Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood, from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow…
John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?, first published in 1938 in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, formed the foundation for the thrice-made movie The Thing. John Carpenter directed the 1982 film starring Kurt Russell and it holds a significant place in my childhood memories as it was the first horror movie I was able to watch all they way through. The movie is dark and creepy, and incorporated some realistically disgusting special effects for its day and age. That version was preceded by the 1951 The Thing From Another World and followed by 2011’s The Thing.
The original story orbits the staff of an Antarctic research station who’ve recently come across a frozen alien artifact that absorbs and then displays the characteristics of the creatures it subsumes — be it animal or human. The narrative traces the psychologically- and culturally-based reactions to the discovery and realization that anyone might be the foreign creature; and the doubt, paranoia and fear of something so utterly unknown as it stalks the researchers. The station doctor argues against the more xenophobic among the residents, which taps into the core theme: Just because its nature is different, you haven’t any right to say it’s necessarily evil.
Campbell’s exposition is terrific as he crafts the landscape and weather to build a moody and desolate atmosphere as a backdrop for the story. Here are a pair of exemplary quotes that demonstrate Campbell’s skill at exposition and mood-development:
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.
Wolf-wind howling in his sleep — winds droning and the evil, unspeakable face of that monster leering up as he’d first seen it through clear, blue ice, with bronze ice-ax buried in its skull.
The story is considered a seminal creation within the world of science fiction historians. At only about 100 pages, Who Goes There? is a fun, quick and engaging read.
Who Goes There? won the “Retro” Hugo Award for best novella in 1939 and was chosen by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the best science fiction novellas of all time. It was published in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A: The Greatest Science Fiction Novellas of All Time Chosen by the Members of The Science Fiction Writers of America.
I recently listened to the audio version of Who Goes There?. It’s just over 2.5 hours long and produced by Rocket Ride Books. The narrator, Steve Cooper, succeeds in giving it the creepy vibe that Campbell intended. While the dialogue and lack of female scientists and technicians make the story feel dated, I thought the plot was exciting and can see why Who Goes There? won a Retro Hugo.