John W. Campbell Jr. ‘Who Goes There?’ Review
Written by: Matt Molgaard
In general, I’ll be reserving this site for full blown novels, as you may have guessed given the title of the blog (I think it’s pretty self-explanatory). However, from time to time I will be exploring some collections, novellas and even short stories, as is the case with this particular installment. Don’t expect to see too many shorts reviewed, as I’ll only be touching down on those works that I feel are truly spectacular. Such is the case with John W. Campbell Jr.’s sci-fi/horror hybrid, Who Goes There?, which most are probably familiar with, whether they realize it or not. See, this eerie little tale serves as the source material for Christian Nyby’s thrilling motion picture, The Thing from Another World (1951) as well as John Carpenter’s far more faithful rendition, The Thing (1982).
While Nyby’s film strays quite far from John’s original story, Carpenter’s take on this one is extremely accurate, so you’ve got a great idea of what this story is about, assuming you don’t live under a rock and have seen The Thing. A group of researchers, stuck in the hazardous climate of Antarctica discover an alien space craft, and one of its inhabitants, frozen deep beneath the surface. A wealth of curiosity and a little thermite leaves the ship a lost commodity, but the alien being is unearthed, salvaged and ultimately taken to this group’s camp for a thorough examination. Scientific inquisitiveness leads to all out chaos when this creature is thawed, and proves to be a shape-shifting menace willing to travel great lengths to ensure survival.
The intensity of this story really resides in the suspense and paranoia that Campbell Jr. creates. There’s nowhere to run for this group, and the capabilities of the creature are far beyond that of mankind, which leaves a stranded band of men thoroughly outclassed, on both a physical and mental level. The impending doom that McReady, Garry, Blair, Clark, Copper and company, face manifests itself quickly, as complete distrust sweeps through the camp faster than a case of the flu. The men learn rather early that the creature is able to mimic the physical and emotional traits of just about any living entity, and that drives everyone in camp to call into question the true identity of the man beside him. Claustrophobic settings only intensify the edge of the story, as it becomes obvious that at the very least, one man has already been absorbed and mimicked by the alien, and he’s got virtually nowhere to go. But, who is The Thing, when will it strike, and has it somehow managed to spread further throughout camp than perceived? Not a soul knows, and that drives the reader about as loony as those who breathe within the pages. And believe me, a handful of these guys really plunge off the deep end.
The pace with which the story unravels is as fluid as one could request, and the mystery reaches a climax at the perfect point. McReady, though second in command, reads as the true hero of the story, while Blair plays the perfect counter: an over the top fanatic completely convinced that everyone in camp must be slaughtered in order to ensure the beast has no means of reaching civilization. In a sense, it forces readers to make a far more in depth examination of the characters within this tale: McReady seems to be the level headed one here, but Blair’s logic holds weight and his intent, though expressed in maniacal fashion, is actually pure and rather selfless. So who is the hero, and who isn’t? Who is the The Thing, and who isn’t? Can anyone escape this terrifying ordeal, or is this base camp destined to freeze to death? John W. Campbell Jr. delivers the answers, and a shitload of taut drama and visceral terror to boot.
If you’re a fan of either cinematic transfer (or even Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s “prequel”), and you’ve yet to read this story, I highly recommend it. There’s a suffocating quality (now that sounds like an oxymoron to me) to this tale that commands full attention, and leaves the reader (at least this one) on the cusp of constant panic, considering a seemingly unending level of anxiety. After getting to know the characters portrayed on film, it’s really rather rewarding to meet their original predecessors, as they more than live up to what fans of each feature have grown familiar with.
Hey, Matt. I found my way over here through the kind comment you left me over at Build Environment. Books unfortunately aren’t my forte since I find myself with little time to read, however I’ve been eyeing this novella for some time now due to my interest in the two The Thing movies and to a lesser degree the original adaptation, so it’s good to see this is such a good read.
It’s an awesome read Phil! And, what’s really nice about it, is you’ll wipe the story out in an hour or so. Very brief, but very, very engaging. Search google and you’ll actually find some websites that have it up as a freebie read.
I find it hard to believe this inspired 2 classic films. I found it be boring as all hell.