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Who Goes There? – John W. Campbell, Jr.

Drew Struzan's iconic poster image for John Carpenter's The Thing.
Drew Struzan’s iconic poster image for John Carpenter’s The Thing.

The basis for both the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World and John Carpenter’s much more faithful adaptation, 1982’s The Thing, (the less said about the 2011 remake/prequel the better) the novella Who Goes There? is still a relevant chiller that proves surprisingly effective. The novella was published in 1938 and tells the story of American men stationed at Big Magnet research station in Antarctica. While investigating a magnetic anomaly the team discovers an alien ship and a frozen body. They bring the body back to their camp and after some discussion decide to thaw it out to conduct testing on the corpse. Of course, the alien is not dead and it quickly escapes and begins assimilating the men creating a perfect copy that can fool the others. Meteorologist McReady, Dr. Blair, Dr. Copper, Commander Garry, and the rest of the men fight for survival and to stop The Thing from escaping the station at all costs and dooming the world.

What is most revealing about the story is how closely Carpenter hewed to the source material. The character names are nearly all the same, most of the roles they serve are the same, and the gruesome way the Thing assimilates is much closer to Carpenter’s gory version than the 1951 adaptation. It even follows similar story beats, including the ending when it is revealed one of the men has really been a Thing for quite some time and a test McReady devises to test blood samples with a hot needle to incite a reaction.

Because it was written in 1938 some of the science in Who Goes There? is anachronistic and the writing is muted. While some of the men are described as breaking down in to hysterics the story is presented with little emotion so the story is conveyed more like an incident report than a novel. Some of the descriptions are also amusing, such as the repeated description of McReady as a “bronze god”. Other passages are not so quaint and still retain sinister power even after all these years. The description of the creature’s default or “real” form and it’s “red eyes blazing with hate” is simple but evocative. Campbell skips on a lot of detail, boiling some of the fights to the death with the Thing down to a few quick sentences which lessens the threat a bit for the reader. Despite these odd stylistic choices, Who Goes There? is still a well done piece of horror/science fiction that will make you appreciate the John Carpenter masterpiece, The Thing, even more.

If you have somehow never seen 1982’s The Thing (again, not the inferior remake/prequel of the same name) I urge you to do so immediately. Carpenter took a very effective tale of paranoia and fear and raised the suspense and violence resulting in one of the few horror movies to truly stand the test of time, thanks in large part to the stunning practical effects work of Rob Bottin and a stellar cast headlined by Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley. Yes, the oatmeal guy.

In this case, the movie was better than the book but still owes a big debt to the source material.

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