FREDRIC BROWN’S THE HOUSE: there is no key

THE HOUSE is a short story by Fredric Brown, published in 1960. Only 3 pages long, it is enigmatic yet seemingly fraught with meaning. Jesse Willis of the SFF Audio Podcast is convinced that there must be a key to the interpretation of this story, and thinks that this key is mathematical. He has offered a “bounty” of 10 dollars to anyone who can explain the story to him.I think that there is no key, and if one were to be found it would spoil the story.

Hypothesis: there is no key.

Plot: an un-named man (“he”) hesitates on the porch of a house and takes one last look around at the road, the green trees and yellow fields, the hills in the distance and the bright sunlight. He enters, the door swings shut, and there is no knob, no keyhole, no lock, and no sign of a door. He explores the house, and ends up in a room with his name on the door, enters, closes the door, and knows it will never open again. The room is a copy of the bedroom in which he was born. He lights a candle, sits and thinks about his dead wife and many other things, the last candle is nearly used up, the darkness is gathering, he screams and beats his hands to a bloody pulp on the door.

The overall movement is from open space and light to enclosure and darkness. There is an archetypal feel to the story. It seems to narrate an initiation or a symbolic adventure, but the meaning remains elusive. The whole thing seems to take place in a “Bardo” state, between life and death. I can only let it resonate and enumerate my associations:

1) Gnosticism – incarnation as imprisonment in the world of matter where the evil, or at least lower, God reigns. The House is the womb. Darkness reigns once the Divine Light is gone.

2) CUBE – There is no exit, no plan, danger and tension constitute an allegorical seeming ordeal, which is perhaps meaningless. The House is the World, a malevolent will presides, there is a conspiracy, or simply blind bureaucratic logic producing something that no one person or group planned

3) STALKER – The House like the Zone does not obey the ordinary laws of Nature, it is a place where self-revelation is possible. The House is the Other, alterity. Full of fragmentary memories, disconnected qualitative spaces, enigmatic objects.

4) 2001 (end) – simultaneity of stages of life (cradle, maturity, old age, corpse). The House is memory, the dispersal of identity into disjointed spatio-temporal blocks. Rebirth into the Cosmos is possible.

5) Deleuze and Guattari: the house is “ambiguous” – conjoining the forces of the Cosmos and the becomings of humans in a finite territory and enclosure, both cutting us off from and connecting us to the cosmos, partially filtering or containing cosmic forces. The House is the territory where stereotypical repetition dominates, or where interior becomings and exterior forces can create new emotion.

6) Derrida: there is no outside the text. The House is the text. Once we are inside the House it closes in on itself, and interprets itself, there is no outside key. We know this from the second paragraph: “There was no knob and no keyhole, and the edges of the door, if there were edges, were so cunningly fitted into the carven paneling that he could not discern its outline”.

7) Jung: the text is not a puzzle to be solved, by finding a unique signification, but a symbol having multiple resonances and meanings. The House is the psyche. Memories, dreams and reflections, evoking archetypes, are juxtaposed within a psychic space. According to Jung, a house in a dream often represents the dreamer’s psyche: “the ego is not master in its own house”.

The central character, “He”, is cut off from the diurnal cosmos of light and life when he enters the House, and then is confronted with a more nocturnal régime of souvenirs, enigmatic objects and cryptic events. Yet outside the day is ending, the growing twilight creeps inside, and the darkness gathers and creeps closer. The overall affective movement is from nostalgia and detachment to panic or rage, or to the possible birth of some unique emotion.

NB: I have posted an expanded and updated reading of the story on my philosophical blog AGENT SWARM by incorporating some references to Bernard Stiegler’s recent work, which seems to confirm my analysis.