John W. Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There?

I’ll be getting back to some physics posts this week — I promise!  In the meantime, I thought I’d step away from reading old, old classic horror of the 19th century for a bit and look to a different era: that of classic science-fiction/horror.  In the 1950s/1960s, a lot of horror movies with a science-fiction slant to them appeared in theaters.  Many people are aware of these classics — The Thing From Another World, The Day of The Triffids, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for instance — but not as many people may be aware that each of these is based on an original written story.

I recently finished reading the 70-page novella by John W. Campbell Jr., Who Goes There? (1938), and I thought I’d share my impressions about it, as well as its relationship to the two movies based upon it, below.

John W. Campbell himself (1910-1971) played a huge role in early science fiction of the 20th century, as an author and as the editor of the influential magazine, Astounding Science Fiction.  He published a handful of novels and a number of short story collections.  Who Goes There? first appeared in Astounding in 1938 and was later incorporated into the short story collection Who Goes There?

I read the story from a reprint of this collection by Buccaneer Books.  The reprint, unfortunately, is apparently no longer in print.

If you’re not familiar with the story, you really should be!  A collection of researchers at an Antarctic camp discover a magnetic anomaly while researching the magnetic fields near the Southern Pole.  Trucking out to the anomaly, they find an alien craft, buried in the ice — and the frozen body of the craft’s alien occupant nearby.  Both have been there since the initial freezing of Antarctica, 20 million years earlier.

Through a bad miscalculation, the explorers destroy the alien craft, leaving them only with the alien carcass, which they take back to their station to investigate.  After some discussion, it is decided to thaw the creature in order to take cell samples.  When thawed, though, the creature escapes, and roams the corridors of the research station before being taken down by the pack of sled dogs.

Here is where the terror really begins, though: an analysis of the dead creature reveals that it died in the process of shapeshifting: and that it can in principle ingest and nearly perfectly reproduce whatever creature it has eaten.  Now the crew of the Antarctic station are faced with a real problem:  Did the creature reproduce before it was killed?  Who in the station may be another alien?  It is not an academic point:  if such a creature were allowed to escape to the populated world, it could destroy and replace all creatures on Earth.  What follows is increasing terror and paranoia, in which every member of the crew wonders which one of them — and how many of them — are alien creatures in disguise.

Campbell, in his introduction to the collection, says the following of the tale:

To me, there are three broad types [of science-fiction]– the gadget story, the concept story, and the character story.  In those broad groups, there will of course be more or less cross-over between types, but those classifications serve to help an author get started building.

Who Goes There? is a quite different mood-concept story.  In a sense, the Alien of Who Goes There? could be considered a gadget– a non-mechanical gadget.  But the emphasis of the story is on putting over to the reader a feeling of the inescapable tension and fear brooding in the Antarctic camp.  If Twilight‘s mood is in the direction of “Stardust,” Who Goes There? heads off toward “Night On Bald Mountain.”

The story is incredibly successful at setting that mood, and should probably be classified as one of the great horror stories, as well as one of the science-fiction greats.  Unlike some early science-fiction stories, Who Goes There? endeavors to at least make its characters act in a reasonably scientific way (contrast it with the absurdity of the Outer Limits original series episode Specimen Unknown, where scientists find a strange alien barnacle on their spacecraft, and bring it inside and put it unprotected on a shelf).  There is a wonderful debate about the safety in thawing the alien carcass early in the story, and both the pro- and con- sides present plausible-sounding arguments.   (Con: We might release some deadly disease.  Pro: the alien’s chemistry is so different from ours that it couldn’t possibly react to our biochemistry.)

Who Goes There? has been officially adapted twice to film, in The Thing From Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).  Both are undeniably classics, though they take the story in quite different directions.

The Thing From Another World (which can be watched in its entirety online, starting here) is the least faithful to the original story.  This is not necessarily surprising, though; the shapeshifting monster described in the novella would have been hard to produce convincingly in 1951.  The monster is instead a plant-based organism which feeds and reproduces by feeding on blood, and it is impervious to most weapons.  Without the shapeshifting replicating monster, much of the paranoia of the story is gone: there is never any question that one of the crew might be an alien.  The story is also, inexplicably, transferred to the Arctic, and the alien craft is said to have recently crashed, instead of 20 million years previous.  For me, this takes away a lot of the ‘alienness’ of the monster.

The most irritating thing, to someone with a scientific background, is the depiction of the scientist as a fanatic, who can say such ridiculous things as, regarding the creature, “No pleasure, no pain… no emotion, no heart. Our superior in every way,” and, regarding killing the creature, “We owe it to the brain of our species to stand here and die… without destroying a source of wisdom.”  (For the record, I might be willing to sacrifice my own life to broaden human understanding, but I wouldn’t be so obnoxious to demand that everyone else come along for the ride.)

Nevertheless, the film is remarkably well-made and atmospheric, and well-worth watching.

One thing struck me in rewatching it: at the end of the film, the heroes are setting a trap for the monster and using geiger counters at ‘listening posts’ to track the creature’s progress.  It seemed highly reminiscient of a similar scene with ‘motion trackers’ in Aliens; a possible inspiration?

The Thing, by director John Carpenter and writer Bill Lancaster, is surprisingly true to the original story.  The movie opens with a disruption at the American Antarctic research station.  Gunfire and explosions bring the crew out to an odd sight: a helicopter from a distant Norwegian camp chasing and shooting at one of its Siberian husky dogs.  When an accident brings down the helicopter and a misunderstanding leads to the death of its surviving passenger, the American camp adopts the stray dog.  A trip to the Norwegian camp reveals that it has been destroyed, and that the missing members of the camp had uncovered something awful in the snow.

Soon it is revealed that the adopted ‘dog’ is a Trojan horse carrying an alien, able to shapeshift and assimilate other lifeforms at will.  The members of the camp suspect each other of being turned, and bodies start to accumulate and the paranoia rapidly increases.  The movie is, as I have said, remarkably true to the original novella, including attempts to uncover those who have ‘turned’.  The exception is the ending, which is very much in line with Carpenter’s style and probably one of the best horror movie endings of all time.  The film is chock full of awesomely gruesome moments; a commenter on Pharyngula recently reminded me of one of my all time favorite horror movie responses from the film.

The Thing has continued to inspire; there was a reasonably good action/horror video game in 2002, treated as a sequel to the film, and plans are apparently underway to remake the film (why?).

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6 Responses to John W. Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There?

  1. R.Madel says:

    Es wird definitiv ein Remake geben ende diesen, Anfang nächsten Jahres.
    Quelle: The Hollywood

  2. Forrest Morgan says:

    Both movies are outstanding. John Carpenters, is really great. You have to watch it more than once, to see who’s who. What order they get turned into a thing. I always like a happy ending, and I hope the remake, if done, has the thing finished off, with a few survivors. super Movie!

    • abbey says:

      So YOU’RE one of those people affecting how Hollywood makes films now! I can’t make you like more realistic films, but how did so many people become dependent on movies ending with formulaic, feel-good, medicinal experiences instead of actual original stories? By preferring those with “happy” endings, you’re encouraging Hollywood to make more of them, and encouraging more people to expect them. This makes a growing trend in the population to think everything is going to be okay, no matter what. It even affects how people drive; drifting into your lane with a large device that can cause a life-changing accident, only to smile and wave when you honk to wake them up. “No worries”, right? Great, can’t wait for the whole population to being absorbed by this absurd, selfish attitude. Please wake up and respect that some stories have to be told the way SOMEONE ELSE wanted to tell them, the way they sometimes go, just like life, and may include some bad times ahead. You’ll appreciate it whether you remember the source or not.

      • Jose says:

        I assume he was being sarcastic seeing as neither the original “The Thing” movie or the 2011 prequel had a happy ending.

  3. Kirk G says:

    I can help answer your last quesiton, WHY remake the Thing movie…because they can…they can make money on it…and the ending was left up in the air. However, I have learned that the new 2011 movie is a PREQUEL, set in Norwegian camp, and painstakingly recreating the exact floorplan and set from the 1982 John Carpenter movie… down to the location of the ax in the wall/door, the suicide, and I suppose the hunt for the escaped dog. I look for good things from this movie, though recently “WhiteOut” also was set in Antartica with a female lead and bad doctor as well. So, why did they feel they needed to redo “The Thing”? I dunno…

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