Friday the 13th

Friday the 13thToday is Friday the 13th. Ooooh, cue Twilight Zone music. Of course, it’s all superstitious bollocks, like being afraid to walk under a ladder or thinking a political agitator died two thousand years ago for your sins. I mean, really? Get over yourself. But why is Friday 13th considered unlucky? Folklore and superstition is some pretty interesting stuff and it’s great fodder for stories. The more we draw on existing mythologies and folk tales, that have endured over centuries for a reason, the more we can make our own stories feel authentic and convincing, thereby helping readers to suspend disbelief and enjoy a fictional journey. And who knows, maybe in two thousand years there’ll be a group of weirdos attending the Church of RealmShift, praying to the god Isiah for absolution. That would be quite funny, but we really should have grown out of this stuff already, so considering another two thousand years of it is a bit sad.

Anyway, Friday 13th – where does that particular bad luck superstition come from? Well, the answer, as is so often the case: No one knows. But there are a lot of theories. Interestingly, this particular superstition seems to be quite young, with no real references before the 20th century. Going to the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia, obviously), we get these possibilities:

1. In numerology, the number twelve is considered the number of completeness, as reflected in the twelve months of the year, twelve hours of the clock, twelve gods of Olympus, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Apostles of Jesus, the 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, etc., whereas the number thirteen was considered irregular, transgressing this completeness. There is also a superstition, thought by some to derive from the Last Supper or a Norse myth [more on this later – Alan], that having thirteen people seated at a table will result in the death of one of the diners.

2. Friday has been considered an unlucky day at least since the 14th century’s The Canterbury Tales, and many other professions have regarded Friday as an unlucky day to undertake journeys, begin new projects or deploy releases in production. Black Friday has been associated with stock market crashes and other disasters since the 1800s.

3. One author, noting that references are all but nonexistent before 1907 but frequently seen thereafter, has argued that its popularity derives from the publication that year of Thomas W. Lawson’s popular novel Friday, the Thirteenth, in which an unscrupulous broker takes advantage of the superstition to create a Wall Street panic on a Friday the 13th. Records of the superstition are rarely found before the 20th century, when it became extremely common.

It seems that there were existing superstitious issues regarding both the number 13 and Fridays, so it seems “logical” that Friday the 13th is doom with extra tragic sauce.

JasonAnother theory is that Primitive man had only his 10 fingers and two feet to represent units, so he could count no higher than 12. What lay beyond that — 13 — was an impenetrable mystery to our prehistoric forebears, hence an object of superstition.

That doesn’t really take into account toes, though, so seems like a dodgy idea to me. Not to mention that surely there would be no evidence of anything beyond 12, thereby nothing to be scared of. It certainly wouldn’t have been called 13… or would it? That one makes no bloody sense at all.

Here’s another interesting idea from David Emery at Urban Legends:

Still other sources speculate that the number 13 may have been purposely vilified by the founders of patriarchal religions in the early days of western civilization because it represented femininity. Thirteen had been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures, we are told, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The “Earth Mother of Laussel,” for example — a 27,000-year-old carving found near the Lascaux caves in France often cited as an icon of matriarchal spirituality — depicts a female figure holding a crescent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches. As the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar with the rise of male-dominated civilization, it is surmised, so did the “perfect” number 12 over the “imperfect” number 13, thereafter considered anathema.

I quite like that theory, not it’s got just enough bastardry in it to make it an enduring myth, and enough impetus for men in power to keep pushing their agenda. It would explain a lot about why 13 is so consistently recognised as a “bad” number if it meant men could retain some patriarchal power. Of course, it also means that superstitious feminists should embrace Friday the 13th, and that might give rise to some brain implosions.

And from the same source, here’s that great Norse yarn, mentioned earlier:

Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the Evil One, god of mischief, had been left off the guest list but crashed the party, bringing the total number of attendees to 13. True to character, Loki raised hell by inciting Hod, the blind god of winter, to attack Balder the Good, who was a favorite of the gods. Hod took a spear of mistletoe offered by Loki and obediently hurled it at Balder, killing him instantly. All Valhalla grieved. And although one might take the moral of this story to be “Beware of uninvited guests bearing mistletoe,” the Norse themselves apparently concluded that 13 people at a dinner party is just plain bad luck.

David also points out that there were 13 present at the Last Supper, one of whom betrayed Jesus and triggered the Crucifixion. And that crucifixioin allegedly took place on a Friday. The bad news is just stacking up for the mythologically-minded.

David Emery’s entire article makes for great reading on the subject, so maybe you should just go there and read the whole thing. I’ll wait here.

Good, wasn’t it?

Here’s an interesting extra tidbit, though:

The Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics (CVS) on June 12, 2008, stated that “fewer accidents and reports of fire and theft occur when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday than on other Fridays, because people are preventatively more careful or just stay home. Statistically speaking, driving is slightly safer on Friday the 13th, at least in the Netherlands; in the last two years, Dutch insurers received reports of an average 7,800 traffic accidents each Friday; but the average figure when the 13th fell on a Friday was just 7,500.”

It’s a small difference, but I do love me a bit of irony.

Anyway, if you really want to test your superstitious credulity this is the year for it – there will be three occurrences of Friday 13th in 2012, exactly 13 weeks apart. OH MY GODS WE’RE DOOMED!

Not that everyone needs to worry. The Spanish and Greeks consider Tuesday 13th bad luck, and the Italians are concerned about Friday 17th. You see, it’s all bollocks.

On the upside, we do get some brilliant words from the superstition:

The fear of Friday the 13th has been called friggatriskaidekaphobia (Frigga being the name of the Norse goddess for whom “Friday” is named and triskaidekaphobia meaning fear of the number thirteen). Seriously, say that word out loud and see if you don’t love it. FRIGGATRISKAIDEKAPHOBIA! Now, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to use that word today in casual conversation. Best of luck.

There’s also paraskevidekatriaphobia a concatenation of the Greek words Paraskeví (Παρασκευή, meaning “Friday”), and dekatreís (δεκατρείς, meaning “thirteen”) attached to phobía (φοβία, from phóbos, φόβος, meaning “fear”).

My preference definitely goes with friggatriskaidekaphobia, though.

Regardless, the only real bad luck I’ve ever heard of relating to anything directly related to this stuff is a stunt in the US many years ago. A guy was going for a bungee jump stunt where he would bungee off the side of a building and pick up a can of soda from the pavement. Extremely careful calculations were made, regarding his weight, the bungee rope, the distance and so on, to make such a dangerously accurate jump. Finally ready, he made the jump and smashed his head into the pavement and died. Why? Because many US buildings don’t have a 13th floor, skipping from 12 to 14, so the calculations of the building’s height were out by one storey. So 13 was definitely unlucky for that guy, but in a rather ironic way. Of course, all that could just be an urban legend, but it’s a great story nonetheless. And good stories are the best thing about all superstitions.


Tuesday Toot – Lee Battersby

Tuesday Toot is a semi-regular feature here at The Word. An invite-only series of short posts where writers, editors, booksellers and other creatives have been asked to share their stuff and toot their own horn. It’s hard to be seen in the digital morass and hopefully this occasional segment will help some of the quality stuff out there get noticed. It should all be things that readers of The Word will find edifying.

This weeks it’s Angry Robot Open Door Month survivor, Lee Batterby.

Who is Lee?

Lee is the author of over 70 stories in Australia, the US and Europe, with appearances in markets such as “Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror”, “Year’s Best Australian SF & F”, and “Writers of the Future”. A collection of his work, entitled “Through Soft Air” from Prime Books. He’s taught at Clarion South and developed and delivered a six-week “Writing the SF Short Story” course for the Australian Writers Marketplace. His work has been praised for its consistent attention to voice and narrative muscle, and has resulted in a number of awards including the Aurealis, Australian Shadows and Australia SF ‘Ditmar’ gongs.

He lives in Mandurah, Western Australia, with his wife, writer Lyn Battersby, and an increasingly weird mob of kids. He is sadly obsessed with Lego, Nottingham Forest football club, dinosaurs and Daleks. He’s been a stand-up comic, tennis coach, cartoonist, poet, and tax officer in previous times, and he currently works as Arts Officer for a local council, where he gets to play with artists all day. All in all, life is pretty good.

CRKWhat are you tooting?

This is the cover to my upcoming novel ‘The Corpse-Rat King’, via Angry Robot Books. It’s been designed by Nick Castle, of Nick Castle Designs, and is, in my prejudiced view, completely bloody lovely. The novel itself follows Marius dos Hellespont, a professional thief, conman and looter of battlefields, as he is despatched by the denizens of the Underworld to recruit a King for the Dead. There’s been a terrible mix-up, you see, and they thought *he* was the King, and once they realised their mistake, well, they weren’t going to blame themselves, were they? The dead need a King– the King is God’s representative on Earth, and they need him to remind God that they’re still down here, waiting for admission into the afterlife. Faced with his mission, Marius does the only reasonable, sane thing possible: runs for his freaking life. Or death. He’s not quite sure which, yet.

The book is. I hope, a romp, by turns dark, funny, horrific, and darkly horrifically funny. Not to mention that everybody says ‘fuck’ a lot and there’s a lot of gross corpse jokes. It’s a survivor of the first Angry Robot Open Submission month, where over 980 submitted manuscripts where whittled down to just 3 sales, and is on sale come September, with its sequel, ‘Marching Dead’ hitting shelves in 2013. But really, if that cover doesn’t get you hot, what more can I do?

I have to say, that is one sweet cover. I’ve read a number of Lee’s short stories and I’m really looking forward to The Corpse-Rat King. Congratulations to Lee on getting noticed among a thousand hopeful novelists. – Alan


Real Life Super Heroes in trouble again

I’m sure long-time readers here will remember this post, about a real life super hero, or RLSH, and the comedy around his actions. That post generated over 150 comments before I finally had to close it to further discussion. Subsequently, there was this post, with the hilarious Captain At!

Now the ongoing saga continues. There’s this article from The Age, talking about “Phoenix Jones” and the recent entanglement that particular hero has had with the law. According to the article:

Self-proclaimed Seattle superhero Phoenix Jones, a vigilante crime-fighter accused of assault, made his first court appearance on Thursday, but prosecutors have so far declined to charge him.

The one-time mixed-martial-arts competitor whose real name is Benjamin Fodor was arrested on Sunday after police said he pepper-sprayed a group of innocent nightclub patrons he believed were involved in a street brawl downtown.

It raises interesting questions about reponsibility, not just for the safety of others, but for your own actions. You should click through to the article and have a read if you’re interested in this stuff. You should also watch the short news video at the start of the piece.

I have to say, Jones certainly fucked up by pepper spraying a bunch of folks just having a good time, but there are two far greater crimes in evidence from the Age’s article. One is Jones’s hair. Seriously, 1983 called and wants its fashion back. More criminal though is Ryan McNamee calling himself a “documentary videographer”. The wildly shaking camera is barely ever pointing at the subject matter.

Anyway, further hilarity from the world of RLSH. Keep it coming, guys – it’s better than cartoons.


Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest 2011 Results

SnoopyThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is one of my favourite literary events. It’s a brilliant idea. It stems from the awful writing of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. You probably think you’ve never heard of him. But I can almost guarantee you have. Here, see if this is familiar:

“It was a dark and stormy night;”

Yep. You know him. But did you know just how bad he was? Here’s the rest of that line, from Paul Clifford (1830):

“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.”

Holy crap.

It’s writing like that which gave rise to the contest. During his studies Professor Scott Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University unearthed the source of that famous line, “It was a dark and stormy night”, as being the opening of the Edward George Bulwer-Lytton novel, Paul Clifford. And it is a very famous line. After all, Snoopy uses it all the time and that Beagle knows his shit.

For all his hideous writing skills, Lytton coined some phrases we all know well. Among them “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed”, and “the almighty dollar”. He’s had an impact, has Bulwer-Lytton.

So Professor Rice, with the help of San Jose State University, has, since 1982, put together the contest which seeks the worst opening lines to the worst of all novels. You can learn all about the contest here:

Meanwhile, the 2011 results are in. The winner this year is the shortest entry to ever win the contest. It comes from Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, WI. (Yeah, I thought that was a children’s clothing line for people with more money than sense, but apparently it’s a place too.) Here’s the winning line:

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.

Top work, Sue. Congratulations.

Rodney Reed of Ooltewah, TN takes out the runner-up prize with this one:

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

There are other winners in several categories (Adventure, Crime, Sci-Fi, Vile Puns, etc.) and they’re all listed on the contest site here. Go and have a read. They’re hilarious.


Christians upset about Muslim billboard

I know, those crazy Christians are always upset about something. For that matter, so are the Muslims. Let’s be honest, the religious of any persuasion have always got something to moan about. But it’s been a while since I lampooned a bit of religious idoicy here on The Word and when I saw this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, I knew I had to comment.

In a nutshell, an awareness campaign by Islamic group MyPeace has resulted in some billboards going up to try to point out that Muslims really aren’t so different to Christians, or anyone else for that matter. Of course, they’re just people like all of us. The religious, regardless of persuasion, are all far more alike than many of them will ever be comfortable admitting. If nothing else, they share a large portion of willfull ignorance. And, that one foible aside, they’re no different to anyone else. But I digress.

One of these awareness billboards says: JESUS: A PROPHET OF ISLAM. And there’s a number and a website.

Some Christians are upset because it demotes Jesus from the son of god to a mere prophet and thereby injures their delicate religious sensibilities. And here’s where the relevance to this blog comes in – I can turn anything I find interesting into a debate on words, language and storytelling after all. The Muslims in question are trying to point out that they revere Jesus too, just not in the same way. Meanwhile, the Christians are upset that the status of Jesus is not being recognised. What we have here are two fantasy epics warring about who has the better angle on truth, when, in fact, neither of them have anything even vaguely resembling proof. Ah, religious tolerance – what’s that then? Some of the quotes really made me laugh.

One complainant said that Jesus “must not be associated with such [an] aggressive religion”. Oh, the irony! She burns!

Here’s my favourite:

“What [my child] knows of Islam she has learnt from watching mainstream news broadcasts and to have her saviour identified as being part of this malicious cult was very traumatic!”

Your child told you that, did she? After a considered exploration of available religions and a decision to be Christian? Or did you just tell your kid that’s what she thought?

Anyway, a complaint was lodged with the Advertising Standards Bureau and, thankfully, common sense prevailed:

”such a statement does not, of itself, discriminate against or vilify people who hold different beliefs… The board acknowledged that the Islam faith does consider that Jesus is a prophet of Mohammed… and that it is not unreasonable for children to be exposed to a variety of information in their daily lives, some of which may conflict with the views with which they are raised”.

No shit, Sherlock. We can be thankful for that decision, at least.

MyPeace founder Diaa Mohamed said, ”[The advertisement] conveys the message that, like Christians, we the Muslims also regard Jesus with extreme reverence. The idea being that the people will see beyond the words in the advertisements and recognise that Islam and Muslims are not much different from any other ordinary Australian.”

Which you’d think was quite fair enough. I wonder if he would be equally magnaminous if the Christians put up billboards all over town saying, “Mohammad is not a prophet of god and the only way to heaven is through Jesus.” The Muslims would be fine with that, right?

These kind of things give me so much fuel for characterisation and plot in fiction. People really are fascinating creatures. Or, to put it another way, as my old Grandad used to say, “There’s nought so strange as folk.”