The fog settled thickly over the San Francisco Bay Area, like a wet cloud that wasn't technically a cumulus or a nimbus or even a wispy cirrus but instead was what the television weathercasters like to call a "marine layer"; and its ponderous presence--nothing at all like cat feet, pace Mr. Sandburg, but more like a herd of galumphing, thick-skinned elephants--reminded us that it was August in the Cool Gray City of Love, and that while the rest of the Northern Hemisphere was shuttling to "the shore," working on its collective tan, and fretting about the air-conditioning bill, we were consoling ourselves with puffy parkas, steaming cappuccinos, and the annual return of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
The contest--a celebration of wretched writing in all its myriad genres, from romance to western to detective to fantasy--was born in 1982 in our virtual backyard, at San Jose State University; it was named in honor of the Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who began one of his novels with the line "It was a dark and stormy night," a line that became famous when the cartoon dog Snoopy appropriated it in the Peanuts comic strip.
This year's winners represent the full spectrum of wretchedness, which appear to this reader to organize itself into five general subsets:
The extended detour leading to a dead end, in which a sentence takes an elaborately discursive turn that builds in a breathless crescendo and then plummets abruptly into anticlimax, as in this example from overall contest winner Jim Gleason of Madison, Wisconsin:
Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee.
The baroque metaphor, preferably in multiples. Here's a fine specimen from Andrew Cavallari of Northfield, Illinois:
LaVerne was undeniably underdressed for this frigid weather; her black, rain-soaked tank top offered no protection and seemed to cling to her torso out of sheer rage, while her tie-dyed boa scarf hung lifeless around her neck like a giant, exhausted, pipe cleaner recently discarded after near-criminal overuse by an obviously sadistic (and rather flamboyant) plumber.
The tortured definition, as in this submission by Wayne McCoy of Gainesville, Florida, the winner in the Purple Prose division:
Professor Radzinsky wove his fingers together in a tweed-like fabric, pinched his lips together like a blowfish, and began his lecture on simile and metaphor, which are, like, similar to one another, except that similes are almost always preceded by the word 'like' while metaphors are more like words that make you think of something else beside what you are describing.
The logical conclusion, well rendered by Brad R. Frazer of Boise, Idaho, who took a Dishonorable Mention for this passage:
Miss Cardinal mused over the singularly decadent manner in which Master Hammond consumed the steak and kidney pie and was reminded of the practices of certain cannibalistic tribes with whom she had lived during her travels in Borneo, not New Guinea, although New Guinea is certainly nice this time of year, despite the fact steak and kidney pie is rarely served there, at least not the kind made from sheep or cows.
The technicality, which often depends on the humor of humorlessness, but not necessarily, as Mark Schweizer of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, deftly demonstrates:
She'd been strangled with a rosary--not a run-of-the-mill rosary like you might get at a Catholic bookstore where Hail Marys are two for a quarter and indulgences are included on the back flap of the May issue of "Nuns and Roses" magazine, but a fancy heirloom rosary with pearls, rubies, and a solid gold cross, a rosary with attitude, the kind of rosary that said, "Get your Jehovah's Witness butt off my front porch."
There's a sixth category, the Vile Pun, which merits (or demerits) a prize of its own in the contest, and which readers with delicate constitutions may wish to refrain from reading, so gagworthy are the submissions.
And perhaps you will want to suggest other taxonomies.
Extra credit! Take the Dickens or Bulwer-Lytton Quiz.