"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door..."

This two-sentence horror tale is presented as a story within a story, right at the start of Fredric Brown's 'Knock', published in the December 1948 edition of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Brown decribes how the horror in this story is all implied... what could be at the door? "But," he says, "it wasn't horrible, really."

He then tells the story of Walter Phelan, the last man on Earth after an alien race called the Zan invade and kill everyone apart from Walter Phelan and the last woman alive, Grace Evans.

Perhaps as a response to Brown's tale, in July 1957, Ron Smith produced what he called 'A Horror Story Shorter by One Letter Than the Shortest Horror Story Ever Written':

"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a lock on the door..."

Brown's version of the mini-story was supposedly subsequently submitted anonymously to a short story competition on NPR, and won that competition. Plenty of web sources cite this as the original source of the story. None of the sources have any more details about the competition, but Brown's version was published some twenty years before NPR started, so this is clearly false.

Even so, Brown did not come up with this story himself. It has existed in various forms for over a hundred years. Thomas Bailey Aldrich presented his version circa 1870:

"A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world; every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings."

Diverging slightly from the theme, but still essentially the same story, is this, which my source tells me is a 'well known British ghost story':

"He sat alone in the dark, afraid. Someone put matches in his hand."

This is actually the shortest version I've come across. I think I like Ron Smith's version ("there was a lock on the door") the best though. Not only is there something else out there, the last man wants to keep it out there...

smartalix says "...or someone/something else wants to keep him in..."

Befey says "Or, he's locked in the room with no way out... starving to death is pretty horrific."

Neither of those even occurred to me. I bet a psychoanalyst would have fun with this.

Footprints says "a lock of hair from the 2nd to last person on Earth, the one he dismembered and hung his intestines on the wall as a trophy you mean. Muahahahahahahaha!!!!!"

I'm glad that one didn't occur to me.

allseeingeye says "last dude hears knock."

Thanks to Erik Arthur, Ted Ball, Sarah Prince, and Richard Harter for helping me research this.

I too am drawn towards the version of the story that goes:
"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a lock on the door..."
It admits to more meanings, each a different facet of horror: how can a simple lock hope to keep an unknown "other" at bay; the fear that some non-thing has you locked in; the absurdity of being locked in a prison by a society that no longer exists. One meaning that hasn't been mentioned so far is a bit more allegorical: the last remaining soul is alone in the world...and therefore, presumably safe. Yet still he must lock the door, a prisoner of his own imagination, of solitude, of the unknown.

Indeed, a psychoanalyst would have fun with this -- and so would Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown", published in 1835 in the New England Magazine, is the short story of a man who fears he is the only one of the townsfolk to sense a growing evil in the nearby woods. Forsaking his new bride, the aptly-named Faith, he steels himself for the difficult journey, only to find he is in a sense unable to leave the town behind: for the same villagers he's known all his life are already gathered in the woods, somehow transformed into fiends and devil worshipers! Stumbling back to town the next morning, he is shocked to find the community appears unconcerned about and indeed unaffected by the previous night's terror. He lives his long, full life parsing the ordinary acts of kindness and love in the daily lives of the people around him, in search of signs of their hidden, sinister purpose.

Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down in prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly possession, besides neighbors, quite a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tomb-stone; for his dying hour was gloom.
Hawthorne's character can't see the forest through the trees; he can't see that the evil was in him, not in the others.

Perhaps the worst horror of all is the human capacity for self-delusion. How do we know that the protagonist in the Worlds Shortest Horror Story is really alone? For Hawthorne, the lock on the door might represent a person's unwillingness to believe in faith. Whether its faith in God, with whom we would never be alone, or faith in oneself, with which we could find the courage to open the door and see the truth, that the world is full of goodness and we are surrounded by friends, is for the reader to decide.

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