked at me with his bottomless-cup-of-coffee eyes.” Pg. 154 (hardcover edition) The Flower Master by Sujata Massey.
[Contributor: Scarlett Pearson]
While researching a biology project, I began leafing through a science library periodical collection. Therein, I found a few volumes of a nineteenth century public health journal, Sanitarian, one of which housed a very insightful article on the prevention of constipation, written by a physician whose name I don’t recall. It’s probably better that way, considering the degree to which he waxed romantic at the end. I enclose his final paragraph for your edification and entertainment.
“And on the field of battle which preventive medicine is now and everywhere waging against the ills to which flesh is heir, the banner of preventive constipation is well at the front. Indeed I feel confident and I do greatly rejoice in this assurance, that when the enthusiastic physician who is ever loyal to the guild, who keeps her escutcheon fair and stainless, who is ever jealous of her honor, shall proudly make mention of her achievements and will not then be omitted.”
American Practitioner and News, August 13th, 1892
Keep in mind, this writer is discussing constipation. All the flowery words in the world won’t change that, no matter what he may think.
[Contributor: Bronwyn Foley, Middletown, CT]
[#50] When I read this sentence I immediately thought of the “Sticks and Stones” portion of your Bulwer-Lytton website:
With listeners leaning over the velvet restraining ropes and angling for pictures, John Glenn urged them to remember Shepard’s 1961 Redstone flight in its political context, when the Soviet Union was seducing world opinion with the lingerie of Earth-orbiting technology.
— Billy Cox, “Shepard Statue Honors American Space Cowboys,” Florida Today, March 24, 2000.
Sputnik lingerie? Kinky!
[Contributor: L. Lohrli-Kirk, Costa Mesa, CA]
How about this passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book For Girls And Boys as an example of conciseness and accuracy in writing?
“I can hardly tell how many of these small people there were; not less than nine or ten, however no more than a dozen of all sorts, sizes, and ages, whether girls or boys.”
Yet after saying this, Hawthorne goes on to name the unspecified number of children with exactly twelve names. So, first there might be nine children; then there might be ten; but there were certainly no more than twelve — until finally, he breaks down and gives us their twelve names; and these names, he goes on to tell us, are not their real names, etc., etc. Hawthorne then rambles on at great length about the imaginary names of his unnumbered children for several hundred words — and all of this in the six page “Introductory” to THE GORGON’S HEAD. Let’s say what we mean, and mean what we say, Nate! And let’s pick up the pace a little — and I don’t mean pecante sauce!
[Contributor: Steven M. Ruppert, Colorado Springs, CO]
This comes from Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank, a mystery set in Egypt in the late 1880’s. Our protagonist has woken from a troubled sleep to discover a hooded cobra on the foot of her bed.
“With a desparate effort I wrenched my eyes from the hypnotic glare of the snake. I rolled them toward the door. I dared move no further.”
She is saved when the hero shoots the snake. No mention of how she retrieved her eyes.
[Contributor: Liz Henderson, Durham, NC]
I nominate All Through the Night by Mary Higgins Clark as an example of one of the worst pieces of fiction ever published. It is worthy of mention in “Sticks & Stones.” The characterization is two-dimensional (at best), the dialogue is laughable, and the novel is one cliche after another. The only redeeming factor about the novel is that it should give aspiring writers hope, because if this novel can make it into print and even make it to the New York Times best-seller’s list, anything can! The following passage is my favorite example of the cliches that fill the book:
Tracy tossed his slim folder on Lenny Centino back on the desk. “Well, now that he’s back, I’m going to keep my eye on him. If I see him with that little girl, I may just bring him in. He’ll make a mistake eventually, and when he does, I intend to be there.”
[Contributor: Robert Villanueva, Radcliff, KY]
This gem is from Barbara Taylor Bradford´s Voice of the Heart: 771 pages of sludge-like purple prose:
An ineffable tranquility hovered over the villa, was broken only occasionally by the intermittent sounds of the staff going about their duties: the whirr of the vacuum, the faint birdlike chirpings of the maids as they dusted adjacent rooms, the echo of the butler´s brisk tones issuing orders, the click of a door closing, the patter of distant busy feet. Gradually these individual noises were beginning to merge, flowed together to create a vague and muffled hum that hardly intruded at all on her gentle peregrinations through the labyrinth of her mind.
[Contributor: Nicole Simard, Bramalea, Ontario]
Here’s another entry for the “Sticks & Stones” section which may or may not be interesting. From the mystery thriller The Plague Stone by Gillian White. Not a bad read, but her similes are wretched:
Pg. 81: “Marian’s strained face beamed rays of anxiety like a sickly sun”
Pg. 82: “She wanted to pick her heart up like a naughty toddler and take it outside and smack it until it stopped leaping about like this”
I’d like to pick the author up like a naughty child and do the same . . .
Pg 89, referring to the town hall: “Today it was in its starkest state . . . naked and waiting like a woman with wet hair sitting dull and expectant before the stylist”
[Contributor: Scarlett Pearson, Montreal, Quebec]
I was reading the technical manual for a camera mount and found this little gem. Presumably the translator got paid for the work. The system is installed and works beautifully in spite of my inability to follow instructions.
“If don’t mount on the pan/tilt head, provide the mounting screws in speciality for it. Select the mounting screws with taking into consideration.” Panasonic
[Contributor: David Yeamans, Los Alamos, New Mexico]
Ah, come on. You people have no idea. :-) The all-time worst piece of fiction ever published is Vampire Beat by Vincent Courtney. You can literally pick a page at random and find something to howl at. I’ll demonstrate, but first I have to warm you up with the book’s opening:
“The knife was poised above her heart. Her screams cut through the dead, rotten air of the warehouse. Batiste Legendre smiled. He bent down and soul-kissed the terrified eighteen-year-old who was to remain that age forever.”
Okay, literally at random here:
Page 134: “The Happy Christian bookshop was a quaint little place that catered to the born-again faction of the community.” (Funny, with a name like that I’d have thought they were aiming at the Muslim market.) “Religious artifacts and books cluttered the shelves.” (So *that’s* where I put that Shroud of Turin! Always the last place you look.) “The store had a rosy cinammon smell from the potpourri of cinnamon and rose petals in a wicker basket that hung from the ceiling.” (You don’t say...how odd.)
Page 186: “Fear grabbed her by the throat. It was the car, the green sedan, the same one which had taken her on her nightmare journey the night before!” (Ah, thanks for reminding us about that nightmare journey—otherwise it might have slipped our minds while we were busy wondering what’s gotten into Fear lately. And for cluing us in to the fact that sedans are a type of car.)
Same page: “It was as though she was trying to slog through mud that was up to her shins—thick, clinging mud that sapped the life out of her legs. Behind her she could hear the raspy breathing of her pursuer. ‘Come on, baby, the master is waiting. He wants to hold you,’ he wheezed. ‘He wants to kiss you. He wants to drink all your blood!’”(Well. The only comment I can offer is, ‘When there’s life-sapping metaphorical mud to contend with, who worries about vampires?’)
Page 98: “He had a haunted look about him, as though he had a horrible secret he was trying to conceal.” (Trying, but obviously not succeeding. This in reference to the vampire character, of course.) “Brown froze the smile on Carver’s face with his steely glare.” (He could have used his icy glare instead, but decided that would be too obvious.)
I’m not making this up. I would also gladly nominate Vampire Beat for a Worst Cover Art Ever contest, if such a thing ever comes into being . . .
[Contributor: Sarah Roark, Redmond, WA]
“Maximus wheeled his horse at the end of the stadium and started back toward two chariots bearing down on him in staggered formation. They sped toward each other much like Medieval jousters.” From Gladiator, by Dewey Gram, Onyx Books.
Beam him aboard, Scotty. Maximus is caught in a time warp.
[Contributor: Mary Ann Unger, New Jersey]
You literary sorts have no idea what burdens we newspaper writers have to bear. This is the lead paragraph from a press release from Fort Hood, our nation’s largest military installation.
MEMORANDUM FOR CORRESPONDENTS: ARMY DEVELOPS APPLICATION FOR WORKFLOW MANAGEMENT COALITION
June 14, 2000
The U. S. Army announced today the Program Manager (PM), Joint Computer-aided Acquisition and Logistics Support (JCALS), as a member of the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC), has developed an eXtensible Markup Language (XML) application specification (www.aiim.org/wfmc/) to facilitate workflow interoperability. In addition to having served as coordinators and editors of the new Wf-XML specification for the WfMC, PM JCALS is developing one of the first production implementations of Wf-XML for a US Army Communications-Electronics Command customer. Several integration efforts already underway within JCALS plan to use the Wf-XML standard to interface with remote workflow engines, as well as be the basis for future workflow integration efforts.
[Contributor: J.B. Smith, Waco Tribune-Herald, Waco, Texas]
The first two are really examples of bad proofreading rather than bad writing; the third will be somewhat controversial.
1) In the novel Star Trek: Klingon, on page 71, Commander Riker asks Captain Picard, who has just put the ship on Red Alert until further notice: “Percussion only. Or do you expect trouble?”
Now, ignoring the fact that it should be a question mark rather than a period between the two sentences, somebody obviously ran a badly-spelled attempt at “Precaution” through a spell-checker, and took the suggestion, “Percussion.”
My girlfriend suggests that it’s a shame that they didn’t further err by changing “trouble” to “treble.”
2) This is a letter to the editor that appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch some years ago, as its subject matter (the book”The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein) would indicate. Now, I’m not slamming the writer of the letter; he is (presumably, hopefully) not someone who makes his living by writing. I am, however, slamming whoever was responsible for proofreading and editing the letters page; normally, letters to the editor do not get printed verbatim, at least, not if they need editing as badly as this one did:
“The book, The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, is a faulty continuation of a myth. I’m surprised such a study can be taken so seriously.
“Murray and Herrnstein’s first mistake is reliance on IQ tests. Haven’t we explored this fallacy thoroughly enough? IQ tests are not scientific and have little value in judging intelligence. The creator of the IQ test, German psychologist W. Stern, wrote in his introduction that these tests should not be given to black children. Stern obviously knew what Murray and Herrnstein never admit — IQ tests are written for white children and adults because environment plays such an important equation.
“The second mistake and perhaps the most injurious one by the Murray-Herrnstein team is that the difference in IQ is genetic. Since when are these two certified as geneticists? What could they possibly know about genetics except the flawed finding of researchers who fit their mode of thinking? Genetics is still a new science. Down syndrome and the defective gene for dyslexia have just recently been explored.Genetics has a long way to go before it can tell us anything about intelligence or the lack thereof between blacks and whites.
If, as Murray and Herrnstein assert, most Americans are between the middle range IQ, then what is the point? And if it’s genetic, why are there whites who can’t even read the theory Murray and Herrnstein have written. Murray readily admits that the purpose of the book is to justify the elimination of welfare and affirmative action programs because the low IQs of blacks is in their genes and therefore can never be altered to justify the expensive of such social programs. We all need to dismiss and destroy this inauspicious theory, which will injure so many who are not capable of understanding its implications. ‘The Bell Curve’ is 850 pages of sloppy research. Any study that would not appropriate environment as a factor in intelligence should be repudiated on its very face.”
Ow. My brain hurts. I’d go into detail as to what was wrong with that, but I don’t care to spend more than another hour or so. 3) Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. Many people seem to feel that his language is gorgeous and evocative; I just found it badly overdone. Obviously, I can’t quote ALL the Bulwer-Lyttonesqe passages from the book, so what I’m going to do is this: I’m going to RANDOMLY flip it open to a pair of pages, and scan. I guarantee that I can find a paragraph that would be competitive in the BLFC.
pp.60-61: “Immediately afterward (as if we had been struggling and now my grip had eased) she rolled off the sofa and jumped to her feet — to her foot, rather — in order to attend to the formidably loud telephone that may have been ringing for ages as far as I was concerned. There she stood and blinked, cheeks aflame, hair awry, her eyes passing over me lightly as they did over the furniture, and as she listened or spoke (to her mother who was telling her to come to lunch with her at the Chatfields — neither Lo nor Hum knew yet what busybody Haze was plotting), she kept tapping the edge of the table with the slipper she held in her hand.”
Seek on any random pair of pages in the book, and you’ll find an equally convoluted and Bulwer-Lyttonesque sentence or two.
[Contributor: Jim Yanni, St. Louis, MO]
This is a rather obscure reference; the book is a sci-fi pulp novel that is (doubtless long) out of print, titled Assassins From Tomorrow, by Peter Heath. The story is a tale of how president Kennedy was actually assassinated by time travelers (at least, that’s what the dust-jacket says; I’m 83 pages in out of a total of 160, and I’ve seen very little hint of this) and it is, in general, about as bad as you might expect. But ignoring, for the moment, the fact that the plot is silly, the characters one-dimensional, and the writing style about what one would expect in a pulp written in 1967. there have been a couple of notable errors:
on page 81, the main character is erecting a gadget that will help to save the day, and we are faced with this passage:
“The noon sun was starting to blister the back of his neck before the last connection was soldered. All that remained was to connect the four large aircraft batteries to the terminals of the transmitter and reciever. That could wait until later. The next thing to do was to set up the dish antenna . . .”
If “all that remained” was (A), then presumably, the next thing to do should not be (B). Then, on page 83, a shark is being shot. “. . . soon, more bullets were chewing into the hides of the killer fish.”
They may have been chewing into the shark’s SIDES, or its HIDE. But unless I’m very mistaken, most sharks only have one HIDE.
[Contributor: Jim Yanni, St. Louis, MO]
This is from the advance reading copy of Ladies with Options, by Cynthia Hartwick, to be published in February 2001.
“Agnes liked her job too much and carried it with her. She was like a human LEGO display—loveable but provoking.”
A true gem, I’m sure, if we could ever figure out what was loveable or provoking about a display of plastic toy building blocks.
[Contributor: Lisa, Rialto, California]
About ten years ago I bought a copy of The Gate to Women’s Country by Sherri S. Tepper to while away the time on a two-hour ferry ride. I read the first few pages and after recovering from my laughter I spent the rest of the ride walking out on the decks. I don’t know if the book itself is any good, I’ve never been able to get past the beginning. Here is the opening paragraph.
“Stavia saw herself as in a picture, from the outside, a darkly cloaked figure moving along a cobbled street, the stones sheened with a soft early spring rain. On either side the gutters ran with an infant chuckle and gurgle, baby streams being amused with themselves. The corniced buildings smiled candlelit windows across at one another, their shoulders huddled protectively inward - though not enough to keep the rain from streaking the windows and making the candlelight seem the least bit weepy, a luxurious weepiness, as after a two-hanky drama of love lost or unrequited.”
I could comment on every sentence but I’ll keep it short. How can the candlelight be the least bit weepy and luxuriously weepy at the same time. And if you need to use a second hanky because the first is too wet then you ain’t weeping, you’re crying your eyes out.
This prose goes on as far as I have gotten into the book but I’ll only add the third paragraph here.
“Stavia the observer noted particularly the quality of the light. Dusk. Gray of cloud and shadowed green of leaf. It was apt, this light — well done for the mood of the piece. Nostalgic. Melancholy without being utterly depressing. A few crepuscular rays broke through the western cloud cover in long, mysterious beams, as though they were searchlights from a celestial realm, seeking a lost angel perhaps or some escaped soul from Hades trying desperately to find the road to heaven. Or perhaps they were casting about to find a fishing boat, out there on the darkling sea, though she could not immediately think of a reason that the heavenly ones should need a fishing boat.”
[Contribitor: Ray Dornan, Langley, B.C., Canada]
“All who knew Yas, knew Yas was freakin’.”
“You could run around in Angel Hair socks for months without getting holes in them.”
By Ron Bracle, Beyond the Known. Yes, Yas is one pretty freakin’ guy, people doubted, and angel hair socks. Now that makes sense. If you turn to just about any page in the book you will find sentences just like these. In fact, I have only found two sentences that made any sense at all in the whole book.
[Contributor: A. McCollum, Ohio]
Two more examples of competition-class Bulwer-Lyttony, cunningly impenetrable prose from The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics by Cambridge political theorist John Dunn:
“For most of the last two hundred years, it has been natural (and perhaps reasonable) to suppose that the root of these disagreements lies in a conflict of intuition about the imaginative and material basis of political authorization, on what (if anything) could rationally entitle some humans to command others so decisively, and what might imaginatively impel the latter to concede that this was reasonable.”
This passage could be replaced with a simple declarative sentence: “Politics involves deciding who is in charge.”
“The modern republic is a passive local implementation device of a global and utterly humanly uncontrollable collective madness. It sustains a façade of local (and human) control, and by doing so facilitates and reinforces the profound corruption of human purpose which has always lent such force to the market, and which by now has fashioned a world in which almost anything is openly for sale.” Huh?
[Contributor: Michael P. Morley, Akron, Ohio]
From Triangle by Irene Pence. True crime book about a man who killed his girlfriend’s lesbian lover and stuffed the body into a 3’ high barrel. After shooting the woman and shoving her body into the container, he left his house, but “The woman would not let him forget her. Soon she would call to him with an acrid aroma he couldn’t ignore.”
Irene has a thing about eyes. While a detective is preparing to open the barrel, “All eyes were on the barrel, and all of those eyes were large.” Later, in court, “The family kept their eyes on the witness, but most of those eyes were moist.” Another hostile witness had “. . . short hair, but today his temper was shorter.”
This book was so bad, the only thing that kept me reading was the fun I was having highlighting horrid writing.
[Contributor: Carina MacDonald, Denver, Colorado]
Quite why P. D. James - the English crime writer - has attained such a reputation, I shall never know. Every page of every novel presents examples of ill-considered, pompous and tortuous prose. Let us open A Taste for Death at random:
Whatever the time of year, except in the worst of winter weather, this was her nightly routine. She would pour herself a whisky, Bell’s, and take out the glass for these minutes of contemplation, rather, she thought, like a caged prisoner reassuring herself that the city was still there. But her small flat was no prison . . .
Let us consider this for a few moments.
Why should she fail to pour herself a whisky ‘in the worst of the winter weather’? Would not adverse climatic conditions be exactly those under which any sensible person would adhere most eagerly to this routine?
Why should she ‘pour herself a whisky’ and then ‘take out the glass’? Where has she poured the whisky? Down the kitchen sink? Over her shoes? Most of us, I daresay, would take out the glass before pouring the whisky.
How many caged prisoners - as opposed, I guess, to uncaged and wholly at liberty prisoners - pour themselves a short at bedtime? Given that the ‘she’ here is a police officer, the reader ought to expect a slightly greater degree of awareness in respect of the conditions of incarceration.
Why should a ‘caged prisoner’ wish to reassure herself/himself ‘that the city was still there’? Where else would it be? Gone to Miami for a fortnight’s break? Would ‘a caged prisoner’ be distressed or elated at the sudden and unexplained absence of a city? I only ask.
Then, lo, we discover that her ‘small flat’ is not in the least like a prison; so the point of the elaborate simile is lost. She is having a pleasant drink in a dwelling that does not resemble a cell. One might as well write, ‘It was as though he had returned home and glanced in the mirror and discovered that his face had turned green, except that he had not glanced in the mirror - and his face had remained its normal colour.’ Or, perhaps, he was a ‘caged prisoner’ who had not returned home at all . . .
[Contributor: Steve Prasher, Stockport, Cheshire, U.K.]
If only this were the initial sentence to the novel, I would suggest changing the name of the Bulwer-Lytton contest to the Herman Melville fiction contest; it is unquestionably the most impressive potential entry for the contest that I’ve ever seen, absolutely unbeatable if you ever run a “celebrity Bulwer-Lytton contest” involving published writing. It’s from that “classic” of American literature, Moby Dick; from the chapter “The Whiteness Of The Whale” (chapter 42); in this chapter, Melville spends 7+ pages explaining why, although in many situations, white is considered a GOOD color, in this instance, it seems more reminiscent of the spectral and is therefore scary. The following sentence/paragraph takes up ONE of those 7+ pages:
Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title ‘Lord Of The White Elephants’ above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolisings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things — the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.[469 words]
[Contributor: Jim Yanni, University City, Missouri]
THE WORD OF THE WEEK:It appears in the phrase “Markets have ‘nichified.’” used by Mr. and Mrs. A.Toffler, co-authors of Future Shock writing in the Wall Street Journal . Did you realize that something could be nichified? The logical conclusion is that if someone is doing the classifying he (or she) is the Nichifier. If the classifier is really good, she (or he) may go down in history as The Great Nichifier. If you’re the target, beware — you’ve been nichified. As a verb: I nichify, you nichify, he (or she) nichifies, etc.
I must stop now before I get pigeonholed in the wrong compartment, or compartmentalized in the wrong pigeonhole. Whatever — I’ve found my own little niche in the deep (very deep) recesses of the publishing world - a contribution to “Sticks & Stones” on the unique use of language by writers who were paid a hell-of-a-lot more for their article than the contributors were paid for their articles. As a matter of fact, if the Tofflers got paid anything, it’s a hell-of-a-lot more than I’ve been paid.
[Contributor: Samuel W. Halper, Los Angeles, CA]
The Star Trek novel, Killing Time, by Della Van Hise (Original Series #24), is in general a turkey of a book, with a truly bad basic concept (the Romulans tamper with the time stream in an attempt to eradicate the Federation retroactively, and they succeed, sort of, in creating an alternate time line, but about half of the Enterprise crew in the alternate time-line (including Kirk and Spock) REMEMBER the original time line in their dreams, and this, presumably, enables them to fix things.) Further, the characterizations of the Romulan villains of the piece are paper-thin, cardboard characters with no plausibility. But none of this is the reason that I’m “honoring” the book here. No, I’m “honoring” it for this passage: (pg. 66)
“He rolled onto his back, and an illegible cry tightened the muscles in his thick neck.”
I hope I don’t NEED to point out that ALL cries are “illegible”; what she clearly meant is “unintelligible.” And authors who don’t know the difference between those two words shouldn’t be writing. Of course, editors who don’t know the difference between those two words should likewise get out of the business, but that’s another question.
[Contributor: Jim Yanni, University City, Missouri]
Dragonfly, Frederic S. Durbin. Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1999.
I have not read such long, involved and confusing sentences since I tried to read The Last Days of Pompeii one boring summer when I was fourteen (It was my great-Aunt’s book and had an interesting frontpiece). Here is an example of the first two sentence of the book:
“Bad thing were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry’s basement. These were things that had happened before, when the wind swung round, when the trees all felt the blood rush to their leaves after the exertion of August and the idling of September; when the chuckle-dark harvest moon shaped pumpkins in its own image, brought its secret wine flush to the scarcrows’ cheeks; when the rich bounties of the land lay plump for the taking and the light left them alone for longer and longer at a time.”
The entire book is written in this manner.
[Contributor: Cindy Rosser, Odessa, Texas]
In the, “metaphors run amok” category (so bad it’s good):
“You got further plucking the chicken in front of you than trying to start on one up a tree. Especially when the tree was in another country, and there might not even be another chicken.”
Robert Jordan, The Path of Daggers, p. 421
[Contributor: Amy S. Bruckman, Atlanta, GA]
Browsing on the web, I came across a novel by Bertha Muzzy Bower called Jean of the Lazy A. The first sentence is real Bulwer-Lytton contest material. This is a genuine published novel:
How Trouble Came to the Lazy A, Chapter One:
Without going into a deep, psychological discussion of the elements in men’s souls that breed events, we may say with truth that the Lazy A ranch was as other ranches in the smooth tenor of its life until one day in June, when the finger of fate wrote bold and black across the face of it the word that blotted out prosperity, content, warm family ties,—all those things that go to make life worth while. (How Trouble Came to the Lazy A, Chapter One)
[Contributor: Tobias Robison, Princeton, NJ]
In Tides, Melanie Tem writes from the point of view of a man with Alzheimer’s and makes sure her readers are as muddled as he is. Two examples:
Not infrequently he did not recognize his daughter when she entered his field of vision. (p.5)
Every once in a while he got away, and the sense of freedom when he wasn’t under their gaze could be exhilarating, until he considered what it meant about his life that he felt free when what he really was was lost; what it said about him that just being out on the sidewalk or among trees by himself made him feel freed; pretty pitiful, when you thought about it. (5-6)
At that point, I closed the book and felt freed myself.
[Contributor: Phillis Fox]
From Triangle by Irene Pence, a true crime book about a man who killed his girlfriend’s lesbian lover and stuffed the body into a 3’ high barrel. After shooting the woman and shoving her body into the container, he left his house, but “The woman would not let him forget her. Soon she would call to him with an acrid aroma he couldn’t ignore.”
Irene has a thing about eyes. While a detective is preparing to open the barrel, “All eyes were on the barrel, and all of those eyes were large.” Later, in court, “The family kept their eyes on the witness, but most of those eyes were moist.” Another hostile witness had “. . . short hair, but today his temper was shorter.”
This book was so bad, the only thing that kept me reading was the fun I was having highlighting horrid writing.
[Contributor: Carina MacDonald]
In the March 8, 2001 Press-Democrat (Sonoma County, California), sports writer Jeff Fletcher asks of San Francisco Giants second baseman Jeff Kent (pp. c1 & c7) “How does a kid from Huntington beach wind up castrating cows in South Texas?”
I would like to know how a kid from anywhere can castrate cows, and not just in South Texas. Cows are generally differently anatomically endowed. If he was milking them I would understand. But this is Texas we’re discussing and . . . well, I wonder what they do with their bulls?
[Contributor: Bill Crowley, Santa Rosa, CA]
From A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King (1995):
“The solitary waitress, a thin woman with bad teeth, six hands, and the ability to keep eight quick conversations on her tongue simultaneously, wove her way through the nonexistence gaps, slapped a cup of tea onto the table in front of me, and took my order for eggs and chips and beans on toast without seeming to listen. The laden plate arrived before my sweet orange-coloured tea had cooled, and I set to putting it inside me.”
I did enjoy this book. I was willing to forgive the six hands, the “nonexistence gaps”(whatever such might be), and the eggs, chips, and beans all apparently piled on toast (all three mixed together, or would one expect three separate pieces of toast?). However, the image of Mary Russell, aspiring young detective, attempting to stuff a dinner plate into her mouth (or other orifice) — that was too much. Ms. King knows how to write. She should learn how to edit.
[Contributor: Randy Geithman]
I love Laurell K. Hamilton’s novels for a variety of reasons, but her prose style is not one of them. Here’s an example from Narcissus in Chains that illustrates why:
“I stalked him the way he’d stalked me, and part of me noticed that I was placing my feet one atop the other, almost stepping in my own footsteps, like a cat.”
I had to stop reading at this point, as I had a mental image of the intrepid heroine tripping over her own feet to dispel. As I finally read on, so, too, had the author written on. And on and on.
“The walk was oddly graceful, swaying my hips. My spine was very straight, shoulders back, arms almost motionless at my sides, but there was a tension running through my upper body, an anticipation of action, of violence.”
There was a tension running through my body, too, as I wondered when the Ms. Hamilton would get past the overwrought description, already, and get back to the action.
[Contributor: E. Powell, Tampa, FL]
I have to submit this as the worst metaphor ever for the act of making love. Written by Robert K. Tanenbaum, in one of the Butch Karp novels (i.e., Enemy Within, Act of Revenge):
“And then he was fully socketed to her, like a pipe wrench in a crock of warm chili.”
I swear to God I’m not making this up. Robert must be a lonely man.
[Contributor: Jim Hintzen, Phoenix, AZ]
They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . . Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn’t taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently.
Ms. Mariann Simms
The wife of an Air Force retiree, the mother of an eight-year-old daughter and a fifteen-year-old herpetologist son, and the doting owner of an Australian Bearded Dragon, Mariann Simms of Wetumpka, Alabama, is the winner of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. When not stroking the beard of her Pogona vitticeps, she gardens, cooks, and runs an online interactive humor site, HumorMeOnline.com. Like Tony Soprano, a native of New Jersey, she has lived in Alabama since her husband was stationed there thirteen years ago. Besides becoming a household name, she will receive the contest’s traditional prize, a pittance.
An international literary parody contest, the competition honors the memory if not the reputation of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), who has just enjoyed his bicentennial. The goal of the contest is childishly simple: entrants are challenged to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Although best known for The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal words that the “Peanuts” beagle Snoopy plagiarized for years, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
The contest began in 1982 as a quiet campus affair, attracting only three submissions. This response being a thunderous success by academic standards, the contest went public the following year and ever since has attracted thousands of annual entries from all over the world
The flock of geese flew overhead in a “V” formation - not in an old-fashioned-looking Times New Roman kind of a “V”, branched out slightly at the two opposite arms at the top of the “V”, nor in a more modern-looking, straight and crisp, linear Arial sort of “V” (although since they were flying, Arial might have been appropriate), but in a slightly asymmetric, tilting off-to-one-side sort of italicized Courier New-like “V” - and LaFonte knew that he was just the type of man to know the difference.
John Dotson (U.S. Naval Officer)
Grand Panjandrum’s Special Prize
Colin grabbed the switchgear and slammed the spritely Vauxhall Vixen into a lower gear as he screamed through the roundabout heading toward the familiar pink rowhouse in Puking-On-The-Wold, his mind filled with the image of his comely Olive, dressed in some lacy underthing, waiting on the couch with only a smile and a cucumber sandwich, hoping that his lunch hour would provide sufficient time for both a naughty little romp and a digestive biscuit.
Winner: “All Creatures Great and Small” Category
His knowing brown eyes held her gaze for a seeming eternity, his powerful arms clasped her slim body in an irresistible embrace, and from his broad, hairy chest a primal smell of “male” tantalized her nostrils; “Looks like another long night in the ape house” thought veterinarian Abigail Brown as she gingerly reached for the constipated gorilla’s suppository.
It wasn’t the desolate remoteness of the campsite that bothered him, or even the terrifying roar of the rapids beating themselves against solid granite below, so much as the eerie sound of pigs squealing in the distance and the fact that, in this light, cousin Billy looked disturbingly like Ned Beatty.
Cindy Erickson Gilman
Mission Viejo, CA
On the fourth day of his exploration of the Amazon, Byron climbed out of his inner tube, checked the latest news on his personal digital assistant (hereafter PDA) outfitted with wireless technology, and realized that the gnawing he felt in his stomach was not fear—no, he was not afraid, rather elated—nor was it tension—no, he was actually rather relaxed—so it was in all probability a parasite.
The Prince looked down at the motionless form of Sleeping Beauty, wondering how her supple lips would feel against his own and contemplating whether or not an Altoid was strong enough to stand up against the kind of morning breath only a hundred year’s nap could create.
Detective Inspector Mike Norman slipped six fingers into his overcoat pocket, five of them clad in a latex glove and attached to his palm, while the sixth was wrapped in a plastic evidence bag and apparently belonged to the kidnapped pianist Ricardo Moore, or, as it now seemed likely, the kidnapped ex-pianist Ricardo Moore.
Mac was the crustiest ex-LAPD homicide detective with three ex-wives, two mortgages, a greedy daughter wasting time at college, a gay son playing acid-blues punk in some Sacramento dive, and a liver that had been bitch slapped by cheap vodka so many times it looked like a bag of yellow fat, who ever walked into my floral and gift shop.
They say she carried her own warmth around with her, like one of those thermoregulating arctic mammals, say, a polar bear, or a baby harp seal (though not a penguin, which is antarctic, anyway, and not a mammal, but a bird), but she wasn’t fat or blubbery, which makes it all the more unbelievable why anyone would have wanted to club her to death for her fur coat, which wasn’t even white, I’m told, but black.
Harry H. Buerkett
Had Dorothy known Duncan was a psychopath who would seduce, then brutally murder her, and that her best friend Dana, a forensic pathologist would investigate her death and also fall in love with him, but be saved just in time by Dwayne, her much maligned colleague, perhaps she wouldn’t have bought him that Screwdriver.
Barkers Creek, Victoria, Australia
He knew that, at most, he had five seconds left to live, one one-thousand, two one-thousand, the gun barrel pointing at his face like a scolding finger, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, the hired assassin Ricardo¹s grip tightening on the trigger, five white elephantsS SIX white elephants, and then a bright blast of light as he wondered which was really the most accurate way to count five seconds.
Vincent M. Zito
I’d stumbled onto solving my first murder case, having found myself the only eyewitness, yet no matter how frantically I pleaded with John Law that the perp was right in front of them and the very dame they’d been grilling - the sultry but devious Miss Kitwinkle, who played the grieving patsy the way a concert pianist player plays a piano - the cops just kept smiling and stuffing crackers in my beak.
The sobering scene was laid out before Detective Robinson like a centerfold spread in Better Homes and Gardens or Martha Stewart Living, if the splayed bodies could be considered home furnishings such as hand-knotted 100% wool Tibetan area rugs or allergy-free hypodown throw pillows stuffed with European goose down and the blood on the walls had been a carefully spattered burnt vermillion latex paint for a classic aged or contemporary Jackson Pollock-like finish.
Winner: Purple Prose
Raul strode through the dark night, his way lit by twinkling stars as if the gods at some celestial concert were all flicking their lighters at the same time in appreciation of the drum solo-like beat of his boot heels against the pavement, occasionally accompanied by the steel-brush-on-a-cymbal sound of a splash as he kicked through a puddle, the plip-plop of water dripping from leaves like someone playing staccato on a two-note piano gone flat, and the wind blowing a bluesy tissue-paper-on-comb harmonica through the trees.
There was no question about it, my computer was locked up like a crazy aunt in a dark, secluded attic, or like the brakes on my ‘73 Chevy Impala on a rainy day when my wife is driving the kids to origami lessons and is running late because Isaiah, my son, made a fuss at the last minute and refused to be put into his car seat.
Peter L. Belmonte
Altus AFB, OK
The sun rose over the horizon like a great big radioactive baby’s head with a bad sunburn but then again it might just have been that Lisa was always cranky this early in the morning.
Wichita Falls, TX
The rhythmic breathing of my companion was interrupted violently by a fit of coughing, causing the peace of the early morning to be ripped from me as if Richard Simmons had charged into my bedroom in his be-sequined health fervor and started Sweating to the Oldies on the end of my bed.
T’asha lay in bed musing at the slight wrinkles in the down comforter which like waves in a gently wind-blown semi-calm sea heaved gently as she moved her legs under the cover and alternately wiggled her toes, causing a rogue ripple to course across the bed and die against the shore of the pillow.
Bob F. Bledsoe
She’d been to Boulder, she’d seen Stonehenge, Rocky Bluffs was a distant memory, and now, as she rocked out to the music blaring from her gem of a radio, traveling over the gravel road to the Solid Rock cafe, she pondered the dusty past, and finally Sandy realized that the greatest achievement was passing her kidney stone.
Weeping Water, NE
Anton was attracted to Angela like a moth to a flame - not just any moth, but one of the giant silk moths of the genus Hyalophora, perhaps Hyalophora euryalus, whose great red-brown wings with white basal and postmedian lines flap almost languorously until one ignites in the flame, fanning the conflagration to ever greater heights until burning down to the hirsute thorax and abdomen, the fat-laden contents of which provide a satisfying sizzle to end the agony.
She lay next to him that night, regretting sleeping with another while they were broken up, knowing she had done nothing wrong but feeling vaguely unclean, like freshly washed, once-folded laundry that has been shoved off the bed onto the floor and slept on by the dog.
J. J. McClanahan
“Bring a bottle of wine and wear something uncomplicated - I’m in no mood for a struggle tonight,” rolled from Jean-Pierre’s lips like a bowling ball shooting up the return ramp, only to slow itself abruptly at the top before ka-whonking! into the balls already lined up there like all the lines she had heard before, and Sylvia knew at last that all the good ones were not married, gay, or in Mexican prisons.
Hickam AFB, HI
Chloe hated the way the mud squished up between the toes of her Birkenstocks like cappuccino-colored bog-ooze, as she ran to meet Teddy, who hated her Birkenstocks anyway, and would complain bitterly about her soggy feet as they shared some stolen moments in the back of his ice-cream truck.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
The ballerina stood on point, her toes curled like shrimp, not deep-fried shrimp because, as brittle as they are, they would have cracked under the pressure, but tender ebi-kind-of-shrimp, pink and luscious as a Tokyo sunset, wondering if her lover was in the Ginza, wooing the geisha with eyes reminiscent of roe, which she liked better than ebi anyway.
El Prado, NM
There was something unnerving about the way Jim looked at Doris that day, something which made her tremble, which brought back painful childhood memories of a boat trip off the coast of Western Finland flooding back like a flood, flowing back, onto a boat, oh, you see why it was so difficult for her to get the memories out of her head once they had flowed in there.
Johns Hill, Waterford, Ireland.
Charles thought Stephanie was at her most attractive when she was irritated—lips pursed, cheeks flushed, and eyes flashing, though not so much like lightening flashing as like a spark of static electricity from touching a fluffy cat after shuffling across plush carpet in a cold, dark room.
“Although Sara could believe the brassiere she had found was from a mix-up at the laundromat, that the lipstick on Bill’s collar really had been from a cramped elevator, that the stiletto heel was indeed something the cat dragged in, when she pulled Chloe’s unmistakable prosthetic arm from under the bed, she realized she had been played for a fool.”
Nicholas R. Eaton
Saint Charles, MO
Winner: Science Fiction
Colonel Cleatus Yorbville had been one seriously bored astronaut for the first few months of his diplomatic mission on the third planet of the Frangelicus XIV system, but all that had changed on the day he’d discovered that his tiny, multipedal and infinitely hospitable alien hosts were not only edible but tasted remarkably like that stuff that’s left on the pan after you’ve made cinnamon buns and burned them a little.
Auburn AL 36830
‘Theeeey’re here!’ whispered Billy Joe under his foul breath through yellowed teeth as brilliant white light permeated all of the windows of his trailer, and he flashed back to fragmented recollections of the previous four abductions—the questions, the pain, the probe—which he was powerless to stop but this time was better prepared for, having just finished a seventh bean burrito, a case of Bud, and four packs of Pop Rocks.
Jim Sheppeck II
She fumbled for her laser gun, knowing that the alien was eager to ravage her, unlike Captain Johnson, who wanted to take things slow since he was coming off the heels of a very painful divorce.
Colorado Springs, CO
Brock de-holstered his Maxi-Hurt 3000 phaser and blasted off the Narguwullian trooper’s head, the way a teenager pops the head off a zit, except of course on a much larger scale because those Narguwullians are big suckers, and although Brock had personally had some door stoppers in his teenage years, most zits aren’t twelve feet high, blue, and liable to rip your arms off if you look at them the wrong way, and are also much less inclined to leave a mess on the flight deck.
Bundaberg QLD Australia
Standing in the concessions car of the Orient Express as it hissed and lurched away from the station, Special Agent Chu could feel enemy eyes watching him from the inky shadows and knew that he was being tested, for although he had never tasted a plug of tobacco in his life, he was impersonating an arms dealer known to be a connoisseur, so he knew that he, the Chosen One, Chow Chu, had no choice but to choose the choicest chew on the choo-choo.
Grand Rapids, MI
It was a bright, beautiful day in Baltimore—not one of those dark and stormy nights in a land far away where no normal person could ever have lived because it was inhabited by evil sorcerers and fire-breathing dragons—so Forbes MacVain decided to eat his tuna sandwich on a bench overlooking the Inner Harbor while he waited for Yuri to make the dead drop.
Winner: Vile Pun
“The Insect Keeper General, sitting astride his giant hovering aphid, surveyed the battlefield which reeked with the stench of decay and resonated with the low drone of the tattered and dying mutant swarms as their legs kicked forlornly at the sky before turning to his master and saying, ‘My Lord, your flies are undone.’”
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
The ancient Peruvian Airlines DC-3 lumbered slowly over the snow-capped peaks far below as Gunderson turned to Ricketts and marveled at how their avian import business “Incahoots” had led them once again to the far reaches of South America in search of the elusive gray-spotted owl.
The final auction item in the estate was the electric home in the frozen tundra, often referred to as “the top of the world,” even though the world doesn’t really have a top (or a bottom for that matter), and it was expected that Mrs. Claus, a pleasantly plump lady who smelled of cookie dough, would again have to outbid the jovial fat man’s former employees to purchase his assets, that is until the gavel fell and the auctioneer announced solemnly, “The elves have left the building.”
Baton Rouge, LA
“When the noisy parrots took flight Dark Vador leapt from the sylvan shadows brandishing his exterminator pod and mercilessly sprayed the flock with its sizzling lethal rays, and as the silent spiraling cloud of bright green feathers floated to the ground he hissed, “I hate sky squawkers!”
01170 CESSY, France
Sarah felt bored and unsatisfied, even though her job as a nurse’s aide included helping patients and keeping track of the billiards equipment in the recreation room at the Venereal Disease Treatment Center, and she wondered what her mother had been thinking all those years when she repeatedly told her that a young lady should mind herpes and cues.
The Hoss eyed the deserted town square like a hungry mother vulture hoping to catch a decaying carcass to feed her squawking young, for he knew that as sure as a norther would blow in from the Rockies, though actually the northers in these parts were usually coming from Canada, sort of up around Lethbridge but not all the way to Banff, he knew that Jimmy One-Tooth and his band of toughs would be back for their gold.
When Jimmy walked into the saloon the entire bar stopped and stared for here was the only cowboy who could wear pants as white as the marrow found in the neck of a well-roasted sheep, one that had been bled properly first, not like the ones you get now.
Menora, Western Australia
Winner: Dark & Stormy Night Category
It was almost a dark and stormy night - not dark or stormy enough to be called that but just the kind of sweaty night that makes your shirt stick to your back and make you wish you were still at home with the air conditioning and eating pig skins and watching the Martha Stewart trial on T.V.
White Rock, NM
It was a barky and wormy night at Dr. Kilmore’s 24-Hour Veterinary Emporium when, right in the middle of his 3:00 AM stool watch, Alberto suddenly realized that, pound for pound, Shih-Tzus swallow more tennis bracelets than most dogs twice their size.
It was a dark and stormy night and the enormous orb spider-web, lodged betwixt gigantic branches of the ancient oak, twinkled and sparkled whenever lightning coruscated through the firmament, resembling an ectoplasmic pizza studded with a million round, well cut, D, 50pt, FL diamonds, so utterly beautiful any couturier would give his soul, or even pay a small fortune, to be able to wrap it gracefully around the skeletal body of a supermodel.
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mentions:
After escaping the clutches of that crazy cult, it was going to take more money than that to start a new life, but still, for one day’s work, 30 pieces of silver wasn’t bad.
When the time came for Timothy to fly the nest, he felt the best years of his life were ahead of him, if only because he had spent the childhood ones living in a nest.
Head Coach Adams found himself in a quandary as he looked at the scoreboard and saw that his team was going to win 41-13, and he whispered to Phillips, who was the defensive coordinator, “I really don’t know why the team plays so much better on grass, but it’s obvious they do, so, for the sake of winning and our jobs, do I just turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to their red eyes and constant laughter?”
As Rachel glared at Clarissa dancing in her smart gilt cage, her jutting decolletage going bubbuda bubbuda to the throbbing disco beat, Rachel clutched the lamb shishkebab skewer she had hidden in her purse, a weapon she now intended to use on Clarissa with deadly force once she dislodged the last piece of Vedalia onion which stubbornly clung to it.
It was from the primeval wellspring of an antediluvian passion that my story arises which, like the round earth flattened on a map, is but a linear projection of an otherwise periphrastic and polyphiloprogenitive, non-planar, non-didactic, self-inverting construction whose obscurantist geotropic liminality is beyond reasonable doubt.
Struggling helplessly against the iron-clad clasp of the cruel and unforgiving handcuffs, Penelope Innes stared into the eyes of her remorseless sibling and bravely stated, “I’ll never clean the bathrooms for you, nor aid you in any of your chores.”
Our story begins in the farthest reaches of the frozen tundra where, due to the axillary convergence of the solar angle of incidence and the latitudinal reflective attitude of the quiescent magnetospheric photoreceptors, it stays light for a really long time.
Holly had reached the age and level of maturity to comprehend the emotional nuances of Thomas Wolfe’s assertion “you can’t go home again,” but in her case it was even more poignant because there was no home to return to: her parents had separated, sold the house, euthanized Bowser, and disowned Holly for dropping out of high school to marry that 43-year-old manager of Trailer Town in Idaho — and even their trailer wasn’t a place she could call home because it was only a summer sublet.
Eileen Ostrow Feldman
On holiday in Paris, France, we watched the Parisians sing and dance and soon they made us feel so good we fell into the festive mood of that city’s cheerful pace that keeps a smile upon your face where there’s such a lot to do and see, but it’s hard to find a place to pee.
Sierra Vista, AZ
With a shriek like a damned soul tormented by a thousand devils, or by one really mean devil, not the underachiever kind that just stands idly around occasionally providing a pitchfork poke to a soul turning on a spit, but more like the kind that ducks ahead of you into Hell’s only 10-items-or-less aisle with thirteen items and spends all eternity paying for them with an out-of-state check while standing on your toe the whole time with his cloven hoof, yeah, that kind of devil, and that kind of shriek: the vegetable-grater jammed on a particularly burly spud.
When Red Murphy was named Coach of the Year, nobody was surprised, for Red had taken a last-place baseball team and made them into champions in just one year, and people said he turned more L’s into W’s than anybody since Barbara Walters tried to read the “Luke Luck licks lakes” pages in Dr. Seuss’ “Fox in Socks.”
Jane was toast, and not the light buttery kind, nay, she was the kind that’s been charred and blackened in the bottom of the toaster and has to be thrown a away because no matter how much of the burnt part you scrape off with a knife, there’s always more blackened toast beneath, the kind that not even starving birds in winter will eat, that kind of toast.
Coon Rapids, MN
Outside, the rain fell ceaselessly, making a hollow sound on the old slate roof - thwack, thwack, thwack - as the bare branches of the ancient tree clawed at the panes of the mullioned window - scritch, scritch, scritch - and the broken gate repeatedly slammed the gate post - clack, clack, clack - while inside Edgar Blackmoor and his apple-cheeked young cousin, Annabelle Gray, watched the old German clock - tick, tick, tick - had their milk and tea - sip, sip, sip - and diverted themselves with endless games of whist - slap, slap, slap.
As she contemplated the setting sun, its dying rays casting the last of their brilliant purple light on the red-gold waters of the lake, Debbie realized that she should never again buy her sunglasses from a guy parked by the side of the road.
John Stevenson lives in Vancouver with his Wife Cindy and their two kids Shawn and Cassie, who are the second cousins of Mary Shaw, who is married to Richard Shaw, whose grandmother was Stewart Werthington’s housekeeper, whose kid’s Damien and Charlie went to the Mansfield Christian School for Boys with Danny Robinson, whose sister Berta Robinson ran off with Chris Tanner, who rides a motorcycle and greases his hair and their kid Christa used to go out with my pal Tom Slipper, who is the main character of this story, but not the narrator ‘cause I am (Tommy couldn’t write to save his life).
I won’t delay this story with any fancy “Once upon a time” nonsense, preferring to dive right in, like Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse at home plate in the 1970 All-Star game at Riverfront Stadium, erupting a controversy over the point of the All-Star contest since that infamous slide did end Fosse’s season and compromise his career in a seemingly pointless exhibition game, which was nothing compared to the subsequent controversies surrounding Charlie Hustle’s tax fraud, betting habits, and haircuts.
Our story begins, as very few do, in the small but diabolically clever town of Torrington, Alberta, where the Gopher Hole Museum, displaying 71 adorable yet eerie stuffed gophers dressed up to resemble the townspeople, has attracted so many tourists that when a Torrington home goes on the market, it sells in less than six years.
Penny was always there for me even when she was somewhere else because we — Penny and me - were literally, though not really, two peas in a pod: round, green - the naïve kind - and overall, well, pea-like; and whilst our un-leguminous domicile was not pod-like, it was padlocked.
And thus spake the Lord unto Saint Dominic, who is numbered among the lands as a baker above bakers, and said, “Ye shall bake it, and the span of the crust shall be one span, and the thickness of the crust shall be as of a thumb and the sauce shall be of fresh tomatoes for canned are anathema unto My sight and the pepperoni shall be sliced thin and be of meat from an animal that moos and thou shalt not use the meat of the pig nor mix it with pineapple nor Spam nor shall ye use anchovies strong enough to maketh even the angels gag and thou shalt deliver it anon thirty minutes or else it shall be free.”
As darkening shadows skittered tentatively (yet progressively) atop the rainforest canopy the way telemarketers do when they know you’re on a no-call list, the proud parrot pondered avian atavism: “descendant of vicious Velociraptors, I am become the Chicken Kiev of the jungle, a curious cocktail of predator and prey;” and in the night, a jaguar howled like Godzilla on helium — the bird stirred, but was not shaken.
Barry J. Drucker
Harold Goldfinch froze, his fierce pride at having placed the last brick on what would now be known as the biggest Lego metropolis ever built by one man melting into terror, as from somewhere in the blue plastic streets below him a tiny voice called out, “Hey buddy, where can a guy get a drink in this four-color town?”
As Fiona slowly drew the heavy velvet curtain aside, her eyes smoldered black, deep, and dark as inside the lungs of a coal miner, although it would be black in anyone’s lungs if you could get in there because there wouldn’t be any light, even in the pink ones of people who don’t smoke.
Lou A. Waller
“Failure” was simply not a word that would ever cross the lips of Miss Evelyn Duberry, mainly because Evelyn, a haughty socialite with fire-red hair and a coltish gait, could pronounce neither the letters “f” nor “r” as a result of an unfortunate kissing gesture made many years earlier toward her beloved childhood parrot, Snippy.
It wasn’t the first time Dame Harriet Bundt had discovered a corpse in someone’s drawing room, the head turned in a horribly bizarre, unnatural, rictus-induced pose (so that she quietly retched into the silent butler) and the teeny-weeny hole exactly four millimeters above the right eye that had once oozed the bright red stuff of life, but which now was as hard and brittle as the rock candy her grandfather used to surprise her with every Wednesday, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight . . . summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp’s tail . . . though the term “love affair” now struck her as a ridiculous euphemism . . . not unlike “sand vein,” which is after all an intestine, not a vein . . . and that tarry substance inside certainly isn’t sand . . . and that brought her back to Ramon.
Bulwer-Lytton Winner Dave Zobel
Manhattan Beach, CA
A 42-year-old software developer and former National Spelling Bee contestant is the winner of the 2004 edition of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Dave Zobel of Manhattan Beach, California, won with his timely entry.
An international literary parody contest, the competition honors the memory (if not the reputation) of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). The goal of the contest is childishly simple: entrants are challenged to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Although best known for “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1834), which has been made into a movie three times, originating the expression “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and phrases like “the great unwashed” and “the almighty dollar,” Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal words that the “Peanuts” beagle Snoopy plagiarized for years, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
The notion that they would no longer be a couple dashed Helen’s hopes and scrambled her thoughts not unlike the time her sleeve caught the edge of the open egg carton and the contents hit the floor like fragile things hitting cold tiles, more pitiable because they were the expensive organic brown eggs from free-range chickens, and one of them clearly had double yolks entwined in one sac just the way Helen and Richard used to be.
Pamela Patchet Hamilton
Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award
She sipped her latte gracefully, unaware of the milk foam droplets building on her mustache, which was not the peachy-fine baby fuzz that Nordic girls might have, but a really dense, dark, hirsute lip-lining row of fur common to southern Mediterranean ladies nearing menopause, and winked at the obviously charmed Spaniard at the next table.
Earliest Unintentional Submission
‘Twas morning—the sun rose under the brightest auspices, and the thin, vaporous clouds that flitted in the heavens, continued gradually to flee away before the gentle morning breeze, that seemed wont to greet their golden visages with the soft rustle of its dewy wings—until not a hand’s breadth of them were seen remaining to mar the spotless beauty of the ethereal blue.
Lyman Littlefield, “Sights from the Long Tree”, Nauvoo Times and Seasons (November 15, 1841)
Winner: Adventure Category
The legend about Padre Castillo’s gold being buried deep in the Blackwolf Hills had lain untold for centuries and will continue to do so for this story is not about hidden treasure, nor is it set in any mountainous terrain whatsoever.
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Lord Tarlington gazed upon the crazed Egyptian hieroglyphics on the walls of the ancient tomb of the petrified pharaoh, he vowed there would be no curse on him like on that other Lord, unless you count his marriage to Lady Tarlington who, when the lost treasure was found, will be dumped faster than that basket in the bulrushes.
Cherry Valley, CA
Winner: Children’s Literature
Jack planted the magic beans and in one night a giant beanstalk grew all the way from the earth up to the clouds—which sounds like a lie, but it can be done with genetic engineering, and although a few people are against eating gene-engineered foods like those beans it’s a high-paying career to think about for when you grow up.
San Francisco, CA
When Cinderella saw that the Prince had sent the Duke to find the woman of his dreams, like some rich schoolboy who pays the smartest kid in the class to do his homework, or worse, like someone who has been on welfare so long that he has trouble doing any kind of work, she suddenly realized the spoiled nature of the King’s son and stealthily slid the slipper back into her pocket.
As he entered the room within which so many a wild night of their sweltering love affair had been spent, the White Rabbit regarded her with benevolent eyes, her posture such that he suspected something was wrong, but before he could speak Alice unburied her face from her trembling hands and between her intense sobs he made out the words, “I’m late . . . I’m late.”
Winner: Dark and Stormy Night
It was a stark and dormy night—the kind of Friday night in the dorm where wistful women/girls without dates ovulated pointlessly and dreamed of steamy sex with bad boy/men in the backseat of a Corvette—like the one on Route 66, only a different color, though the color was hard to determine because the TV show was in black and white—if only Corvettes had back seats.
Lake Charles, LA
It was a dark and stormy night—actually not all that dark, but more dusky or maybe cloudy, and to say “stormy” may be overstating things a bit, although the sidewalks were still wettish and smelled of ozone, and, truth be told, characterizing the time as night is a stretch as it was more in the late, late afternoon because I think Oprah was still on.
Gregory Snider, MD
It was another dork and Stormy Knight—after snapping the last of his palm dampened dollar bills into the frazzled elastic of her G string—sent him packing precisely three-eighths of a mile down Highway 20 to the spot where she’d promised him a glorious glimpse of self-awareness, and where he would discover a slight depression in the asphalt and find himself quizzically contemplating the adjacent Department of Transportation sign that read simply: “Dip in Road.”
Depoe Bay, OR
Detective Micky Blarke arrived on the scene at 2:14 am, and gave his cigarette such a severe pull that rookie Paul Simmons swore the insides of the detective’s cheeks touched, but the judge indicated that that amount of detail was not necessary in his testimony, and instructed the jury to disregard that statement.
The knife handle jutted from her chest like one of the plastic pop-up timers in a frozen turkey, but from the blood pooling around the wound, it was apparent that this bird wasn’t done.
Las Cruces, NM
“After several minutes, Detective Wilson, standing over the lifeless, tuxedo-clad corpse, the spandex tights it had been strangled with still around its neck, realized that the poor ringmaster had simply been a victim of circus dancers.”
Mount Waverley, Victoria
Winner: Fantasy Fiction
Gringran Roojner had only gone to see the Great Warlock of Loowith to get his horoscope and he couldn’t believe he’d been sent on a quest for the legendary Scromer of Nothleen to ask him for the answer to the Riddle of Shimmererer so that he could give it to the Guardians of Vooroniank, thereby gaining access to the Cave of Zothlianath where he would find the seldom seen Cowering of Groojanc, whose spittle was an absolute necessity in the making of the Warlock’s famous pound cake, the kind with raisins.
Winner: Historical Fiction
Galileo Galilei gazed expectantly through his newly invented telescope and then recoiled in sudden horror — his prized thoroughbred’s severed neck, threateningly discarded in a murky mass of interstellar dust (known to future generations as the Horsehead Nebula), left little doubt about where the Godfather and his Vatican musclemen stood on the recent geocentric/heliocentric debate.
San Antonio, TX
Winner: Fiction for the Erudite
Clementine sat in the shade of a beech tree, of the family Fagaceae, the leaves of which were more or less ovate, being perhaps not quite as pointed as those of the North American, grandifolia species of the Fagus genus that are the color of a swimming pool that had been left too long without chlorine, but neither were they like those of Fagus sylvatica var. purpurea that are the color of dried burgundy stains on cream linen.
The cat’s whiskers twitched like the wings of a butterfly, not a large butterfly like a monarch, but a small one, like an Eastern Pine Elfin, which camouflages wonderfully with the bark of trees, not just pine trees, but also elm trees, whose slender twigs wave in the early spring breeze, looking like the twitching whiskers of the cat, which I have just mentioned.
Megan Z. Dinerman
King of Prussia, PA
He heard a bang, well not really a bang but more of a crash with metallic overtones of platinum-encrusted steel alloys, hammering against unyielding iron and iridium plates; or maybe it was the clash of huge nickel-zinc rods hitting molybdenum fused sheets of tantalum, then he felt a stab of pain and heard another bang, and wished, instead of using his extensive metallurgy skills to try and analyze the sound, he would have run like hell when he first saw the gun pointed at him.
Winner: Purple Prose
The terrible news had whisked around the becolumned courthouse like a malevolent, stinking zephyr straight from the sewage works, and on the gum-besmirched footpath, the hunch of lawyers cackled and cawed like a group of very large, gowned, wigged, briefcase-clutching crows, or perhaps ravens since they are of course the larger bird and some of these lawyers were fairly sizeable.
Largs Bay, South Australia
She was a tough one, all right, as tough as a marshmallow—not one of those soft sticky ones used in s’mores, cooked to a turn over a good campfire, or even like the stale chewy type covered in yellow sugar and found at the bottom of a three-week-old Easter basket—no, she was tough like a freeze-dried marshmallow in kid’s cereal that despite being shaped like a little balloon and colored a friendly pink are so rock solid that they are responsible for the loss of more baby teeth than most older siblings.
The day was packing heat and cracking wise as the scorching sun torched the hot dry Santa Anas like fry on rice, crispy with a snap, crackle and pop, and poured into the surreal bowl of the Los Angeles Basin as the red winds rattled every dwelling from Bay City bungalow to Bel Air chateau like a china shop in a bullring, the whole stinking, teeming tinderbox as combustible as a drill sergeant at clown college, as unsettling as corn on the cob rationing at an Iowa Society picnic.
San Diego, CA
Students often said that Dr. Storm’s lectures were duller than dishwater, not the dishwater after a holiday meal with brightly colored vegetable bits and shimmering glosses of vinaigrette, but the dishwater after a Wednesday night macaroni dinner, when the cheese has disintegrated into slime and the macaroni has become mush clogging the drain.
Las Cruces, NM
Stealth was the watchword as two shadowy figures trudged in moonlit silence along the narrow pathway superimposed upon a boulder-littered landscape, unwittingly approaching a slimy procession of slugs vulnerably creeping at a snail’s pace, but heroically trying (quite unproductively, one does not wonder) to scamper away from the crushing footfalls of the insentient travelers who stumbled blindly toward a destination which would not bid them welcome.
Grass Valley, CA
Phoebe watched through the library window as the sun sank slowly in the west, glowing like a ball of molten butter; not the phony margarine kind of butter that left nothing but the taste of grease in your mouth, but the real kind that pumped up your cholesterol and gave you a coronary, when such heart-related musings forced her to glance down at Neville, determine from the blue coloring of his skin that he really was dead, and then pick up the telephone and say, “Operator, I believe my husband is having a heart attack.”
Overland Park, KS
Looking up from his plate of escargots, Sean gazed across the table at Sharon and sadly realized that her bubbly personality now reminded him of the bubbles you get when you put salt on a slug and it squirms around and foams all over the place, and her moist lips were also like the slime on a slug but before you salted it, though after all these years Sharon still smelled better than slugs, but that could have been the garlic butter on her escargots.
David K. Lynch
I first saw her from across the crowded dance floor, cedar I think, (as if I can reference a specie of wood planks at a glance) I just know it wasn’t that yellowish basketball court wood, the type with the glossy veneer (now THAT, I could recognize), anyway, she had the refined elegance and demure fragility of a really old Princess Leia.
As she eased from our impassioned doorway kiss to slip into something more comfortable, Julia’s warm breath caressed my face like a hot winter blast from the foyer of a two-star restaurant where they try to warm you up real quick so you’re more likely to go in all the way and eat their food, only they leave you hanging by the “Please wait to be seated” sign because they have to clean up your table from the previous customer.
Winner: Science Fiction
The scorched pasture, with its charred and smoking remains of dead cattle, was the least of Jessica’s worries, and as she pondered her shredded gown, newly shaved head, and the quickly disappearing spaceship in the Nevada twilight, she realized if she were going to hitchhike back to Carson City, she’d have to show a damn sight far more leg than she had ever intended.
The huge intergalactic cruiser — type 4843-56B, class PVT/X — which was the color of an unripe blood-grapefruit (a sort of orangey-green like the skin, not the deep fuchsia of the flesh in the middle) edged its way carefully between the navigation buoys, which flashed intermittently like a pair of warning lights outside of a fire house, accept they were more of a pinky-red rather than a dirty yellow.
Commander Svenson rolled quickly in the dirt, dodging the Pravakthian’s arrow, firing his carbonizer pistol which projects high frequency electricity provided by a small laser through a copper sheathed carbon rod to produce a deadly projectile but it didn’t work so he threw it away and reached for a rock that would.
Klamath Falls, OR
Criminy, thought Francine as she left the birthing center, if the baby’s an unknown life-form, it probably means Ricky wasn’t really from West Hartford, either.
Winner: Vile Puns
Sleepless in Seattle, sleepless in Schenectady, and now—damn her bad luck—sleepless in this god-forsaken pit Brad assured her was a perfectly lovely out-of-the way and darling older, but totally updated and refurbished, accommodation flushed with sunlight and surrounded by swirling blue waters in Seward named the Tide Ebola Inn.
San Anselmo, CA
Hans sipped from his bottle of German Bru-hoff beer and idly read the label: “Bru-hoff, a heady-nosed Rhine beer has a slightly briny pose, and if you’ve ever drawn it, you would like the way it flows, but all of the other Rhine beers, Dusen lagers, and thick ales, they never beat our Bru-hoff in the yearly Rhine beer games.”
Roger J. McNichols
As Reynoldo lit the votive candle at the grotto for San Jose de los Platanos and prayed for the healthy delivery of his first child, he heard a disembodied voice say, “Your daughter will be 17 inches long,” to which Reynoldo replied, “do you know the weight, too, San Jose?
Alas, all he wanted was to be the best barber in the world, even if only by a hair, but, alas he found his ambition thwarted by a headlong rush of fate and an unexpected side effect of his tonsorial skill — everyone he served became strangely calmer and less argumentative, and he discovered that people were coming to him only for his kinder cuts, this barber of civility.
Alan B. Combs
“This town’s not big enough for the two of us,” growled Slim Jenkins, “but I think that if we can get the townspeople to agree to issue a bond to annex the Carter Ranch, we can then incorporate and there should be plenty of room for everyone.”
El Dorado Hills, CA
It was hardtack and beans for the crouching cowboys in the lee of the chuck wagon that stormy night when the wind flared the fire and the light caught the trail boss’ leather-bound, barb-wire muscled face which might have said, were he not the quiet sort, “Cookie, we should have had more salads.”
Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mentions
The day dawned much like any other day, except that the date was different.
Bundaberg , Queensland
The thing that goes back and forth inside the old grandfather clock swung like a pendulum.
W. Lebanon, NH
It was only a leaking pustule, but for Billy the Bacterium it was home.
To her dismay, Julia found that her right hand seemed to be pulling her into an increasingly horizontal position; first her wrist and forearm, then her upper arm and shoulder, until her cheek lay on her shoulder, leaving her to surmise that the handrail of the airport’s moving sidewalk progressed at a more rapid pace than the sidewalk itself.
Her pendulous breasts swung first to the left, then to the right and finally in independent directions, much like semaphore signals, and although he couldn’t understand semaphore, Kyle was sure they were saying, “Never ride the Tilt-A-Whirl with your grandma.”
Las Vegas, NV
Kaitlynn looked like a woman who’d been used by more guys than a porta potty at a burrito festival yet I loved her madly even if she wasn’t the kind of girl you’d take home to meet mom unless mom was at her monthly garden club meeting and dad was home alone mowing the lawn or cleaning out the garage.
Spokane Valley, WA
She was so delicate that her voice was a mere whisper and her hair drooped in thinly clumped strands around her pale face with skin as milky as a china plate painted the starkest white glaze and fired in a kiln over 940 degrees Fahrenheit.
Christine Wilson Brancazio
Her breath came in short, urgent gasps as beads of sweat slowly coalesced and slipped hesitantly over her lightly-tanned skin, leaving glistening trails down a cleavage that was both feminine and primal while her wide eyes betrayed a mind still struggling to accept that her physical ordeal was over and that she had, in fact, caught the bus.
Africa: a land of deserts and jungles, a land of wars ancient and recent, ravaged by disease and famine and yet the source of nine-tenths of the world’s diamonds, a land of gigantic waterfalls and the great Rift Valley, the very source of all humanity, a land 6000 miles away from where this story takes place.
Colorado Springs, CO
The first time a boy stuck his tongue in her mouth, Jenny surrendered completely to the invigorating intermingling of their spit — not the Polidential spit of old age, nor the salivary excretions of middle-age, with its tart hints of gingivitis even among those who floss daily, but the invigorating drool of youth—spittle that dazzled the uninitiated with its exquisite hints of promise, innocence, and bygone braces.
“Let’s dance,” he uttered perfunctorily, his voice sounding to Meg almost like tires on gravel, but more like tires on crushed shells, the kind they use for driveways in Florida and parts of South Carolina, and the tires being like big snow tires.
Los Angeles, CA
Franz made his way through the boulder-strewn alpine landscape stepping warily over granite monoliths, some resting like bodies of wine-sodden derelicts asleep in a railway station and others seemed already like separable prefixes of German verbs lurking at ends of sentences like crones from a Grimm tale ready to clutch a reader by his Lederhosen and yank him back from the brink of reverie.
Myra pursed her silicone-filled lips in a pouty, sultry smirk that whispered, “We have synergy, you and I,” like a man and his dog that have begun to resemble one another after lazy summer days spent sharing a common food dish and an antique, metal comb.
Stamp, stack, stamp, stack, stamp, stack, Rodney was going insane from the monotony of the job and the cruel irony of being guest of the New Hampshire penal system forced to read the words over and over: “Live Free or Die,” “Live Free or Die,” “Live Free or Die.”
Santa Cruz, CA
“I’ve never done this before,” she said softly, and she was trembling, shaking really—shaking like a Harley-Davidson idling at a stoplight, one of the ones with the old Evo-style engine, where people’s dentures vibrated out as they rode—and yet when I touched her skin, it was smooth and inviting like one of the new Harleys, the ones that copy the Japanese engineering and use rubber mounts and counter-balancers . . . not that I would know, because I ride a British bike anyway and haven’t been able to get it cranked in nearly six years, which is why I was shaking hands with her, because she owned a bike shop and had never touched a Vincent Black Lighting.
After putting down her hometown newspaper from a small community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (which makes one wonder why it is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan since no part of their land touches the lower portion of the state and in actuality they are connected to Wisconsin which makes you think they should be the Upper Peninsula of Wisconsin but that is to be discussed another day), Linda needed to find a sympathy card to send to the family of someone she saw in the obituaries.
Maynard Fimble was told that “you can’t compare apples and oranges,” but, he thought, they are both eatable, grow on trees, are about the same size, are good for you, have a peel, come in many varieties, and are approximately round in shape, thus, to his horror and guilt, he realized that he was comparing them and wondered what punishment awaited him and on whose order.
North Pole, AK
As Amy reached for the envelope her heart fluttered in anticipation like the wings of a fruit bat that has eaten a fermented peach, and even though she knew the statistic that you are more likely to be hit by a meteorite than to win the lottery, she was still quite surprised when opening the envelope to be hit by a meteorite.
“Call me Ishmael,” Joanna finally began, a scant fourteen hours before her book report was due, and she sympathized with him and reflected on the likeness of the vast paper tome in front of her to the cetacean antagonist immortalized within, or at least she would have if she’d had any idea what the book was about.
Grand Rapids, MI
As she pointed the car due north like a needle on a boy scout’s compass to head back to the frozen wasteland from which she had come, a light rain began to drizzle down, forming hundreds—no thousands—of small cat paw prints, as though a herd of invisible felines of all sizes and ages with wet feet were jumping on the windshield, totally oblivious to the fact that the car was traveling at a speed high enough to dislodge any small animals from the front of the vehicle.
Farmer Brown knew the moment he read the ransom note-the tiny, dirty footprints, childish scrawl, and a spray of seed debris among the angry peckmarks marring the paper’s surface-that the chickens had kidnapped his beloved Bichon Friese Fifi, and that the only man who could help him, George “The Chicken Whisperer” Fitzpatrick, was sleeping off a killer hangover in the outdoor privy behind the pigpen.
As he pressed his heaving, moist, ineffable manhood closer to her trembling porcelain bosom, Reginal Pompilious-Pomfret, Duke of Sufferingdale, wondered, not for the first time, whether this Lady Ashdown might not, in fact, be his sister, and resolved to confront mater about the subject directly he finished slaking his Jovian lust upon her ladyship.
It was 11:59 AM according to the clock located on the lower right hand side of his desktop display on his task bar (for Microsoft Windows XP was the standard Operating System in use at his office) and life was effectively over, as his one true love, his eternal soul mate, called him from her Nokia 3130 cell phone by depressing and holding the three key, using the soon-to-be-erased quick dial feature, to let him know their passionate and tumultuous relationship had to end.
The dead make good neighbors; I mean, they don’t trot over at all hours and beat upon one’s domicile door for a bit of sugar or whatnot; they don’t accost one after church and press ragged tickets upon one for some bally fete or another, nor bung off to Bath after dropping their beastly pets for me to watch; no, as a whole, your graveyard corpse is a quiet, peaceful sort of Johnnie.
Keith’s popularity as the first openly gay daredevil was rising quickly; in fact, it was said he ate danger for breakfast, followed by a light brunch of lemon scones, quiche, and the occasional Mimosa, and then he was back to eating danger.
San Diego, CA
If thoughts were threads, Melvin could have woven a multi-hued persian carpet that would have encircled the Equator 11.7 times over, because that was how often he thought of Shelly, the girl he met at the library, who was taking something out of her locker.
Johnny’s first kiss with Melissa knocked him back on his heels like the bass line of the “Theme from Peter Gunn” — an odd sensation since Johnny wasn’t born until 1972 and Peter Gunn was over because Blake Edwards, who created Peter Gunn, had begun the Pink Panther movies starring another Peter, Peter Sellars, best remembered for his performance as Chauncey Gardner in “Being There” but whose truly great role was in “Dr. Strangelove” co-starring Slim Pickens who rides an atomic bomb to earth where it explodes — and that was what Melissa’s first kiss was really like.
“Where to hide?” was Ovinia’s only thought as she raced madly across the field outside Aberdeen and up a grassy incline, frantically seeking escape from the man who was hell-bent on possessing her, on making her his and his alone, having succumbed to her beauty, drawn into near madness by the watery depths of her brown eyes and lured by the exotic perfume of lanolin and newly-mown hay which wafted from her thick coat as she grazed.
Ballston Spa, NY
It was a dark and stormy night, not so dark that one couldn’t see a hungry Wallaby in a patch of wild gooseberries at fifty paces, nor stormy enough that a severe weather watch had been issued by the National Weather Services Department, but a dark and stormy night nevertheless.
As he felt the baseball bat connect firmly with the six-pointed Bar Mitzvah pinata, spilling its glorious load of chocolate dreidels and packages of neatly rolled polyester socks over him, Miguel Valdez Liebermann knew that, at long last, he was finally a man.
Sheila walked into the room, flaunting the kind of body that made grown men wish they were teenagers, made teenagers wish they were grown men, made toddlers wish they were preteens, made preteens wish they were young adults, and made everyone wish editors swung blue pencils the same way she swung her hips as she crossed the threshold of both the room and bad taste, her breasts swaying like dual house-trailers on a windy overpass.
It was a bright, yet sunless day, which left a gray cast to everything as Michelle, who went by Shellie because there were seven other girls in her homeroom named Michelle, although three of them went by Shellie also, looked for her pepper spray in her messy yet extremely fashionable back pack.
The barren windswept plains beckoned to her like a forlorn lover, calling, “Come here, come here,” but she thought, “Am I really dressed right for this occasion, in my black Christian Dior business suit and high heels, or should I run home real quick and change into something more Little House on the Prairieish, like a gingham skirt, white ruffled blouse, and high-button shoes?
On the eerily quiet morning of Friday the 13th, a strong Sixth Sense told Bobbie-Jean it was time to quit her job as Quality Control Manager at the Cracker Jack Plant, with which her other five quickly agreed that she had smelled, touched, tasted, seen and heard enough of the stuff to last an entire lifetime.
Ban Tinkhao, Muang
I woke up in Shirley’s father’s dog’s house — or at least most of me did, because the house was ranch style as near as I could figure it and Shirley’s father’s dog Tracey was one of those little terrier types with the sardonic overbite and the haunted eyes of a Flamenco dancer.
I will tell you a tale of great adventure like in “Treasure Island,” with some smiles and some tears like in “Lassie Come Home,” some treachery and some heroism, again, like in “Treasure Island,” some romance and some betrayal like in lots of Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet,” for example), and even — if the reader doesn’t mind — some philosophy, but like the Chicken Soup books not like Spinoza or Plato or anything.
Their eyes met across the crowded room and Morag smiled the smile of a single, endearingly clumsy thirtysomething female with an unfulfilling career, a gay best friend, a weakness for chocolate, and a talent for accessorizing who had found Mr. Right but needed to break-up and have fantastic make-up sex with him a couple of times before finally realizing he was the one.
Kowloon, Hong Kong