Guest review: “Who Goes There?” (1938)

Hello everyone, I’m Mike. I’m who Jeff meets at the crossroads every second harvest moon to renew the deal that lets him keep his skin.

 Who Goes There? (hereinafter WGT?) is a short work of speculative science fiction written by John Campbell and published in 1938. If you’re wondering why I’m writing about a piece of sci-fi on a blog about horror, it’s because it would be the basis for John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing, which contained this…

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So SCREW YOU it’s not horror. That’s the most goddamned terrifying thing ever committed to film, and we live in a world that contains thousands of gigs of Japanese porn. Anything that could provide the inspiration for that abomination was clearly penned by Satan in his dream journal the morning after a Schlitz binge.

 John Carpenter’s The Thing is very faithful to the source material, really only amending the plot to stretch it out a bit. For those of you not familiar with that particular bit of nightmare fuel, the story revolves around a group of brass-balled explorers on an Antarctic expedition who apparently were completely unaware that these sorts of things usually end badly. Unlike the movie, WGT? opens with them having already found the alien in the ice near its ship. They decide to take it back to camp with them, instead of doing the sensible thing of leaving it where they goddamned found it and running screaming back to civilization. Having already made one decision based on pure lunacy, they decide to go the whole insane hog and thaw the thing (I get it now!) out for dissection. It pretty much goes as expected.

Pictured: Captain Ron getting what he should have expected.

Pictured: Captain Ron getting what he should have expected.

 In broad-brush strokes it’s your standard unspeakable-thing-from-beyond-the-stars-splatters-and-eats-everything-until-somoene-kills-it-with-fire kind of story. The creature absorbs, digests and copies its victims, so that they become perfectly indistinguishable from the original but are still the alien. The novella implies that the thing represents the peak of physical evolution, capable of perfectly manipulating its biology and scaring the piss out of 12-year-old boys. It creates a good tension amongst the mostly interchangeable characters, and a good chunk of the middle is dedicated to figuring out how to tell real people from oh-dear-god clones. You won’t remember a single character’s name, but that’s ok because they’re all walking alien chow.

 I really dig the prose that Campbell uses in WGT?. It has a wonderful, weighty haminess that you simply don’t see in literature today. Take, for example, this passage describing the South Pole climate:

 “At the surface – it was white death. Death of a needle-fingered cold driven before the wind, sucking heat from any warm thing. Cold – and white mist of endless, everlasting drift, the fine, fine particles of licking snow that obscured all things.”

 Now go back and read it in Vincent Price’s voice. Fooled you, now you have frostbite! It’s epic in its sparseness, able to convey the unyielding bleakness of the tundra better than Steven King could in 50 pages. The pee-freezing environment is really the guest star of the show after the creature. It serves to both trap the men and the alien, although in the case of the latter being frozen in permafrost for 20 million years was hardly a career ending injury. “… it was annoyed when it froze.” Guess I’d be cranky when I thawed out too.

 The only description you get of the alien is that it had “three red eyes” and “blue hair like crawling worms.” After that it’s all claws, teeth, and screaming death. While the scientists speculate that the form they find the creature in is its “default” state, they never know, and I like it that way. It’s a shape-shifter, changing its body to whatever fear-excrement inducing form it sees fit to use. There’s no need for description porn. We know it’s alien, we know it’s terrifying, and that’s all we need to know. Our minds can fill in the blanks when we hear the cat rustling in a box at 3 AM in the morning.

 I said above that this story format seems standard to our jaded minds, but keep in mind that it was published all the way back in the year after the Hindenburg disaster. I’m not ruling out that that was the result of finding a Thing aboard right before they docked and deciding that it was better to take down the ship than let it set tentacle in America.

It's the only way to be sure.

It’s the only way to be sure.

 The between-war period was a harsh time to be in the sci-fi business. Nazis had been invented, but they had not yet made zombie robots or established bases on the moon. The genre was more or less relegated to bug eyed monsters that stole women and were subsequently killed by space cowboys with ray guns. They were truly space westerns, and not in that abstract way that pedantic assholes insist that Star Wars is. And they were terrible. The horror genre was fairing a bit better, with magazines such as Weird Tales featuring stories by H.P. “Sauce” Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. They still weren’t very lucrative, and even Lovecraft wrote a goddam rom-com in order to make ends meet.

 Then John Campbell came along, and he decided that this was bullshit. He saw that in order for sci-fi to be taken seriously, it had to get away from its googly-eyed roots. He more or less pioneered the idea of speculative fiction, which is science fiction that’s believable, if you squint. And that’s what makes WGT? so terrifying. It’s believable. The men aren’t in space; they’re in the real-life wasteland of the South Pole. Campbell makes heavy use of all the future-y but still real tech of the day: dynamos, airplanes, submarines, radio equipment, talk of “magnetic fields,” even a freaking jury-rigged electric gun. Campbell played a heavy hand in creating the genre of sci-fi horror. Without him we might not have Event Horizon, Alien, Predator, or Alien vs. Predator (ok, we’ll give him a mulligan).

 In the end, I give Who Goes There? a solid 5 out of 5 ice cream cones covered in half-digested human gloop. It’s the one of the first definitive works of science fiction horror, and it spawned one of the greatest horror movies ever made. The characters are forgettable, but the prose and atmosphere are classic hammy overwrought horror writing. You can finish reading it in an hour, but the lingering suspicion that your roommate is a shape-shifting cosmic monstrosity will last a lifetime.

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6 thoughts on “Guest review: “Who Goes There?” (1938)

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