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 Valis, Minority 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.