Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Thing

The Thing from Another Manuscript

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On March 2, 1966, Howard Applegate, the administrator of manuscripts at Syracuse University, wrote to the editor John W. Campbell to ask if he’d be interested in donating his papers to their archives. Two weeks later, Campbell replied:

Sorry…but the Harvard Library got all the old manuscripts I had about eight years ago! Since I stopped writing stories when I became editor of Astounding/Analog, I haven’t produced any manuscripts since 1938…So…sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!

Fortunately for me, this turned out to be far from the case, and I was only able to read these words in the first place because of diligent fans and archivists—notably the late Perry Chapdelaine—who had done what they could to preserve Campbell’s correspondence. When I came across his exchange with Applegate, in fact, I was busy working through thousands of pages of the editor’s surviving letters, which provided the indispensable foundation for my book Astounding. But the reference to Harvard surprised me. At that point, I had been working on this project for close to a year, and I had never heard the slightest whisper about a collection of his manuscripts in Cambridge. (I subsequently realized that Campbell had referred to it in passing to Robert A. Heinlein in a letter dated October 7, 1955, but I didn’t notice this until much later.)

When I looked into it further, nothing came up in a casual search online, but I finally found an entry for it buried deep in the catalog for Houghton Library. (I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, not even in scholarly works on science fiction, which implies that the papers were sent to Harvard and then promptly forgotten.) The description was intriguing, but I had plenty to do in the meantime, and I didn’t have a chance to follow up on it until last September, when I sent a request for more information through the library’s query system. About a week later, I heard back from a very helpful librarian, who had taken the time to examine the carton and send me a list of the labels on the folders inside. There were about fifty in all, and while most bore the titles of stories or articles that I recognized—“Out of Night,” “The Elder Gods,” The Moon is Hell—there were quite a few that were unfamiliar to me. I was particularly interested in the folder labeled “Frozen Hell,” which I knew from Campbell’s correspondence had been the original title of “Who Goes There?”, the classic novella that was adapted three times for the movies as The Thing. At that point, I knew that I had to check it out, if only because I didn’t want to get scooped by anybody else, and although I wasn’t able to travel to Cambridge in person, I managed to hire a research assistant to go to the library and scan the pages on my behalf. She did a brilliant job, and after a few rounds of visits, I had copies of everything that I needed. As I had hoped, there was a lot of great stuff in that box, including previously unpublished works by Campbell and the only known story credited to his remarkable wife Doña, which I hope to discuss here in depth one day. But the very first file that I opened was the one called “Frozen Hell.”

When I sat down to read these pages, I was mostly just hoping to get some insight into the writing of “Who Goes There?”, which has been rightly ranked as the greatest science fiction suspense story of all time. But what I found there was so remarkable that I still can’t quite believe it myself. “Who Goes There?” is famously about an Antarctic research expedition that stumbles across a hideous extraterrestrial buried in the ice, and as it originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1938, the novella opens with the alien’s body already back at the base, with everything that happened beforehand—the magnetic anomaly that led the team to the site, the uncovering of the spaceship, and its accidental destruction—recounted in dialogue. In the draft of “Frozen Hell” that was preserved in Campbell’s papers, it’s narrated in detail from the beginning, with a huge forty-five page opening section, never before published, about the discovery of the spacecraft itself. (Apart from a few plot points and character names, the rest tracks the established version fairly closely, although there are some interesting surprises and variations.) We know that Campbell discussed the story with the editors F. Orlin Tremaine and Frank Blackwell, and at some point, they evidently decided that most of this material should be cut or integrated elsewhere. Judging from the other manuscripts that I found at Harvard, Campbell often cut the beginnings from his stories, which reflected the advice that he later gave to other writers, including Isaac Asimov, that you should enter the story as late as possible. But when you restore this material, which is written on the same high level as the rest, you end up with something fascinating—a story that shifts abruptly from straight adventure into horror. This is the kind of structure that I love, and there’s something very modern about the way in which it switches genres halfway through.

The result amounted to an entirely different version, and a completely worthwhile one, of one of the most famous science fiction stories ever written, which had been waiting there at Harvard all this time. As far as I can tell, no one else ever knew that it existed, and the more I thought about its potential, the more excited I became. I began by reaching out to Campbell’s daughter Leslyn, whom I had gotten to know through working on his biography, and she referred me in turn to John Gregory Betancourt, the writer and editor who manages the estate. John agreed that it was worth publishing, and he ultimately decided to release it through his own imprint, Wildside Press, in a special edition funded through a campaign on Kickstarter. The result went live last week, with a goal of raising $1,000, and it quickly blew past everyone’s expectations. As I type this, its pledges have exceeded $27,000, and it shows no sign of stopping. (Andrew Liptak of The Verge had a nice writeup about the project, which seems to have helped, and word of mouth is still spreading.) At the moment, the package will include an introduction by Robert Silverberg, original fiction by Betancourt and G.D. Falksen, and cover and interior illustrations by Bob Eggleton, with more features to follow as it reaches its stretch goals. I’ll be contributing a preface in which I’ll talk more about the manuscript, Campbell’s writing process, and some of the variant openings that were also preserved in his papers. Publication is scheduled for early next year, and I’m hoping to have more updates soon—although I’m already thrilled beyond measure by the response so far. Astounding comes out tomorrow, and I’m obviously curious about what its reception will be. There are some big developments just around the corner. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Frozen Hell ends up being the best thing to come out of this entire project.

The vision thing

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A few days ago, I was struck by the fact that a mere thirty-one years separated The Thing From Another World from John Carpenter’s The Thing. The former was released on April 21, 1951, the latter on June 25, 1982, and another remake, which I haven’t yet seen, arrived right on schedule in 2011. Three decades might have once seemed like a long time to me, but now, it feels like the blink of an eye. It’s the equivalent of the upcoming remake of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which was itself a reimagining of a movie that had been around for about the same amount of time. I picked these examples at random, and while there isn’t anything magical about a thirty-year cycle, it isn’t hard to understand. It’s enough time for a new generation of viewers to come of age, but not quite long enough for the memory of the earlier movie to fade entirely. (From my perspective, the films of the eighties seem psychologically far closer than those of the seventies, and not just for reasons of style.) It’s also long enough for the original reaction to a movie to be largely forgotten, so that it settles at what feels like its natural level. When The Thing From Another World first premiered, Isaac Asimov thought that it was one of the worst movies ever made. John W. Campbell, on whose original story it was based, was more generous, writing of the filmmakers: “I think they may be right in feeling that the proposition in ‘Who Goes There?’ is a little strong if presented literally in the screen.” Elsewhere, he noted:

I have an impression that the original version directed and acted with equal restraint would have sent some ten percent of the average movie audience into genuine, no-kidding, semi-permanent hysterical screaming meemies…You think that [story] wouldn’t tip an insipid paranoid psychotic right off the edge if it were presented skillfully?

For once, Campbell, whose predictions were only rarely on the mark, was entirely prescient. By the time John Carpenter’s The Thing came out, The Thing From Another World was seen as classic, and the remake, which tracked the original novella much more closely, struck many viewers as an assault on its legacy. One of its most vocal detractors, curiously, was Harlan Ellison, who certainly couldn’t be accused of squeamishness. In a column for L.A. Weekly, Ellison wrote that Carpenter “showed some stuff with Halloween,” but dismissed his later movies as “a swan dive into the potty.” He continued:

The Thing…[is a] depredation [Carpenter] attempts to validate by saying he wanted to pull out of the original John W. Campbell story those treasures undiscovered by the original creators…One should not eat before seeing it…and one cannot eat after having seen it.

If the treasures Carpenter sought to unearth are contained in the special effects lunacy of mannequins made to look like men, splitting open to disgorge sentient lasagna that slaughters for no conceivable reason, then John Carpenter is a raider of the lost ark of Art who ought to be sentenced to a lifetime of watching Neil Simon plays and films.

The Thing did not need to be remade, if the best this fearfully limited director could bring forth was a ripoff of Alien in the frozen tundra, this pointless, dehumanized freeway smashup of grisly special effects dreck, flensed of all characterization, philosophy, subtext, or rationality.

Thirty years later, the cycle of pop culture has come full circle, and it’s fair to say that Carpenter’s movie has eclipsed not just Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby, but even Campbell himself. (Having spent the last year trying to explain what I’m doing to people who aren’t science fiction fans, I can testify that if Campbell’s name resonates with them at all, it’s thanks solely to the 1982 version of The Thing.) Yet the two movies also share surprising affinities, and not simply because Carpenter idolized Hawks. Both seem interested in Campbell’s premise mostly for the visual possibilities that it suggests. In the late forties, the rights to “Who Goes There?” were purchased by RKO at the urging of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, the latter of whom wrote the script, with uncredited contributions from Hecht and Hawks. The direction was credited to Nyby, Hawks’s protégé, but Hawks was always on the set and later claimed most of the director’s fee, leading to much disagreement over who was responsible for the result. In the end, it threw out nearly all of Campbell’s story, keeping only the basic premise of an alien spacecraft discovered by researchers in an icy environment, while shifting the setting from Antarctica to Alaska. The filmmakers were clearly more drawn to the idea of a group of men facing danger in isolation, one of Hawks’s favorite themes, and they lavished greater attention on the stock types that they understood—the pilot, the journalist, the girl—than on the scientists, who were reduced to thankless foils. David Thomson has noted that the central principle of Hawks’s work is that “men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world,” and the contrast has never been more evident than it is here.

And while Hawks isn’t usually remembered as a visual director, The Thing From Another World exists almost entirely as a series of images: the opening titles burning through the screen, the crew standing in a circle on the ice to reveal the shape of the flying saucer underneath, the shock reveal of the alien itself in the doorway. When you account for the passage of time, Carpenter’s version rests on similar foundations. His characters and dialogue are less distinct than Hawks’s, but he also seems to have regarded Campbell’s story primarily as a source of visual problems and solutions. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the images that are burned into my brain from The Thing probably add up to a total of about five minutes: the limits of its technology mean that we only see it in action for a few seconds at a time. But those images, most of which were the work of the special effects prodigy Rob Bottin, are still the best practical effects I’ve ever seen. (It also includes the single best jump scare in the movies, which is taken all but intact from Campbell.) Even after thirty years, its shock moments are so unforgettable that they have a way of overpowering the rest, as they did for Ellison, and neither version ever really approximates the clean narrative momentum of “Who Goes There?” But maybe that’s how it should be. Campbell, for all his gifts, wasn’t primarily a visual writer, and the movies are a visual medium, particularly in horror and science fiction. Both of the classic versions of The Thing are translations from one kind of storytelling to another, and they stick in the imagination precisely to the extent that they depart from the original. They’re works for the eye, not the mind, which may be why the only memorable line in either movie is the final warning in Hawks’s version, broadcast over the airwaves to the world, telling us to watch the skies.

Stranger in the same land

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Stranger Things

Note: Spoilers follow for Stranger Things.

One of the first images we see on the television show Stranger Things is a poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing. (In fact, it’s only as I type this now that it occurs to me that the title of the series, which premiered earlier this summer on Netflix, might be an homage as well.) It’s hanging in the basement of one of the main characters, a twelve year old named Mike, who is serving as the Dungeon Master of a roleplaying campaign with three of his best friends. You can see the poster in the background for most of the scene, and in a later episode, two adults watch the movie at home, oblivious to the fact that a monster from another dimension is stalking the inhabitants of their town in Indiana. Not surprisingly, I was tickled to see my favorite story by John W. Campbell featured so prominently here: Campbell wrote “Who Goes There?” back in 1937, and the fact that it’s still a reference point for a series like this, almost eighty years later, is astounding. Yet apart from these two glimpses, The Thing doesn’t have much in common with Stranger Things. The former is set in a remote Antarctic wasteland in which no one is what he seems; the latter draws from a different tradition in science fiction, with gruesome events emerging from ordinary, even idyllic, surroundings, and once we’ve identified all the players, everything is more or less exactly what it appears to be. It flirts with paranoia, but it’s altogether cozy, even reassuring, in how cleverly it gives us just what we expect.

That said, Stranger Things is very good at achieving what it sets out to do. The date of the opening scene is November 6, 1983, and once Mike’s best friend Will is pulled by a hideous creature into a parallel universe, the show seems determined to reference every science fiction or fantasy movie of the previous five years. Its most obvious touchstones are E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there are touches of The Fury as well, and even shades of Stephen King. (Will’s older brother, played by Charlie Heaton, looks eerily like a young King, and the narrative sometimes feels like an attempt to split the difference between Firestarter and It.) Visually, it goes past even Super 8 in its meticulous reconstruction of the look and feel of early Steven Spielberg, and the lighting and cinematography are exquisitely evocative of its source. The characters and situations are designed to trigger our memories, too, and the series gets a lot of mileage out of recombining the pieces: we’re invited to imagine the kids from The Goonies going after whatever was haunting the house in Poltergeist, with a young girl with psychokinetic powers taking the place of E.T. As Will’s mother, Winona Ryder initially comes off as a combination of the Melinda Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss characters from Close Encounters—she’s frantic at Will’s disappearance, but she also develops an intriguing streak of obsession, hanging up holiday lights in her house and watching them flicker in hopes of receiving a message from her missing son. And it can be fun to see these components slide into place.

Winona Ryder on Stranger Things

It’s only when the characters are asked to stand for something more than their precursors that the series starts to falter. Ryder’s character doesn’t develop after the first couple of episodes, and she keeps hitting the same handful of notes. Once the players have been established, they don’t act in ways that surprise us or push against the roles that they’ve been asked to embody, and most of the payoffs are telegraphed well in advance. The only adult character who really sticks in the mind is the police chief played by David Harbour, and that’s due less to the writing than to Harbour’s excellent work as a rock-solid archetype. Worst of all, the show seems oddly uncertain about what to do with its kids, who should be the main attraction. They all look great with their bikes and walkie-talkies, and Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin is undeniably endearing—he’s the show’s only entirely successful character. But they spend too much time squabbling among themselves, when a story like this really demands that they present a unified front against the adult world. For the most part, the interpersonal subplots do nothing but mark time: we don’t know enough about the characters to be invested in their conflicts or romances, and far too many scenes play like a postponement of the real business at hand. Any story about the paranormal is going to have one character trying to get the others to believe, but it’s all in service of the moment when they put their differences aside. When everyone teams up on Stranger Things, it’s satisfying, but it occurs just one episode before the finale, and before we have a chance to absorb or enjoy it, it’s over.

And part of the problem, I think, is that Stranger Things tells the kind of story that might have been better covered in two hours, rather than eight. When I go back and watch the Spielberg films that the series is trying to evoke, what strikes me first is an unusual absence of human conflict. In both Close Encounters and E.T., the shadowy government operatives turn out to be unexpectedly benevolent, and the worst villains we see are monsters of venality, like the councilmen who keep the beaches open in Jaws or the developers who build on a graveyard in Poltergeist. For the most part, the characters are too busy dealing with the wonders or terrors on display to fight among themselves. In The Goonies, the kids are arguing all the time, like the crew in Jaws, but it never slows down the plot: they keep stumbling into new set pieces. It’s a strategy that works fine for a movie, in which the glow of the images and situations is enough to carry us to the climax, but a season of television can’t run on that battery alone. As a result, Stranger Things feels obliged to bring in conflicts that will keep the wheels turning, even if it lessens the appeal of the whole. The men in black are anonymous bad guys, full stop, and the show isn’t above using them to pad an episode’s body count, with the psychokinetic girl Eleven snapping their necks with her mind. (I kept expecting her to simply blow up the main antagonist, as Amy Irving—Spielberg’s future wife—did to John Cassavetes in The Fury, and I was half right.) Sustaining a sense of awe or dread over multiple episodes would have been a much harder trick than getting the lighting just right. And the strangest thing about Stranger Things is that it makes us think it might have been possible.

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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