More Bad Bulwer

She was like my ex-girlfriend Ashley, who’d stolen my car, broken my heart, murdered my father, robbed a bank, and set off a pipe bomb in Central Park – tall.

As the first shovelful of earth fell on her father’s coffin, Emily kneeled at the gravesite sobbing, overwrought by the sudden realization that, not only had she lost her only living relative, but she had somehow forgotten to set her DVR to record this week’s episode of “House of Cards,” an episode she had particularly wanted to see because of a rumored and breathlessly anticipated guest appearance by a nephew of Don Ho.

It was a dark and stormy night, and that translated into unchecked pandemonium among Los Angeles residents who hadn’t worn anything but open-toed shoes for five years, but tourist Alwyn Brewster was thankful for the scant traffic on Sunset Boulevard as he desperately accelerated his rental car through the tony neighborhoods, too preoccupied with the raging rivers of high-end, plastic patio-ware, which were making a break for the ocean, to notice a black Land Rover with diplomatic plates hot on his trail.


Bulwer-Lytton Prize Winners

“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.” So wrote Edward, Lord Bulwer-Lytton, the 19th-century English author of “The Last Days of Pompeii” and much other florid prose. 

The University of San Diego conducts an annual Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for imitations of such rotten writing in various categories. We will reproduce a few of them here.

In 2011 the Grand Prize went to a Wisconsin professor for this pithy gem: “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”.

The Romance award that year: “As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand – who would take her away from all this – and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had”.

The History winner: “Napoleon’s ship tossed and turned as the emperor, listening while his generals squabbled as they always did, splashed the tepid waters in his bathtub.”


The Feast of Stephen

December 26 is the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian church, St Stephen. What little we know about him can be found in the Book of Acts where we learn that he had been chosen one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem and that his defence of Christianity resulted in his being stoned to death for blasphemy. Legend, however, has surrounded the protomartyr with a host of stories which link him to Herod’s household at the time of the birth of Jesus, to horses and to the stoning of the tiny wren.

Ever since the tenth century Stephen’s Day has been associated with horses, probably because the season was a time of horse sacrifice in pagan northern Europe and a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. Across Europe December 26 is a time for horses to be fed extra food, raced, decorated, blessed by the priest or ridden in ceremonies honouring their species. This is particulalry true in Sweden where “Staffan Riders” would race from village to village and sing songs in honour of the saint. Some have tried (not very successfully) to explain the connection between horses and St Stephen’s Day by claiming it has stemmed from confusion between the martyr in the Book of Acts and a later saint, Stephen of Corvey, martyred c. 1075, whose feast day June 2. This Stephen was a lover of horses and was said to ride five of them in turn. When he was murdered his unbroken colt took him home to Norrtalje which became a shrine for horse-healing.

The water and salt blessed by the priest on St Stephen’s Day would be set aside and used as medicine for horses should they fall ill during the rest of the year or to sprinkle liberally about the barn and yard to bring prosperity. The salt could also be thrown in the fire to avert danger from thunder-storms. In some places the blood drawn from horses on this day was thought to have healing powers. In Poland, the blessing of food for horses led to other peculiar rituals on St Stephen’s Day. In what has been interpreted either as a remnant of pagan fertility rites or a re-enactment of the stoning of Stephen, people would throw the consecrated oats at each other and their animals. Moreover, it was customary on December 26 for boys and girls to throw walnuts at one another.

St Stephen’s Day is also marked in Ireland and other parts of Britain by hunting a bird considered protected every other the day of the year, the wren, and parading about with its body. Wren Boys used to carry a dead wren on a branch from house to house, and sing an appropriate song which solicited money:

Other customs associated with St Stephens’s Day include holming. In Wales holming or holly-beating was the practice for young men to beat each other (or female servants) with holly branches on December 26. In Britain generally December 26 is a day for sporting events and hunting and the day observed as Boxing Day.


Herod the Great

Herod (73-04 B.C.) was  king of Judaea at the time of the birth of Christ and rebuilder of the Temple in Jerusalem. His murderousness was legendary: he killed many of his children and wives — the Romans joked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than a family member.  The Massacre of the Innocents which the Bible ascribes to him is very much in keeping with what we know of personality. He is the subject of a number of Christmas carols and ballads, such as the Coventry Carol, The Carnel and the Crane, and St. Stephen and Herod, and appears in seasonal drama as a raging tyrant. In Christmas art, he was portrayed as a rather big, old man, crowned and sitting on a throne.  He is always bearded with long dark hair and wearing royal garments.

The twelfth-century abbey of Fleury in France staged a dramatic presentation that has come to be known as The Play of Herod. It describes the Nativity with its attendant angels, midwives and shepherds, the encounter between King Herod and the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents which the king orders. Of the surviving medieval plays with these themes the Fleury Herod is considered to be the most artistically satisfying.