Who really wrote 'it was a dark and stormy night'?

Lightning storm over Washington, D.C.
Lightning crashes over Washington, D.C. on a dark and stormy night last spring.
Mladen Antonov | AFP/Getty Images

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This week's question: Who was the first person to write, "It was a dark and stormy night"?

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the first person to put that clichéd phrase on paper. Of course, it wasn't a cliché when he was using it.

It's the opening line to Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel, "Paul Clifford," about a highway robber during the French Revolution. The robber doesn't know he's the son of a well-heeled judge — and he only learns it just in time to be sentenced to death by that very same judge. Don't worry, there's a happy ending: He breaks free and runs away to America to marry his cousin.

To be fair to Bulwer-Lytton, "it was a dark and stormy night" is only the beginning of the opening phrase.

The full sentence reads:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Those first seven little words have become a laughing stock of literature for their melodramatic and obvious nature. "Dark and stormy" has become so cliché, in fact, even a dog could write it. That's what fans of "Peanuts" know: Snoopy has been known to type "it was a dark and stormy night" over and over again.

Another beloved author picked it up for the opening of her own fantasy novel: Madeleine L'Engle opens "A Wrinkle In Time" with, "It was a dark and stormy night."

The sentence has inspired thousands of other authors as well — to write as poorly as they can.

In the 1980s, Scott Rice, an English professor at San Jose State University, launched the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which gives a prize to the worst possible first sentence of a novel. Winners of this prestigious award have channeled Bulwer-Lytton's trademark run-on, overly descriptive style.

The winning 2015 entry, from Joel Phillips:

Seeing how the victim's body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer "Dirk" Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase "sandwiched" to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.

Parody aside, Bulwer-Lytton's legacy doesn't just include "dark and stormy." He's also known for a handful of other familiar phrases, including "the pen is mightier than the sword" and "the almighty dollar."

If you want to read the full story of "Paul Clifford," beyond that stormy night, the novel clocks in at around 950 pages and is available for free online.

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