Everyone Agrees: Hurricane Irene Came on a 'Dark and Stormy Night'
Multiple uses of this well-used cliché in the wake of the storm are becoming, well, cliché
The cliché: It was a dark and stormy night, dear reader, when several beleaguered and befuddled columnists strained to find openings for their pieces and, miraculously, all came around to the same conclusion. "It was a dark and stormy night, no doubt about that," observed The Washington Post's Miranda Spivack. "It was a dark and sort of stormy night," says Abby Sher in The New York Times somewhat less certainly. "It was a dark and stormy night..." adds The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens, allowing the ellipses to leave unclear just how stormy he thinks it was.
Where it's from: The famous line opens the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.It has since become a famous go-to example of all things overwrought. Madeleine L'Engle opened her classic A Wrinkle in Time with the line. So, too, did Snoopy, of the "Peanuts" comic strip, in many of the (presumably terrible) novels he attempted to write. In 1982, a San Jose State University professor started the "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest," named for the "dark and stormy" author, which tasks entrants with composing "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." The contest has produced some whoppers. Take, for example, this year's wining sentence: "Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories."
Why it's catching on: Of course, all three columnists used the line to open their pieces in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. They were certainly aware that the phrase was cliché, given t he 180 years of tongue-in-cheek uses. Like Schultz and L'Engle, they probably invoked it ironically as a sort of wink at readers. It probably seemed like an easy laugh, given their columns concerned themselves with what was, indeed, a dark and stormy night. Sadly, these guys have the dubious honor of heaping more irony onto its use than they intended by simultaneously using it to open columns that all appeared within three days of one another. Look out, it's becoming meta-cliché!
So why else? Maybe, though, by invoking an overtrodden cliche, they were, on a deeper level, reflecting on the hyped up storm coverage, something that seems, every hurricane season, to become a cliché. Stephens's column at the least, went on to complain about the familiarity of overcovering a storm. "Our bias toward alarm," Stephens wrote, is "predictable." It'd be optimistic to think that each of these deadline-pressed writers intended that reading. We will now attempt to exit this post without any subsequent quip about silver linings.