By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Beyond the Door’ is an early story by Philip K. Dick (1928-82), and by no means one of his most famous or most sophisticated tales. But it’s an intriguing little story which is worthy of more analysis than it has generally received. It’s included in the second volume of Dick’s collected stories, Second Variety.
Written in 1952 and published in Fantastic Universe in 1954, ‘Beyond the Door’ can loosely be labelled ‘fantasy’.
Here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot. It concerns a married couple, Larry and Doris. Doris is fond of cuckoo clocks so Larry buys her one that was made in Germany (technically, the home of the cuckoo clock) and brings it home. However, he offends her when he tells her he bought it wholesale.
There’s already trouble in their marriage, we soon learn, and Doris is having an affair with Bob behind her husband’s back. She takes a shine to the cuckoo clock, and is convinced that the little cuckoo which comes out every fifteen minutes to announce the time returns the admiration, and likes her back. By contrast, Larry is convinced that the cuckoo hates him.
She decides to show the cuckoo clock to Bob, but when he comes round to see it, Larry unexpectedly returns home from work and quickly puts two and two together. He throws them out but, having originally told Doris to take the cuckoo clock with her, decides that he will keep it as he paid for it.
In the weeks following his wife’s departure, Larry becomes increasingly annoyed by the cuckoo, which comes out only erratically and appears to do so only reluctantly. Eventually, Larry takes a hammer to the clock and forces the bird to make an appearance. When it does come out, it pokes him violently in the eye and he falls back off his chair, dying from the fall.
The story ends with Doris and Bob hearing about the strange nature of Larry’s death. Bob hints that the death may have been murder, with the cuckoo being the murderer.
The title of this story refers to the cuckoo, which appears to be hiding ‘beyond the door’ to the cuckoo clock.
The power of this little short story lies in the fundamental difference of outlook between the husband and wife, Larry and Doris. When Larry presents his wife with the cuckoo clock, he can’t believe that she isn’t happy simply to have the clock: after all, she’d got what she wanted. The fact that he’d got it wholesale from someone in the ‘clock business’ shouldn’t taint the object.
But for Doris, clearly the clock is about more than just the object itself: it’s what it represents to her. She forms an almost human bond with it, viewing the cuckoo as a ‘he’. Here, we realise that the cuckoo and Bob Chambers, with whom she is conducting an affair, both represent a threat to the stability of the suburban American 1950s family unit: both Bob and the cuckoo have a greater place in Doris’s affections than Larry does. He and his wife seem to be fundamentally mismatched.
And it’s probably worth bearing in mind what cuckoos represent: a cuckoo in the nest is an unwanted presence in the family, a threat to that ‘nest’ or home. Dick cleverly unites this folk association of the bird with the technology of the cuckoo clock, which represents timekeeping and the workaday world of business and making money which Larry worships. But the cuckoo and the clock which houses it are at odds with each other, and the bird refuses to play along with the clock-like regularity that’s expected of him.
Gender is also relevant to the story: Doris was the one who desired a cuckoo clock, one like the one her mother had, she tells Larry. There’s a suggestion that Doris views the cuckoo as a desirable disruptive force which will enable her to break free from the mundane routine she shares with Larry and escape her ‘nest’ to go and live with Bob (something she eventually does).
But what complicates this reading, of course, is the fact that the cuckoo only breaks its routine when it’s left alone with Larry, presumably to annoy him. It’s happy to come out every quarter-of-an-hour to perform for Doris, regular as (literal) clockwork.
There’s arguably a subtle critique of the unfaithful Doris at the root of this story: her husband goes out to work for the both of them, but she grows moody when he confesses the origins of the clock to her (he didn’t have enough money not to buy it wholesale), while she is carrying on with Bob Chambers behind his back while he’s at work.
In teaming up with the cuckoo to get rid of her husband and liberate herself from her uninspiring marriage, she is leaving behind a stable home for a life of uncertainty (Bob doesn’t appear to have a regular job, and what money he has he spends on books and antiques).
So there’s more to ‘Beyond the Door’ than there might first appear to be. In the last analysis, the story probably qualifies as a fantasy (tentatively) because of the nature of the cuckoo’s behaviour. But these details are worn lightly, and the real heart of the story appears to be a critique of bored 1950s housewives who disrupt the status quo at their own peril. At the same time, Larry is not an entirely sympathetic character, and is symbolically killed by this interloper in his marital home.