To the uninitiated, this may not look like an improvement, let alone a joke. But it is an artful witticism, and probably the pithiest critique of the pretensions of hypermedia that will ever be published. The bits in the angle brackets are fragments of Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML; the key to hypertext and the entire World Wide Web. They are the equivalent of the cabalistic devices that editors jot in the margins of paper texts to indicate how they should be typeset. In this case, they would cause the phrase "dark and stormy night" to be highlighted; clicking upon it would open the page denoted by "storm.html".
There we might find a text that turned base linear prose into gold, and liberated us from millennia of Western thought. On the other hand, we might be presented with a purple passage that the author hadn't managed to fit into the story proper but couldn't bear to lose; or perhaps an extract about storms from a meteorology textbook, with links to weather- monitoring stations around the world. The only guaranteed aesthetic improvement that HTML bestows on a piece of bad writing is that the highlighted words show up in a different colour.
The page on which this self-deprecating drollery appears (is.rice.edu/riddle/hyperfiction.html) is linked to a site with a similar mission and a similarly ambivalent approach. One hyper you won't find on Michael Shumate's Hyperizons: the Hypertext Fiction Homepage [www.duke.edu/mshumate/hyperfic.html] is hyperbole. "Rather flat and ordinary," he observes of one hypertext work accessible from his pages; another is "pedestrian and thinly textured". "Is it actually interesting?" he asks of a third. "You tell me."
Cooling to his theme, he begins to read like an entrant in the kind of literary humour competition that produced "It was a dark and stormy night". "Looks kind of interesting, but unfortunately I don't read German" prompts the agreeable feeling that one is not missing out through ignorance of foreign languages, but the epitaph "Sensitively written, especially Laura's interior monologue" makes you scroll past quickly with a shudder.
The most recent of Shumate's listings, however, is a piece which may not be hyperfiction's version of The Rites of Spring, but should at least leave uncommitted readers feeling that hyperlinks can be fun. Matthew Miller's Trip, published last autumn, is based on a map of the USA. You can begin at the beginning, or click anywhere - as the caption says, it's a free country after all.
I kicked off in Kansas, like Dorothy, and made my way to Washington, domain of Bill Gates. Each screen contains a few lines or a paragraph, with arrows and highway signs for onward movement. Unlike that classic American road song The Promised Land, the story is not a line but an area that spreads across the 48 states. Its narrator is a man who has been hired to transport two children, Jack and Jill, across America to their elusive and perhaps non-existent mother.
I found myself going round in circles a lot, but it didn't seem to matter. "There is no end of the road, said Jill, no deadends. She said this as if it were a great disappointment. No, I said ... An end is only dead if you die there."