DENNIS O’NEIL: On triskadekaphobia
Do my hands tremble as I type these words? Are there creaks and groans coming from the room behind me? Is the air chill and sticky?
What could be happening?
Ah, I think I have it! Triskadekaphobia – that must be it! And what is triskadekaphobia? My computer’s dictionary defines it tersely and simply: An irrational or obsessive fear of… (that number between 12 and 14.) (Parentheses and paraphrasing mine.)
This is the that number of these whatever-they-ares that I’ve written and that, my friends, is scary. That it is also irrational goes without saying, at least to the non-believers among you.
My irrational fear of… that number is not exactly new. If you look at any of the comics I’ve written in the last dozen (nor baker’s dozen!) years or so, you won’t find the dialogue balloons and captions on any single page totaling that number unless the editor added or subtracted or conflated something, in which case it’s on his or her head. And if I’m doing a script and reach the end of page 12, I either quit or make myself charge on until I get to page 14, even if I run out of steam half way through that page.
I think I picked up this eccentricity (or bulwark against misfortune) from Stephen King. In his excellent book On Writing he mentions that he, too, has this shibboleth and, hey, if it’s good enough for Stephen King… I paged through On Writing, looking for the appropriate passage, planning to quote it here, but I couldn’t locate it. (And surely this cannot be a coincidence!)
There may be a slight benefit from this taboo against that number, apart from the obvious one that there may be a gnarly sociopath with a bloody poker lurking at the top of the stairs, ready to pounce, and using that number would somehow enable him. It is this: maybe superstitions (or sensible precautions) like this create the illusion of control, and maybe that illusion is comforting.
About 15 years ago, at Goodwife Marifran’s suggestion, I had myself tested for Attention Deficit Disorder and – yep! I got it. Probably had it all my life, which explains a lot. One of the problems with my ADD is that my life doesn’t always make sense to me and I sometimes feel I have no control over it. Well, okay, maybe I don’t, but avoiding the use of that number whenever possible gives me the feeling, at least, that I’m acting to forestall potential disaster, and we take our comfort where we can find it.
Healthy or sick as the plague, this comfort? I don’t know. But it’s not that big a chore to add another dialogue balloon, and thus bring the total to 14, or force myself to write another half page.
Oh, and by the way, in case you’re wondering… I consider myself to be a rationalist.
RECOMMENDED READING: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. Part autobiography, part literary advice and, like everything of King’s, highly readable.
Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like