Of the 4128 story-identification questions on the site, 757 remain unanswered. The most famous of those was:
Story where the number 3 is the monster?, Also known as “that story no one can answer” or “the one that might have been a dream” was asked just 3 months after the Science Fiction & Fantasy site went live. In that time it has amassed over 140 upvotes. It only took 1645 days to finally get the answer.
Over the years it has enjoyed moderate recognition as many have tried to find its dark secrets.
Keen Jan 31 ’12: Hahaha, the unanswered question about the number 3 being a monster has 33 upvotes.
Jack B Nimble May 10 ’12
I spent so many hours looking for that number 3 story. With nothing to show for it.
I believe the question itself is the real monster.
I went to the 3rd street library at 3 o’clock and looked at the third page of every third book and read three lines hoping to find the elusive [beast] before my last three brain cells gave way.
John O Feb 20 ’13: I’m about to stop answering story-idents. I get tired of identifying and getting low scores and no acceptance.
Jack B Nimble: @JohnO Just answer the only one that matters.
Jack B Nimble: If we ever get that answer the site will be complete.
alexwlchan Jul 17 ’15: Woo, canon answer to nearly three-year old HP question. \o/
phantom42: @alexwlchan awesome! next up: that damned monster that’s the number 3.
ryan Aug 26 ‘ 15: speaking of which, it took me 5 years to get to there on stackoverflow, anyone wanna spoon feed me some mega rep here so I can do it faster?
Richard: @ryan – Easy peasy. Answer this one and you’re pretty much guaranteed instant celebrity
ryan: @Richard that was mean 🙁 the answer to this scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/2937/… doesn’t exist
Here are a few tales of woe about the 4 year effort to answer this question.
user14111 (known for his scifi magazine collection and knowledge):
The description had me completely fooled. I thought it was kiddie-lit; it never occurred to me that it was a story published in a regular science fiction magazine. That saved me from ransacking my collection for it, which would not have done any good. I reposted the question in the Children’s section of the BookSleuth Forum at Abebooks.com, but got no response.
Richard (known for answering everything):
I tried when I first joined the site, but to no avail.
In order to atone for my dismal failure I’ve contented myself with helping Kyle Hale by editing in some quotes from the story itself (and a nice picture) and offering a chunky bounty.
I had been working on the question on and off for the past eight months.
I went to great lengths to answer this, even checking leads that had been largely dismissed. Apart from the obvious search attempts, here are some specific things I tried.
Consulting with R.L. Stine
The OP mentioned,
I don’t think it was R.L. Stine, but I cannot remember the author.
I wanted to be absolutely sure, given the R.L.-Stine-esque nature of the description, and so in July of this year I contacted him directly:
RemnantOfPraxis: @RL_Stine Quick question, if you have a moment. There is a now-famous question on a few forums regarding a horror story...
RemnantOfPraxis: @RL_Stine According to the asker, the narrator is a boy who was scared only twice a day for exactly one minute, when the clock read 3:33.
RemnantOfPraxis: @RL_Stine At those times, the 3's would be powerful enough to leave the clock and run around terrifying the boy!
RemnantOfPraxis: @RL_Stine The asker suggested it might have been one of your stories. Ring any bells? Thanks for your time and have a nice day. :-)
RL_Stine: @RemnantOfPraxis Not my story. Let me know if you find out whose.
I was impressed that Stine responded within an hour. At least that definitively ruled out a large chunk of horror literature. (Of course, I have updated Stine regarding the solution to the mystery.)
Visit to a horror specialist
In August of this year, I had a two-hour meeting with a librarian in the city I currently live in, who curates the library system’s horror collection. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of 20th Century horror short stories, but couldn’t think of a “3:33” short story that matched this one in both content and time period. The ones he brought up that were closest in content and time where ones that I had already ruled out.
Interestingly, he did ask me if it could have been a number other than 3, as there are plenty of horror stories involving clocks and various times. However, I mistakenly vetoed this, asserting that the OP must have gotten that main detail right!
To repent for my mistake, I, along with @MikeEdenfield, reached out to @Zompz (the OP, who hadn’t been active on the site in about a year) to let her know that the mystery had been solved by our new expert sleuth, @KyleHale.
Kyle Hale’s answer offers the full story of how he triumphed where so many before him failed.
I did an embarrassing amount of research to confirm this.