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Knock (#1025)

Topics/tags: On writing

My first piece for The Craft of Creative Nonfiction was supposed to be a description of place. As you know by now, I made my office the subject of the piece. Or at least the location of the piece. Something like that. The first name I chose for the manuscript was incredibly obtuse: The only mainstream novel by Fredric Brown. I also toyed with The only non-genre novel by Fredric Brown. Those titles likely make no sense to you. I expect it makes sense to fewer than a few hundred people. The odds of my readers being one of them are slim. However, my readers to have eclectic tastes.

For the rest of you, here’s the backstory. Fredric Brown was a genre author in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. He wrote science fiction and mystery, both short stories and novels. He’s known for a variety of things. He wrote some fairly funny pieces, at least in SF. His first mystery novel won an Edgar Award [1]. Brown was known for his skill at short-shorts, stories as concise as you can make them. You can read more on his page on Wikipedia.

Brown also wrote one mainstream novel, The Office. I know this primarily because I collect Brown and it was a hard book to find, at least for a time [3]. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read it [4]. But the connection sticks in my head. And so I chose the strange title.

While the draft had the obscure title, I tried to find a way to work in what I think of as one of Brown’s most successful short-shorts, Knock. Here’s the story, as I recalled it.

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …

I’m pretty sure that it appeared that way in print. However, Wikipedia tells me that Brown placed that short-short at the beginning and end of a longer story. I’m going to ignore that broader aspect, particularly since the broader story sounds a bit cheesy.

Before I go on, let me repeat the story.

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …

How do you interpret that? Would you interpret it differently if I hadn’t told you that it was science fiction? Or is the SF implicit? Read it one more time.

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …

What does your imagination conjure?

When I first read it, I thought of aliens. What else would it be? But my brain suggests a morass of other possible SF tropes. It could be a robot. It could be a giant mutant cockroach. It could be a remote knock from one of the hordes of humans now in space.

Then there’s the question of the last man’s status in the room. Has he placed himself in the room, or has someone else placed him there? Is he free to move about the room, or is he tied to the chair, straps digging into his arms and legs? Is he free to leave? Can he open the door, or is the knock a subtle form of torture? I like that in this form, Brown doesn’t tell you. Rather, he leaves you to imagine. Or at least he leaves me to imagine.

Forty or so years since I first read the story, I find that I think of it differently. It’s still SF, but with a different twist. Man no longer stands for human. So in some ways, this could be a subtle poke at how we read. The protagonist may be the last man, but there could be millions of women left. Or children. How would we read the story if it were published in a feminist ’zine?

At least that’s what I thought about when I was writing my piece for class and reflecting on what I might put in this musing. However, Wikipedia tells me that, in his not-as-short story, Brown explored similar concepts. He opens the story with the short-short. And it is an alien knocking on the door. He also ends the story with the short-short. This time, it’s a woman knocking.

While that may sound good, it’s a bit clumsier than I would like. As you might expect, the woman knocking is the last woman on earth. And the man got the aliens to leave by relying on a poisonous snake. That’s way too biblical. Fifteen-year-old Sam probably found it funny. Fifty-five-year-old Sam not only finds it a bit ham-handed but also worries about the way it presents the woman in the story.

So let’s just return to the short-short and let our imaginations tell our own stories.

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …

Postscript: I never worked in the short-short. I suppose I could have incorporated it as a poster or broadside or something. Or I could have modified it a bit.

The last professor on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …

Nope. That’s not nearly as good. But I suppose I could have used There was a knock on the door … as the title.

[1] The Oscar of mystery novels, or something like that [2].

[2] Edgar is for Edgar Alan Poe.

[3] Amazon sells a 60th-anniversary paperback edition. Surprisingly, I have not bought it yet.

[4] Ah, the wonders of being a collector.

Version 1.0 of 2020-02-22.