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Brown, Fredric – “Knock” (1948)

03/27/2012

A sort-of metafictional work that starts

There is a sweet little horror story that is only two sentences long:
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…
Two sentences and an ellipsis of three dots. The horror, of course, isn’t in the two sentences at all; it’s in the ellipsis, the implication: what knocked at the door? Faced with the unknown, the human mind supplies something vaguely horrible.
But it wasn’t horrible, really.

Brown then goes on to flesh this story out in such a way that we can see how not-horrible it is: the last man is Walter Phelan, forty-year-old widower/dweeb/Henry Bemis-type, and he is locked in a room aboard the spaceship of the alien Zan (who “look like nothing on Earth” – Brown regretfully notes of one individual that it “would be interesting to describe him to you, but there aren’t words”), who have depopulated the Earth by means of some sort of killer vibrations, leaving only two of a random variety of species, including humans. Walter’s counterpart is Grace, who is “tall” and “well-proportioned” and bears a striking resemblance to Walter’s dead wife (this is mentioned repeatedly for some reason). Walter thinks the thing to do is to let the human race end with them, while Grace points out that if he was a man he would be thinking of a way to fight back. Walter listens to this reasonable point and the two of them begin to conspire. Stupid machismo aside, this is the closest thing to a realistic scene involving a woman character in the whole book, and Grace actually has some degree of agency and personality of her own.

Now, the thing about the Zan is that they are so alien that they don’t understand the concepts of death or breeding, which causes a variety of mishaps mostly played for laughs (“Two of the o-ther a-ni-mals sleep and do not wake? They are cold.”). Like Kingman in the Leinster story, despite the fact that readers are told that the Zan are supremely alien beings, the protagonist quickly understands and outwits them, in this case by telling them that animals need physical affection to survive. He demonstrates on a duck but tells them to practice on a rattlesnake, and when they begin to sicken and die “mysteriously,” they decide to depart this “pla-net of death,” releasing Walter and Grace to repopulate the world. She is offended at this impropriety and leaves, but moments later ”The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

Now, I don’t know about you, but when the narrator says “See? It wasn’t horrible, really” about a story regarding the wholesale destruction of all life on Earth (except for two middle class white people), I am not entirely sure that I agree, but this is an oddly common silver-lining theme in post-apocalyptic works. Walter, for example, points that no one has to worry about housing shortages or nuclear war anymore, and Grace agrees that this is “another case where the operation was successful, but the patient died. Things were in an awful mess.” This is up there with Alas, Babylon’s “at least I don’t have to pay alimony anymore” scene in terms of head-scratching optimism.

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