“The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber.”
-John W. Campbell (as Don A. Stuart) in “Who Goes There?”
Imagery like this is just one reason why the story that ultimately became The Thing remains such a key text of science fiction and horror. We are immediately plunged into a fantastical story that we can believe in. We can see it, feel the bite of the cold, sense the rugged masculinity combined with sharp paranoia, and perhaps above all, practically smell its far-flung, frozen setting. As we near the fortieth anniversary of John Carpenter’s masterful telling of this tale, its worth reflecting on the transformations it went through before reaching its most indelible form in that 1982 classic.
“Who Goes There?” is the greatest and most influential story by one of the most important figures of the Golden Age of science fiction of the 1940’s and 50’s, John W. Campbell. He began as a writer for pulp magazines in the 30’s, working in several different genres, but specializing in what were called “fantastic” or “weird” tales at the time. His greatest contribution to science fiction, however, was not as a writer, but as the legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed Analog), the premiere science fiction magazine for decades. In the process, he mentored the careers of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, and other legends of the genre. But before all that, Campbell was a struggling young writer trying to find his voice and fighting to make it heard.
For the true genesis of The Thing, it is necessary to go back before “Who Goes There?” to Campbell’s first iteration of the imitating alien. In 1936, the pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories published a semi-comic space adventure story by Campbell, who had titled it “Imitation,” under the more pulp-friendly title “Brain-Stealers of Mars.” In it, two space travelers, Rod Blake and Ted Penton, while exploring Mars encounter creatures, later revealed to be the thushol, that can transform into various plants and animals simply by force of will. In this brief story, there are early hints at the kinds of paranoia “Who Goes There?” and The Thing would explore more deeply.
Early on, one of the creatures imitates Ted and Rod shoots it with an ultra-violet ray gun. Though he hits it, shooting a hole in its head, it sprouts wings and flies away. The real Ted then appears and Rod attempts to shoot him as well. Several more copies appear of both travelers. It also becomes clear that the thushol can not only transform into what they see but read the minds of Rod and Ted and turn into what they picture mentally. This story became the first of several Blake and Penton adventures that Campbell would write for the magazine, but ultimately found slight and unsatisfying. He sought to contribute more serious work to the science fiction genre. Several stories were published in various magazines, including the classic “Twilight” among others, under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart to differentiate this work from his lighter fare.
Sometime in the spring of 1937, while still struggling to make any sort of living as a writer, he pitched an idea to the editor of Argosy magazine, Jack Byrne, to use the thushol from “Brain-Stealers” in a horror story set on earth. Byrne liked the idea and Campbell set out to write the story and had completed the first version, titled Frozen Hell, within a couple of months of this meeting. The story was rejected by Byrne, who according to Campbell said, “it’s a good yarn, good ideas, good writing. But there aren’t any characters in it.” This novel was later revised and streamlined into the final version of “Who Goes There?” It wasn’t until 2011 that there was even wide knowledge that this longer version existed, and at the time it was assumed to be lost. While working on a biography of Campbell in 2017, author Alec Nevala-Lee discovered several manuscripts including two folders bearing the label “Pandora” or “Frozen Hell.” This longer version of the story was published in 2019 and offers a glimpse into the composition and revision process of a gifted writer and editor.
The most noticeable difference between Frozen Hell and “Who Goes There?” is that the first three chapters are essentially removed for the shorter version. These chapters are actually quite good, but they are unnecessary. The information needed from them is summarized in McReady’s (this is how the name is spelled in the novella) recounting of the finding and accidental destruction of the spacecraft and the discovery of the Thing frozen in the Antarctic ice in the first chapter of “Who Goes There?” Beginning in its fourth chapter, Frozen Hell begins to resemble its legendary final version more and more. By the end it features almost no differences from the final version. Ultimately, “Who Goes There?” benefits from a quicker pace and the sense of claustrophobia amplified by confining the entirety of the story to Big Magnet base, but Frozen Hell is still a worthy read for those interested in Campbell’s work.
“Who Goes There?” was finally published in Astounding in August of 1938, during the early days of Campbell’s long tenure as the magazine’s Editor in Chief. It was originally purchased before he was hired for that position by the previous editor Orlin Tremain and published under the Don A. Stuart pseudonym. The story quickly gained attention as a unique and important work of the flowering genre. In 1946, it was included in the definitive anthology of science fiction of the era, Adventures in Time and Space, and voted the greatest science fiction novella of all time by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1971. From there, its reputation has only grown.
Campbell’s story is truly one of the greats, and stands not only as a key contribution to the Golden Age of science fiction, but remains an exciting and tense read. Through a modern lens, however, it suffers to some extent from long passages of exposition, some clunky dialogue, and a lack of urgency that fans of the films, especially Carpenter’s version, would expect from the story. It does however capture the tenor of the era. The 1930’s were a time of isolationism in the United States. Political unrest and the threat of war throughout the world had caused the nation to turn inward. There was a desire to “take care of our own problems,” foremost at the time being the Great Depression, and let the rest of the world sort out theirs. There was also a rising distrust toward immigrants who might bring with them ideas like Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism from Europe into the U.S. and spread these ideas through infiltration into national culture. The creature in “Who Goes There?” not only invaded, but assimilated, underscoring a national paranoia of “the other.”
By the 1950’s, this type of mistrust had transformed into full-blown Cold War paranoia and the time was ripe for a film version of “Who Goes There?” The Thing from Another World (1951) bears only the slightest resemblances to Campbell’s novella. Really the only things drawn from “Who Goes There?” are the frozen setting (in this case the North Pole rather than Antarctica), the destruction of the Thing’s ship with a thermite bomb, and bringing the creature back to the base in a block of ice. The nature of the creature, the cast of characters, their occupations and motivations, even the names are entirely changed. Also, unlike either the novella or Carpenter’s version, there are women in the cast.
The film is essentially a monster movie, with James Arness as the Thing looking very much like a thorny handed Frankenstein monster, complete with square-shaped head and protruding brow. This is all fairly logical for the time, however. Monsters, the vast majority of them humanoid, had ruled horror in the 30’s and 40’s. The Thing from Another World is a continuation of this tradition with a science fiction twist. Rather than being human or animal, it is vegetable in nature and can regenerate and reproduce itself, not by digestion and imitation, but seed pods and simple growth with the aid of blood. This fundamental change to the creature was also quite practical due to the fact that special effects that could convincingly depict the shapeshifting creature would have been prohibitively expensive for a low-budget feature. Perhaps they could have been achieved through stop-motion work, but the filmmakers opted to go in a different direction.
Besides, producer Howard Hawks, director Christian Nyby, and writer Charles Lederer were telling a very different kind of story from either “Who Goes There?” or Carpenter’s film. It is about post-war tensions between civilian and military authorities in dealing with a danger, and the role of the press in reporting it. In this sense, it remains just as politically relevant as any other iteration of the story. One need only look at the three-way tension between government, scientific community, and media over the past few years to realize this. It also shows how effective various groups can be when they cooperate against a common danger. The film also culminates in one of the great closing lines: “keep watching the skies.” A line that echoes through the halls of film history.
Elements from both “Who Goes There?” and The Thing from Another World would find their way into another seminal film of the 1950’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). For a time, that film was the key Cold War paranoia text. John Carpenter’s The Thing would claim its crown for what that kind of paranoia had evolved to by the 1980’s. MacReady’s line “Nobody trusts anybody now. And we are all very tired,” reflects the sentiment of a generation that had grown weary of what seemed like a never-ending fear of global annihilation.
In this version of The Thing, there is an immediate sense of urgency. First to discover “why,” then “what,” and finally “how” to deal with it. The question moves quickly to “who,” while the novella takes its time getting there. This iteration is far more economical in explaining the nature of the Thing than the novella. For example, the conversation in the snow Cat between Fuchs and MacReady, in which an excerpt from Blair’s journal is read, is a distillation of long speeches by Dr. Copper in the book. It does much more showing than telling, which keeps the narrative moving while maintaining the sense of urgency and paranoia, which only really come into play late in the novella.
Though some dialogue and ideas are drawn from various chapters of the novella and the scene in Blair’s cabin at the end of the book is clearly a spark for Rob Bottin’s unsurpassed effects work, the bulk of the structure and story of 1982’s The Thing was created by writer Bill Lancaster and Carpenter. Campbell would often advise the writers under his editorial sway to start the story in the right place, which, he told them, was usually later than they thought. This was clearly advice he garnered in cutting Frozen Hell down to the tighter, more concise story that became legendary. Carpenter wisely took a page from Campbell in the making of The Thing by starting the film as a story in progress and ending it before all its questions are answered. He ends on an ambiguous note, leaving the audience to endlessly ponder and debate what happens after the cut to the closing titles.
As is well known, John Carpenter’s The Thing was not a success when it was released in June of 1982, likely due in large part to the more family-friendly genre fare that was released around the same time including Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and the absolute juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The reputation of The Thing grew slowly over time, largely thanks to its discovery on home video. By the early 2000’s, its reevaluation and recognition as one of the greatest horror films ever made was complete. Though its cynical worldview was out of time in the generally optimistic early 80’s, John Carpenter’s film was right at home in the dark, gritty post-9/11 filmscape.
With new fears and paranoias in the air, the time seemed right to revisit the story and a new vision of The Thing, this time in the form of a prequel, was released in 2011. Where Carpenter’s film was far ahead of its time, the 2011 version of The Thing feels behind the curve, released at the very end of the remake glut of the aughts. Strangely, it also returns to some of the kinds of over-exposition found in the original novella, which may have been necessary in 1938 but was most certainly not in 2011. This is especially true considering the Thing is, at least in principle, the same creature from the 1982 film. The biggest disadvantage the film has, however, is that the specter of the previous version looms large over it in a way that the 1951 version did not for Carpenter’s film. Though The Thing (2011) certainly has its defenders, it is widely considered a disappointment.
After the publication of “Who Goes There?” John W. Campbell’s writing output decreased to almost nothing, though his early stories greatly increased in popularity and esteem. His duties as sole editor of Astounding simply did not allow time for writing. Despite this, according to science fiction author and Campbell protégé Robert Silverberg “he was a fountain of ideas, sharing them freely with authors who visited [him].” His gifts as a finder and cultivator of remarkable talent will always be his greatest legacy, but the work he produced himself stands among the finest of its kind. Of all these innovative and imaginative stories, “Who Goes There?” remains the most potent and, even after all these years, continues to have the ability to spark our imaginations and touch our deepest fears.
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