Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

 

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“Who Goes There?”: The novella that formed the basis of “The Thing” is the John W. Campbell classic about an antarctic research camp that discovers and thaws the ancient, frozen body of a crash-landed alien. The creature revives with terrifying results, shape-shifting to assume the exact form of animal and man, alike. Paranoia ensues as a band of frightened men work to discern friend from foe, and destroy the menace before it challenges all of humanity! The story, hailed as “one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written” by the SF Writers of America, is best known to fans as THE THING, as it was the basis of Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World in 1951, and John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982.

[It also includes an intro and a screenplay of The Thing by the dude who did Logan’s Run – more on that in the actual review. PS if you want some serious amusement, look up the different covers/illustrations for this book]

 


 

I’m not sure why I never had thought about/considered it previously, but I actually had only learned that The Thing movie [we’re gonna go with Carpenter’s/1982 version for this review because I’ve never seen the 1951 movie and the ‘prequel’ was, well… disappointing. I also haven’t played the PS2 sequel game in probably 10 years.] was based on a book [novella] maybe like… two years ago? I guess it’s not super surprising since the novella was published in the late 1930’s, and that’s a long-ass time ago and I can understand why eventually the source material could be somewhat forgotten/not mentioned as often as time continues to pass.

When I learned that it was actually based on a novella, I immediately put it on my wishlist, and last year I got it as a gift. A few months ago it finally made it to the top of my [neverending] reading queue, and I was pretty stoked because it seemed like it was only maybe 120 pages with above average font size, so I’d read it in a few days, tops.

Wrong.

WRONG.

I almost gave up and almost DNF-ed this tiny little novella, I kid you not, at least five times. The only reason why I even finished it is because I forced myself to not be defeated by such a short read.

It’s possible I underestimated how different writing trends were back then, because I’ve read books from around the ’30’s before, and much older than that [by hundreds of years], and didn’t have many issues with reading stories that were ‘old’ or written a long time ago.

But I have to say that this small piece of literature is by far one of the most boring things I have EVER read. Ever.

It. Was. Agonizing.

It was so bad that I literally would make excuses to myself for not reading it because it was so goddamn boring I didn’t want to even remotely put effort forth to reading it.

I never thought that the source material of something that I love so incredibly [the movie] would be so stupidly tedious. Scary frozen wasteland, aliens, crazy body horror, crazy paranoia and anxiety, horror in general – all great stuff. AND all that stuff is in the book! But JFC what a letdown.

Now a bit of a disclaimer here – the novella is well-written. It really is. Which is kind of confusing, but here we are.

I can go ahead and mention without spoiling much [unless you’re completely unfamiliar with anything to do with the novella or movies/game, in which – you may wanna scoot out now] that literally the first half of the novella is the crew arguing about the schematics of why or why not they should thaw out the alien they found in the ice. That’s really it, it’s literally nothing but them arguing about the pros and cons and why or why not they should thaw it out. Just a whole half of a novella of an argument between a bunch of scared people. This could have been really great, especially since so many of them had their world view shattered because they just, you know, found an alien – but it was just… again, really boring.

Then finally we get past that, and obviously chaos ensues after they do, in fact, decide to thaw it out – for a very short period in the story – then the other half of the novella is more arguing about who or who isn’t [of the humans] infected by The Thing, and additional arguing about how to tell/what tests can be done to do so.

I was just in such disbelief that of all things that could have been focal points, that’s what was the center of attention. I’d completely understand if the book was able to thoroughly express just how paranoid everyone is of each other, which it kiiiiiinda hits on, but I dunno. To me, that really fell short for something that so much focus was given to. The  author definitely got the skeleton of that setup, but if there was any attempt to really push the paranoia/dead/anxiety between the humans about who among them is still human, the way he does it really just fell flat to me.

Some other highlights I’d like to point out;

Maybe it’s because the crew is all-male, [I guess?] but the author really, really liked to express just how handsome/attractive most of the crewmembers were. In pretty graphic, descriptive detail. Not sure how many times he needed to tell us that McReady was gloriously handsome, chiseled, bronze-skin-and-bearded mountain of a man – but we get it, man. Dude is a hunk. With how he described the other men in similar fashions, it made the constant use of the word ‘queer’ in the book hilarious, despite that it’s use in the 30’s was obviously much different than it is now, lol.

You’ll see in my quotes at the bottom of this review are a lot of my favorite uses of queer and how with this knowledge of what almost seemed like homosexual tension/undertones it’s pretty hilarious. [Note: This made me look up the author to see if maybe he was closeted in any way, which I wasn’t able to find any evidence of such, but what I did learn is that he was a huge fucking racist. Super yikes.]

I wasn’t sure if the story was purposely written as a novella [to be submitted to sci-fi mags] but one thing that also kinda stood out to me is that there were a lot of weird jumps between events and logic in a way that made it seem like it was done to fit a smaller story telling range or as if it was actually written at one point, but cut to make it fit in the proper novella requirements. The main example I have [again, if you’re not familiar with the story at all – spoilers] is that after the alien/Thing gets loose and they find it trying to merge/clone itself into one of the dogs, despite that there is literally no evidence that it is able to do so with any other creature, in the novella the crew just immediately jumps to the logic that not only can the the alien/Thing infect humans, that it 100% already has. Yet in the story no one has been outed as being infected/taken over by the alien/Thing yet, and it hadn’t cloned/infected any other animals yet, either. It’s this really weird jump in the story that was pretty jarring [especially if you’ve seen the movies/game]. Sure, it’s obviously something that would be theorized/questioned, but the characters were treating it as if it was known/and they were trying to figure out how to figure out which crew-member wasn’t human anymore. It wasn’t until well after this assumption and the attempted paranoia was written that a human infected with the Thing is outed. To me it made more sense as to how it was in the movies/game that it was theorized and feared it could be an option, but no one wanted to believe it. Then, bam – someone on the crew is shown to be infected and then all hell breaks loose. There were a few other ‘jumps’ like that in the book that were pretty noticeable.

Lastly, and probably the most amusingly, is that at the top of the review I mentioned that William F. Nolan, author of Logan’s Run, wrote an intro for the novella to talk about general sci fi, how Campbell was a pioneer, that the Who Goes There? story was apparently groundbreaking when it was first released, the newer age of horror/sci-fi etc etc etc. However, he also goes into that he had written his own ‘screen treatment’ for a take on Who Goes There? in the 70’s and was pretty obviously salty that it was shot down/not used, and especially salty about Carpenter’s take on the movie that he goes into detail about how much he disliked it. You’d think that would be it, right? Nope. Dude was apparently such a sore loser about his ‘screen treatment’ not being used for a movie rendition, he made sure that because he was writing a forward for the new release of the novella, that his screen treatment would be inserted into the release. It’s the last 30 or so pages after the actual novella itself. He really just had to force that in there, apparently.

I really wanted to love the source material for one of my favorite movies. I really did.

 


I give Who Goes There? 1/5 Petri Dishes of Blood

Rating:

 

The first major exposure to the ‘Thing’ story can be credited to Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, who selected Campbell’s story for book publication in their ground-breaking anthology, Adventures in Time and Space, from Random House in 1946. [The first anthology to use the term ‘science fiction’ was The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, edited by Don Wollheim in 1943 – which contained another classic story by ‘Stuart’ {Campbell’s pen-name} titled “Twilight.”]
[I both screamed ‘nooooo!’ and laughed really hard at the Twilight part. Can you imagine if he had written the Twilight series? LOL]

The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins on an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air. Lingering odors of machine oil contrasted sharply with the taint of harness dressing and leather. Yet somehow, through all that reek of human beings and their associates – dogs, machines, and cooking – came another taint. It was a queer, neck-ruffling thing, a faintest suggestion of an odor – alien among the smells of industry and life.

A sky of thin, whining wind rushing steadily from beyond to another beyond under the licking, curling mantle of the aurora. And off North, the horizon flamed with queer angry colors of the midnight twilight.
[^yeahhh, gimme some of that good gay shit]

He jumped up with a sudden angry violence. “You sit as still as a bunch of graven images. You don’t say a word, but oh Lord, what expressive eyes you’ve got. They roll around like a bunch of glass marbles spilling down a table. They wink and blink and stare – and whisper things. Can you guys look somewhere else for a change, please?!”


 

 

 

 

 

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