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.



3 thoughts on “FREDRIC BROWN’S THE HOUSE: there is no key

  1. I think the story is a depiction of someone’s nightmare. The person having the nightmare is dreaming about his own death.

    I think the person having this dream is himself near death; he is perhaps very old, or perhaps very ill, we don’t really know. In any event, at the beginning of the dream, the person having the dream has come to accept his own death. He has made peace with himself, and is ready to accept the inevitable end of his life. So he goes into the house to die. He finds his way to the room with his name on it, and enters the room, knowing he will not return.

    Inside the room, he lights the candle and waits calmly for his death. But as the hours go by, and the time of his death draws near, he comes to realize that he is not really prepared to die. Maybe he thought he was; but when the moment is fast approaching, and he is staring death in the face, so to speak, he realizes that he is horrified by it. He tries desperately to escape from the room. But of course there is no escaping death. And that is the end of the nightmare.

    Larry Hohm

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fredric Brown, I think, sometimes revealed the secret
      behind his magic short story only in the last sentence,
      even only in the last word.

      In “The House”, the last sentence is as follows;

      It was not until the ninth hour when but half an
      inch of candle remained and darkness began to
      gather in the farther corners of the room and to
      creep closer, that he screamed, and beat and clawed
      at the door until his hands were a raw and bloody

      Here the last word is “pulp”;i.e., “he” is something
      made of pulp, possibly a book or a magazine.

      With a more easily readable secret,
      the last sentence would be as follows;

      It was not until the ninth hour when but half an
      inch of candle remained and darkness began to
      gather in the farther corners of the room and to
      creep closer, that he screamed and forgot that
      he was a vintage magazine, and beat and clawed
      at the door until his hands were a raw and bloody

      Of course, its interpretation always belongs to
      each reader.

      Alain Field


  2. Pingback: “THE HOUSE”: anamnesis, entropy and bifurcation | AGENT SWARM

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