THE HOUSE is a short story by Fredric Brown, published in 1960. Only 3 pages long (pdf here), it is enigmatic yet seemingly fraught with meaning. It seems to display the pieces of a puzzle, but with no clue as to the key. As such it inspires musing and interpretation.
Hypothesis: there is no key (or more reflexively: the key is that there is no key).
Plot summary: 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 panics, 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 ».
8) Entropy: if the story is to be read as science fiction, one may ask « what science is being mobilised or alluded to here? » Rather than mathematics, as Jesse Willis seems to think, a more salient science would be thermodynamics. The house is a « closed » thermodynamical system, as the hermetically sealed door suggests. However, no system is totally closed, and not only does the darkness seep in but the two trails left by the serpents/caterpillars converge and disappear, as if they have escaped. The house is in a rundown, dilapidated state, light is fading, and a voice repeats the word « Ragnarok », the Norse end of the world. Entropy seems to be triumphant, leading both to the death of the main character and to the heat death of the universe.
In fact, Ragnarok is followed by the emergence of a new world, just as the serpent and the caterpillar are symbols of death and rebirth, of renewal and metamorphosis.
9) Stiegler: we traverse memories and souvenirs, something is coming to an end, and something else is going to happen, the last room contains the « waiting cradle » and the gathering darkness, will it be birth or death? We have entered a space of anamnesis and of bifurcation. The House is a noetic dream, provoking interpretation and dialogue, calling for an open hermeneutics rather than a closed de-ciphering.
For Stiegler, noesis is at once individual and collective. In the story the memories being passed in review are both personal and collective in nature. Noesis is embodied in the negentropic principle of open processes, « differance« , and multiple hermeneutics rather than in the entropic principle regulating closed systems and cyclical repetition.
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.
Of course, the end could really be death within linear deterministic time, or it could be repetition within cyclical time. The hero could leave the house again in the morning, accompanying the rising sun, only to return in the afternoon, before twilight begins to fall, until the whole cosmos runs down.
So the overarching question embodied in the story could be formulated: does anamnesis lead to repetition and decline, or can it lead to new bifurcations? Are memories, dreams, fantasies, and reflections necessarily entropic or can they be source of negentropy?
Note: I am indebted to Jesse Willis of the SFFaudio Podcast for drawing my attention to this story and to the enigma it embodies. He was convinced that there must be a key to the interpretation of this story, and that this key was mathematical. He previously offered a »bounty » of 10 dollars to anyone who could explain the story to him. I argued that there is no key, and if one were to be found it would spoil the story. He was not convinced.
Returning to the story in a more recent podcast (here) Willis now seems at least willing to entertain the hypothesis that I originally proposed, that there is no key, or in Eric Rabkin’s words that THE HOUSE is perhaps better seen as a « problem-story » than as a puzzle with a key.