Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell; Rocket Ride Books; 2009; 168 pgs; $15.95 US

Although his name is not as recognizable as Heinlein, Asimov or Clarke, few were as influential in the development of science fiction as John W. Campbell, who shaped the genre as editor of Astounding magazine from 1937 to 1971.  Although his editorial duties limited his own writing output, the few stories he produced were of high quality, and the best known of these is the sci-fi horror story “Who Goes There?” published in Astounding in 1938 (under his pseudonym Don A. Stuart), which has been filmed twice, first as The Thing from Another World in 1951, and again as simply The Thing in 1982.  The novella has appeared in anthologies here and there, and now Rocket Ride Books has published it in a stand-alone volume, with bonus features.

Anyone who has seen John Carpenter’s version of The Thing knows the basic story:  A group of researchers in Antarctica discover a long-frozen alien which thaws out, and begins to assimilate the humans, creating perfect copies of the men it killed.  Those of the camp who are still human must defeat the alien before it can reach more populated areas and take over the world.  The story is very similar in structure to the 1982 movie, although considerably less grim, since the science fiction of the 30s was generally optimistic, being a few years shy of the disillusionment with science caused by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In addition to this optimism, there are a few other aspects of the story which reveal its pulpish origins.  Characterization leaves a little to be desired (many of the characters are interchangeable) and most of the men are described as having action hero physiques.  Since it had been many years since I read the story, I had forgotten how closely the description of McReady, the main character, matched that of pulp hero Doc Savage.

A few caveats aside, “Who Goes There?” is still a captivating story, full of paranoia due to the characters uncertainty as to whether their comrades are human or monster.  (When Campbell was a young boy, his mother’s identical twin came to live with them, and she apparently hated him.  So the boy never knew by sight whether the woman he saw was his loving mother or his hateful aunt.  You see where the seeds of the story were planted.)  If you haven’t read this story, you’ve missed a treat, and it should be considered essential for the well-rounded horror reader.

The novella is introduced by legendary writer William F. Nolan, and the book includes his 1978 treatment for a movie version, which was never produced.  It’s interesting to see how the Nolan version would have differed (the men at the Antarctic camp see the craft land, there are three aliens who can possess three people at a time, there is a mix of male and female characters, etc.) but, in my opinion, the Carpenter version seems to be a better adaptation.  Kudos, though, to Rocket Ride for unearthing this bit of history.  Rocket Ride also has an audio version of the story for sale.

Apr 5, 2011

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