By: Dayna Plehn
“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
— Fredric Brown, “Knock”
Sometimes, I hate my own brain. It distracts me and keeps me awake for the silliest of reasons – I can’t sleep for thinking about an action-packed book I just read, or while I’m trying to perform I suddenly am flooded with memories of every cringeworthy thing I’ve said in the past three years. My mind plagues me with nightmares, or when I stop paying attention, it has me overthinking every social interaction I had that day.
Fredric Brown’s short story “Knock” plays upon this effect marvelously. The above quote is just the first two lines of a longer work, which was inspired by this prompt from Thomas Bailey Aldrich:
Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth, excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, Tripoli or Paris. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell. (Aldrich)
Those first two sentences of “Knock,” however, are known across the internet as “the shortest horror story,” because they do indeed stand alone as a horror story by themselves. What makes this little “story” unsettling is not the detail that it provides, but rather the lack thereof. The story achieves horror by inference, simply providing us with a skeleton and leaving all of the actual horror up to our imaginations. In this way, it is tailored to suit each of its readers because whatever scares its audience most is what its audience will speculate first.
The story immediately sets a sinister tone by using aloneness as its setting, but saying nothing about it – when the fact that the man is the last one on earth simply begs for an explanation! Has humanity gone extinct? Or, arguably a bit less terrifying than total human annihilation, have only men disappeared from earth? Perhaps humanity has not died out, but everyone has simply left to go somewhere else – to another planet? Another dimension? And if they have left, or died, why is this one still here? Is he waiting to follow them, or was he forgotten? Perhaps he was deliberately left behind.
Aloneness itself also contributes to our discomfort because humans are social creatures that do not function well in prolonged isolation. The instinctive part of the human brain also knows that safety comes in numbers, and specifically in a horror context, aloneness implies that whatever might be out to hunt humans is hunting for you, because the other targets are fled or dead, and no one will be present to hear your cry for help.
The fact that the man is sitting in a room is also cause for question. He isn’t struggling, shouting, hiding, or even weeping. He is just sitting. He is passive. Is he waiting? What is he waiting for? We don’t know if what caused humanity’s disappearance is still out there, but if it is, he isn’t actively trying to fight it. He is essentially just a sitting duck; he is helpless. Perhaps he has given up – whatever horror he’s endured has broken him, and he believes it cannot be resisted.
Then, of course, there is the knock. If the man is waiting for something, is this it? If we sit and think about it a little harder, we might come to realize something: This is the last man on earth. To knock on doors is a human custom. Whatever is outside the door is intelligent – it is smart enough to understand human practices, or at least imitate them. Furthermore, this non-human intelligence is necessarily assumed to be related to the extinction event – in the worst case, it’s the cause of it. From a literary standpoint, a simple knock is also a remarkably effective way of giving us no information other than that something is there. If it had been a voice, it could have tone, words, accent, and other characteristics that might tell us something about the nature of its owner. As it is, we know nothing, and we never get to know anything. Does the man answer the door? If not, does the visitor enter anyway? In two sentences, the story has created a cliffhanger, and there it stops.
In short, our minds are scarier than anything else, because by their very reactive nature, they immediately jump to the conclusions we most dread. “Knock” elicits this response elegantly, because even to the mind inexperienced in horror, something is wrong. Something has happened to humanity, done to humanity. Something terrible, irresistible, and intelligent. And now it’s here for you.
Brown, Fredric. “Knock.” Thrilling Wonder Stories. Edited by Sam Merwin, Jr. December 1948. Standard Magazines, Inc. pp 180.
Aldrich, Thomas Bailey. “Ponkapog Papers.” 18 March 2006. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/625/625-h/625-h.htm