“Beyond the Door” by Philip K. Dick

That night at the dinner table he brought it out and set it down beside her plate. Doris stared at it, her hand to her mouth. “My God, what is it?” She looked up at him, bright-eyed.

“Beyond the Door” is a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick that appeared in the January issue of science fiction magazine, Fantastic Universe. This story is not what you think when you think sci-fi or other of Dick’s works like ValisMinority Report, or Flow My Tears the Policeman Said. Like Wikipedia describes, it is a story that falls in the low fantasy category. I didn’t know what this was, so when I finished reading the story I looked it up on their site: “[N]onrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.”

Dick’s story concerns itself with Doris, a housewife, and her husband, Larry. He gives his wife the lovely gift of a Bavarian cuckoo clock, but ruins the moment by babbling on about how he got it wholesale. Doris is annoyed with her husband and as the days go on, Doris who dotes on the cuckoo bird, sees the tiny timekeeper pop out every fifteen minutes, where the grumpy Larry who constantly winds the clock, never sees the bird lurch forward. He ponders about the cuckoo “inside the clock, beyond the door, silent and remote.”

What’s so fascinating about this short story is that Dick is able to cover so much humanely tension with layers of the fantastic in only a few pages. Clearly, every sentence is important, every small movement is chosen for a reason. Returning back to the definition of low fantasy, I think about of some of the best stories of the fantastic are those that start in a normal place or space, but the rules are quickly built notifying the reader that something is amiss. I would definitely paint this story in terms of the fantastic and horror.

Dick has taken the familiar tale of domestic melodrama and added the strange concept that the cuckoo bird inside a clock lives with his own awareness. In the world of “Beyond the Door,” it is part of the story’s landscape that it is totally acceptable to have such a cuckoo clock. The behavior of the mechanical bird also reflects the jealous eye that Larry has for Doris’ friend Bob, an antiques lover who Doris invites over to the house to see the clock.

I am always impressed by writers who can bundle up so much in such a small space. The trend in literature now in the US is to produce massive tomes (I recently read about a novel sold at auction for $1m and comes in at over 900 pages). There is something to be said about being wrapped up in a lengthy, complex tale, but I generally feel more blown away by less is more.

“Beyond the Door” could also be marked as a horror story. Read plainly, the bird terrorizes Larry. At one point, after holding the clock, he investigates a nick on his hand and being left alone in the house with the cuckoo doesn’t end well for him either. There is clearly something deeper going on in the story between Doris and Larry and Bob…and the cuckoo. I have no doubt that writers like Stephen King have read “Beyond the Door,” because it does so well to take a plain object and transform it into something that is waiting to unnerve us.

Available for free in the public domain…
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20 comments

    1. I like Telly Salvalas’ immediate reaction–“will you shut that thing off?!” but the best is that vice.
      This PKD story would have been a great Twilight Zone ep (unsure if it was ever adapted).

  1. Ooo, not read this one. Right up my alley! Thanks for the pointer.
    I’d never heard of “low fantasy” before, but from your description it sounds rather like magical realism. I’m most familiar with the Latin American version, Julio Cortazar in particular.

    Speaking of the Twilight Zone, I went on a mini-binge the other day.
    Check out “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” :
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pH0mwZ7yuU (whole episode, I think)
    I think you’ll like it. Murray Matheson is kind of awesome as the clown.

    1. Thanks. I have the video queued up and ready to go for when I have a free break today. I love the slightly tilted and fantastic. If you read the story, please let me know what you think (it will take about 10 minutes of your time to read).

      The feeling I get about “low fantasy” is that it’s a few rungs below magical realism. Maybe not as extreme–for a lack of a better word–as MR. I understand it as a world only slightly skewed. It is pretty recognizable to us with one or two things different. I’m blanking on an example of course.

      1. Read it last night. I wish he’d done a bit more with the cuckoo point-of-view; he just touched on it, so subtly that I had to read a few passages twice before it sunk in (and didn’t seem like the cuckoo knew Doris?). But I do like how he managed to sketch in just enough of the relationship between Doris, Larry, and Bill to make the story go, without having to backfill their entire history. Not all authors show such constraint.

        It was also interesting to read something from Dick that had nothing to do with his usual obsessions, like alternate reality/timelines and religion. This one was very Twilight Zone, for sure.

        Hope you enjoy the TZ. Also, re. magical realism/low fantasy (not sure which it would be), John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” is another good short story, though it’s probably not public domain. It’s in McSweeney’s #45.

      2. Yes, it was much different than PKD’s other works. Before I read the story, I went in with the notion that it was more about the cuckoo, but it still was an interesting take on a common domestic melodrama. I have read The Enormous Radio, which probably qualifies for “low fantasy” (I guess; still unsure about the term). To me, it all falls into the category of the fantastic. I really suggest Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls. I’ve read it twice and still find something new between the sentences.

        That TZ ep was great. I hadn’t seen it before but I knew it was famous. If it was me and I saw a clown after waking up in blank-walled nether prison, I would certainly assume I was in Hell! I have a feeling that that terrible film Cube ripped from this episode. I also am a huge fan of the series The Prisoner, which sums up my love for where am I and how do I get out of here. Stuff like The Trial and the Castle…

    2. I always liked that episode, even if it is pretty low-budget. William Windom is great. Maybe I also like it because I get to hear Rod Serling enunciate the world “bagpiper” in it… 🙂

      1. Haha! I like William Windom a lot, too. I liked the starkness of that episode. And I went to Carnegie Mellon for graduate school, so I have a soft spot for bagpiping, too 🙂

      2. I also just remembered the haunting voice of the ballerina near the end, when WW reaches the top, and those below are asking what he can see, and she says “Where are weeeeee?”… 🙂

    1. WordPress can’t keep up with us! I hope you get a chance to read it. It was out of print (hopefully it’s not anymore), but I got a used copy online pretty easily (and cheaply) a few years ago in perfect condition.

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