Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Who went there?

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John Carpenter's The Thing

One of the high points of this year’s Academy Awards was the composer Ennio Morricone’s richly deserved win for the original score of The Hateful Eight. The standing ovation he received—only a few years after being recognized for lifetime achievement—was a testament to how his music has filled the inner lives of so many moviegoers, including me. (He’s most famous for his work on such spaghetti westerns as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I’m most likely to hum the theme from Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.) Morricone wrote fifty minutes of original music for The Hateful Eight, his first studio assignment in more than a decade, but given the film’s three-hour runtime, Quentin Tarantino filled in some of the gaps in the best way imaginable: by inserting unused cues that Morricone had written over thirty years earlier for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tarantino has also been candid about the ways in which the entire movie is an homage to The Thing itself, a touchstone for his career ever since Reservoir Dogs, and reflected here in such elements as the snowy setting, the air of paranoia, and the indispensable Kurt Russell. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Carpenter’s movie isn’t perfect, but it has some of the greatest sustained sequences of pure terror in the entire genre, and its amazing practical effects need to be studied by everyone who hopes to scare audiences in ways that will hold up forever.

Yet it’s also worth remembering that before The Thing was a movie—three movies, actually, and four if you count the unauthorized remake Horror Express—it was a story, and a remarkable one. The writer and editor John W. Campbell, who stands at the center of my upcoming book Astounding, is a complicated, often enigmatic figure, but when he was still in his twenties, he was responsible for one undeniable achievement: his novella “Who Goes There?”, published under the pen name Don A. Stuart and the basis for every version of The Thing, is the best science fiction short story ever written. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. It wasn’t until recently, in fact, that I realized the extent to which nearly everything I’ve done in the short fiction line, especially “The Boneless One,” has been an attempt to replicate what Campbell did first and best. (I’ve been influenced by Carpenter’s The Thing as well, of course, and indirectly by its blatant homage in “Ice,” which is still one of the half dozen or so best episodes of The X-Files.) Suspense has rarely been an integral part of science fiction; for the most part, it’s a genre that prefers to affect its readers in other ways. For various reasons, ranging from my own narrative strengths and weaknesses to the kinds of stories I enjoy reading myself, I’ve focused on suspense more often than most other writers. And if you’re interested in science fiction that wants to scare or shake up the reader, there’s never been a purer, more inspired example than what Campbell did back in 1938.

"Who Goes There?"

And it’s unlike anything else he ever wrote. In many ways, it’s a classic instance of the story taking control of the writer, rather than the other way around. Campbell had initially written up the basic idea in a humorous style, as “The Brain Stealers of Mars” in Thrilling Wonder Stories, but by shifting the location to earth and reimagining it as a work of horror, he ended up with a masterpiece. The story of a scientific expedition in Antarctica that discovers a frozen spaceship in the ice, then inadvertently thaws an alien capable of taking the form and characteristics of any living being, including the members of the team itself, is such a good premise that Campbell was unable to resist it. It’s still sensational: scary, atmospheric, full of ideas. For the most part, it’s all business, and pointedly uninterested in teasing out the philosophical implications of a narrative in which no one is what he seems—which is all to its benefit. The iconic scenes in “Who Goes There?” have been copied and redone to death, but the original has lost none of its power. Take the moment in which the men stand in a tense circle, testing blood samples drawn from the team to see which ones react when poked with a hot wire. One of their number, Connant, has just been exposed as an alien, provoking a despairing comment from Garry, the expedition commander:

Garry spoke in a low, bitter voice. “Connant was one of the finest men we had here—and five minutes ago I’d have sworn he was a man. Those damnable things are more than imitation.”

Garry shuddered and sat back in his bunk. And thirty seconds later, Garry’s blood shrank from the hot platinum wire, and struggled to escape the tube, struggled as frantically as a suddenly feral, red-eyed, dissolving imitation of Garry struggled to dodge the snake-tongue weapon Barclay advanced at him, white faced and sweating…

This is fantastically good stuff, and Carpenter—who drew on this passage for the single scariest moment in The Thing, and maybe in any movie—knew it. When you watch the movie with the original story in mind, it’s hard not to be struck by faithfully Carpenter follows its essential beats, which unfold beautifully from that gorgeous premise. Even when Campbell was first plotting it out, he knew that he was onto something special. In a letter to his friend Robert Swisher, he wrote: “I had more fun writing that story than I’ve gotten out of any I ever turned out.” It shows. Despite the claustrophobic setting and the unforgettable body horror, it all but vibrates with Campbell’s pleasure at having such a good story to tell. And it made as a great an impression then as it does now. A.E. van Vogt read most of it standing up at a newsstand, and he was so overwhelmed by it that he was inspired to start writing science fiction again. If Campbell had done nothing else for the rest of his career, it would be enough to ensure his immortality: it was named the greatest science fiction novella ever written in a poll taken by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and it has only gained in stature over time, even if most fans know it best through its filmed incarnations. And the original deserves to be cherished in its own right. It’s as good an example as any I know of how a single idea, cranked out on a manual typewriter for a cent and a half per word, can survive forever, changing shape and assuming other forms in the imaginations of visionaries from Carpenter to Tarantino. But Campbell went there first.

Written by nevalalee

March 2, 2016 at 9:28 am

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