Who Goes There?
“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. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.”
– First paragraph of “Who Goes There?” by John G. Campbell, published under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart
The movie The Thing should be familiar to all horror fans, but some may be surprised to learn that the story did not originate with John Carpenter, but instead comes from a short story called “Who Goes There?” first published in Astounding Science-Fiction. The story is definitely worth reading, whether you are a longtime fan of The Thing or have yet to see it. So read it. Right now. Go read it before I spoil it for you. You can read it for free at the Internet Archive or right here.
The premise of the story is genius. A group of scientists in Antarctica come across an alien ship trapped in ice. They recover the body of the alien, hoping to study it, feeling assured that something buried in ice for so long couldn’t revive. But because this is a work horror and science fiction, the Thing is still very much alive and it’s been biding its time for millennia for the chance to infect a living organism and take over the world. What distinguishes this from other alien invasion plots, aside from the fact that the alien in question was a popsicle, is that the creature can shapeshift into any form and has telepathic powers that it can use to perfectly imitate the behavior of whatever or whomever it shapeshifts into. When the researchers learn that the Thing can infect and shapeshift into dogs, they begin to suspect each other of being a Thing. This leads to a classic murder mystery situation. Everyone is assembled in one room and they all know that one or more people is a murderer. However, no one will admit to being the murderer, so everyone is a suspect. The twist is that the Thing shapeshift into many people, which means that the number of evil clones could increase and overwhelm the rest of the party; there’s only one murderer in the murder mystery scenario. Worse yet, the Things are autonomous and imbued with a survival of the fittest kind of selfishness. The Things won’t mount an attack against the humans because not one of them is willing to get hurt for the other. The Things can put on their act indefinitely until every last human is absorbed. The paranoia and tension between the characters is powerful, but there’s an added problem to the researchers survival. They’re in Antarctica, which means they are far from any help, but this is to the humans’ advantage. The scientists are afraid that if the Thing escapes by shapeshifting and taking over an albatross or if someone back at headquarters comes to rescue them, the alien will escape and rapidly shapeshift and multiply, taking over the entire planet. They’re not just fighting for their lives, but for all of humanity.
There were a couple of things I liked about the story aside from the premise that many of you are familiar with. The story is set in Antarctica, which I think is a curious setting for a horror story. I can only think of a few times when the extreme isolation and cold of the tundra was used as a setting for a horror story: 30 Days of Night, Frankenstein, and Whiteout. 30 Days of Night is in Alaska; Frankenstein begins and ends with Dr. Frankenstein on an expedition to the North Pole in an unsuccessful attempt to escape his creation; Whiteout is a murder mystery, but it’s actually set in Antarctica, pretty tense, and deserves a lot more love than it received at the box office. Anyhow, I think the polar extremes of the Earth make excellent settings for a horror story, since they combine the isolation from the rest of humanity with a bleak, barren landscape and forbidding weather that are just as formidable as what might lurk behind the snowdrift and ice; for that matter, deserts are fairly rare horror settings too. I think the reason why Arctic and Antarctic horror is rarely written or filmed is because the experience of being so far north or south is fairly alien to human experience. Most of humanity lives in the mid-latitudes. Although the setting is alien to the vast majority of humanity and could be easily utilized to unnerve the audience, I think it is a rarely used setting because it requires some special or contrived situation to put characters in those places and what’s most frightening is often what’s close to home.
I was also fond of the allusion to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which I’m sure you all read like good students in English class. The scientists worry that an albatross flying by could potentially be caught by the Thing and it would fly away, carrying the Thing to reign further destruction on the rest of the humanity. There’s even a scene where one of the researchers shoots at the albatross, but he fails to hit it; and he wasn’t using a crossbow. The allusion adds an extra dimension to the story because it takes several themes and ideas from the poem and flips them on their head. The mariner seems to be ultimately punished for killing the albatross, whereas the scientists are concerned that not killing the albatross could punish humanity should the Thing catch a ride on the albatross. In fact, the redemption the mariner experiences by blessing the sea snakes, which are dangerous and traditionally symbols of deception, is quite the opposite of the scientists’ experience with the Thing. The intuitions of the ones who sense the Thing’s evil and curse it are proven correct, though that fear doesn’t save all their lives. Whereas “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can be interpreted as proposing the idea that humans are redeemed by love of their fellow creatures, “Who Goes There?” is about humans being saved by fear and hatred of an alien creature. I’m not proposing that the poem and story are exactly converse, nor that Campbell intended such a comparison, but the allusion and converse themes seem worth investigating.
The story also has a few flaws, but they are largely swept under by the exciting plot. The biological explanation for how the Thing can take over bodies to incorporate their mass and shapeshift is a little muddy, but excusable given that the story was written 74 years ago. The explanation never seems implausible enough to take the reader out of the story and technobabble is kept to a minimum. I could also quibble about the prose being a little purple, but it’s partly a remnant of the style of the time; I actually kind of like the style. It’s to be expected that pulp fiction prose would be a little more florid, especially when that fiction was probably paid for by the word. There were a few times toward the start of the story when I groaned because the dialogue was too stilted, but it became less noticeable as I read on and was drawn into the story. Considering the poetry and dialogue I’ve written, calling “Who Goes There?” purple or stilted would be like the pot calling the tea kettle black.
I will be saving the comparisons between “Who Goes There?” and The Thing for another post. I intend to make a lengthy post on Head in a Vice on The Thing and it’s predecessors and successor next week. In the meantime, I will post reviews for The Thing from Another World, The Thing, and the recent remake, The Thing. Then we will return to our regular scheduled programming.