Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Who Goes There?

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.

Falls the Shadow

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Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself repeatedly struck by the parallels between the careers of John W. Campbell and Orson Welles. At first, the connection might seem tenuous. Campbell and Welles didn’t look anything alike, although they were about the same height, and their politics couldn’t have been more different—Welles was a staunch progressive and defender of civil rights, while Campbell, to put it mildly, wasn’t. Welles was a wanderer, while Campbell spent most of his life within driving distance of his birthplace in New Jersey. But they’re inextricably linked in my imagination. Welles was five years younger than Campbell, but they flourished at exactly the same time, with their careers peaking roughly between 1937 and 1942. Both owed significant creative breakthroughs to the work of H.G. Wells, who inspired Campbell’s story “Twilight” and Welles’s Mercury Theater adaptation of The War of the Worlds. In 1938, Campbell saw Welles’s famous modern-dress production of Julius Caesar with the writer L. Sprague de Camp, of which he wrote in a letter:

It represented, in a way, what I’m trying to do in the magazine. Those humans of two thousand years ago thought and acted as we do—even if they did dress differently. Removing the funny clothes made them more real and understandable. I’m trying to get away from funny clothes and funny-looking people in the pictures of the magazine. And have more humans.

And I suspect that the performance started a train of thought in both men’s minds that led to de Camp’s novel Lest Darkness Fall, which is about a man from the present who ends up in ancient Rome.

Campbell was less pleased by Welles’s most notable venture into science fiction, which he must have seen as an incursion on his turf. He wrote to his friend Robert Swisher: “So far as sponsoring that War of [the] Worlds thing—I’m damn glad we didn’t! The thing is going to cost CBS money, what with suits, etc., and we’re better off without it.” In Astounding, he said that the ensuing panic demonstrated the need for “wider appreciation” of science fiction, in order to educate the public about what was and wasn’t real:

I have long been an exponent of the belief that, should interplanetary visitors actually arrive, no one could possibly convince the public of the fact. These stories wherein the fact is suddenly announced and widespread panic immediately ensues have always seemed to me highly improbable, simply because the average man did not seem ready to visualize and believe such a statement.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Orson Welles felt the same way.

Their most significant point of intersection was The Shadow, who was created by an advertising agency for Street & Smith, the publisher of Astounding, as a fictional narrator for the radio series Detective Story Hour. Before long, he became popular enough to star in his own stories. Welles, of course, voiced The Shadow from September 1937 to October 1938, and Campbell plotted some of the magazine installments in collaboration with the writer Walter B. Gibson and the editor John Nanovic, who worked in the office next door. And his identification with the character seems to have run even deeper. In a profile published in the February 1946 issue of Pic magazine, the reporter Dickson Hartwell wrote of Campbell: “You will find him voluble, friendly and personally depressing only in what his friends claim is a startling physical resemblance to The Shadow.”

It isn’t clear if Welles was aware of Campbell, although it would be more surprising if he wasn’t. Welles flitted around science fiction for years, and he occasionally crossed paths with other authors in that circle. To my lasting regret, he never met L. Ron Hubbard, which would have been an epic collision of bullshitters—although Philip Seymour Hoffman claimed that he based his performance in The Master mostly on Welles, and Theodore Sturgeon once said that Welles and Hubbard were the only men he had ever met who could make a room seem crowded simply by walking through the door. In 1946, Isaac Asimov received a call from a lawyer whose client wanted to buy all rights to his robot story “Evidence” for $250. When he asked Campbell for advice, the editor said that he thought it seemed fair, but Asimov’s wife told him to hold out for more. Asimov called back to ask for a thousand dollars, adding that he wouldn’t discuss it further until he found out who the client was. When the lawyer told him that it was Welles, Asimov agreed to the sale, delighted, but nothing ever came of it. (Welles also owned the story in perpetuity, making it impossible for Asimov to sell it elsewhere, a point that Campbell, who took a notoriously casual attitude toward rights, had neglected to raise.) Twenty years later, Welles made inquiries into the rights for Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which were tied up at the time with Roger Corman, but never followed up. And it’s worth noting that both stories are concerned with the problem of knowing how other people are what they claim to be, which Campbell had brilliantly explored in “Who Goes There?” It’s a theme to which Welles obsessively returned, and it’s fascinating to speculate what he might have done with it if Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby hadn’t gotten there first with The Thing From Another World. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

But their true affinities were spiritual ones. Both Campbell and Welles were child prodigies who reinvented an art form largely by being superb organizers of other people’s talents—although Campbell always downplayed his own contributions, while Welles appears to have done the opposite. Each had a spectacular early success followed by what was perceived as decades of decline, which they seem to have seen coming. (David Thomson writes: “As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” And you could say much the same thing about “Twilight.”) Both had a habit of abandoning projects as soon as they realized that they couldn’t control them, and they both managed to seem isolated while occupying the center of attention in any crowd. They enjoyed staking out unreasonable positions in conversation, just to get a rise out of listeners, and they ultimately drove away their most valuable collaborators. What Pauline Kael writes of Welles in “Raising Kane” is equally true of Campbell:

He lost the collaborative partnerships that he needed…He was alone, trying to be “Orson Welles,” though “Orson Welles” had stood for the activities of a group. But he needed the family to hold him together on a project and to take over for him when his energies became scattered. With them, he was a prodigy of accomplishments; without them, he flew apart, became disorderly.

Both men were alone when they died, and both filled their friends, admirers, and biographers with intensely mixed feelings. I’m still coming to terms with Campbell. But I have a hunch that I’ll end up somewhere close to Kael’s ambivalence toward Welles, who, at the end of an essay that was widely seen as puncturing his myth, could only conclude: “In a less confused world, his glory would be greater than his guilt.”

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.

Astounding Stories #8: The World of Null-A

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The World of Null-A

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

If you were going to invent a pulp science fiction writer who went on to become the founder of a worldwide religious movement, working solely from first principles, you’d probably end up with someone less like L. Ron Hubbard than like A.E. van Vogt. And the lives of the two men paralleled each other in surprising ways. They were born almost exactly one year apart, and they both entered science fiction relatively late, after working extensively in other genres—Hubbard in adventure and western fiction, van Vogt in confession stories. (Van Vogt later said: “When I wrote confession-type stories, every sentence…had to contain an emotion in it. For example, you don’t say, ‘I lived at 323 Brand Street.’ You say, ‘Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my tiny bedroom at 323 Brand Street.’”) But the different paths by which they ended up in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction are revealing in themselves. Hubbard wandered in because he was invited to contribute stories by the upper management, and he wasn’t about to turn down a new market, although he had little instinctive feel or love for the field; van Vogt was galvanized by the release of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, the first half of which he read, unbelievably excited, while standing up at a newsstand. From the beginning, you can see the difference: Hubbard is professional but mercenary, falling back on the same easy formulas and twists, while van Vogt writes the way he does because he can’t seem to help himself.

This isn’t to say that van Vogt lacked a working writer’s pragmatism: he structured his plots in chunks of eight hundred words, with new developments or complications arriving like clockwork, and he carefully studied such manuals as John Gallishaw’s The Only Two Ways to Write a Story. Without that kind of scaffolding, his stories would disintegrate or fly apart out of centrifugal force into their component pieces, as they constantly threaten to do. Van Vogt was simultaneously the crudest and most advanced of the science fiction writers of his generation, and his work is often bewildering. Stories like “Black Destroyer” or “Vault of the Beast” leave you feeling as if you’ve lived through an experience that you can’t entirely explain, and it’s hard to tell where a simple lack of polish shades into a deliberate tone of alienation, or an agonized attempt to work out ideas that can’t be expressed in ordinary ways. Hubbard’s acolytes like to say that he used his writing to fund his serious research, and that his work reflects his ongoing interest in the mind, a claim that isn’t sustained by the stories themselves: he never shows much of an interest in ideas beyond what he needs to get from one sentence to the next. (The most generous interpretation is that he wanted to keep his theories to himself, out of fear that Campbell would try to take them over—a concern that was more than justified by what actually happened with dianetics.) But other writers seized on the opportunity that science fiction afforded to explore tangled philosophical concepts in a popular setting, and none did so more feverishly than van Vogt.

A.E. van Vogt

It all culminated in The World of Null-A, a serial published in 1945 that looks more or less as you’d expect an attempt to incorporate elements of non-Aristotelean logic into a pulp context to look—that is, like an utterly insane mess. To say that the plot defies summarization isn’t just a figure of speech. It opens with its hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, preparing to enter “the games,” a series of tests that will determine whether he is mentally advanced enough to join a colony of enlightened citizens on Venus. (Gosseyn, like the other members of the upper classes, has been trained using the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, who in the world of the story is revered as something like a prophet.) In a succession of chaotic developments, Gosseyn discovers that he isn’t who he thinks he is; that all his memories are false; that he’s the target of a conspiracy that involves the President of the United States and his daughter, designed to destroy the machine that keeps civilization on its course; and that whenever he dies, which he does more than once, he’s resurrected in a new body. And this is all before he also realizes that Earth is a strategic planet in a struggle between two competing factions of the Galactic Empire, that he himself contains both a supercharged “extra brain” and the secret to immortality, and that he can only learn the whole truth if he tracks down a mysterious figure called X. There is much, much more, and the result, by any measure, is the weirdest story ever published in Astounding. As Campbell wrote in a note to readers: “Two days after you finish the story, you’ll realize its size more fully.”

In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls and John Clute refer to van Vogt and Hubbard as “the two rogue members of the early Campbell pantheon.” This is correct, up to a point, except that Hubbard’s stake in the genre was rarely more than opportunistic, while van Vogt was closer to an inspired madman who drew heavily on his own dreams. He was the single greatest influence on Philip K. Dick, which puts him near the heart of science fiction’s main line of development, but, like E.E. Smith, he’s a major figure who remains largely unknown outside the field. It’s possible to link his relative obscurity to Hubbard as well: in 1950, the Los Angeles branch of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation was all but thrust into van Vogt’s hands, taking him out of science fiction for most of a decade in which writers like Asimov and Heinlein were making incursions into the mainstream. If his career hadn’t been derailed, he might well have attained the cultural prominence that he deserves—although he may also have been too weird, too intense, and too unclassifiable to fit comfortably within conventional boundaries. In The World of Null-A, van Vogt writes: “Countless billions of people had lived and died without ever suspecting that every word they spoke, or that was spoken at them, had helped to create the disordered brains with which they confronted the realities of their worlds.” And for all his flaws, he came closer to any writer of his era to revealing a reality unlike the one we take for granted, and to affording us a glimpse of our own disordered minds.

And then there was one

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Maeve Dermody in And Then There Were None

Note: Spoilers follow for the book and miniseries And Then There Were None.

Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up with the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None, which aired in two parts last week on Lifetime. It’s a nice, overwrought version of Agatha Christie’s story, faithful to the novel in its outlines but cheerfully willing to depart from it in the details, and I liked it a lot. (I particularly enjoyed Maeve Dermody’s swift descent from an Emily Blunt lookalike to something like a crazy cat lady, complete with dark circles under both eyes.) And it also gives me an excuse to revisit the weirdest novel ever to sell one hundred million copies. The book reads like Christie’s attempt to see how far she could push her classic formula—a series of baffling murders in a closed setting—without alienating her audience, and as clinical as the result often feels, readers have never ceased to respond to it: by any reckoning, it’s the bestselling mystery novel of all time. With every single character serving in turn as bystander, suspect, and victim, it takes this sort of novel to its limit, and it incidentally discovers how few of the standard elements are necessary. There isn’t a sympathetic protagonist in sight, or even a detective. As Sarah Phelps, who wrote the miniseries, observes in a perceptive interview:

Within the Marple and Poirot stories somebody is there to unravel the mystery, and that gives you a sense of safety and security, of predicting what is going to happen next…In this book that doesn’t happen—no one is going to come to save you, absolutely nobody is coming to help or rescue or interpret.

In other words, the puzzle itself is the star, just as the plot is the hero in most science fiction—a genre that often overlaps with this sort of mystery. (And Then There Were None was published just a year after “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which tells much the same story, except with a shapeshifting alien as the villain.) Watching Noah Taylor in the role of the sinister servant who places the ten figurines on the table, I joked that he was playing the Tim Curry part, but’s a hint of truth there: Christie emphasized the gamelike aspects of the genre long before there was anything like Clue, and she plants the seeds of her own future parodies so consciously that there’s hardly any point in mocking those conventions. And Then There Were None is structured like the five-minute mysteries that contemporary readers probably know best through the likes of Encyclopedia Brown: after the last victim dies, there’s a convenient summary of the relevant facts by two bewildered cops at Scotland Yard, followed by what amounts to a sealed bonus chapter with the killer’s confession, complete with a list of the clues that the reader might have missed. As the murderer writes: “It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.” And if we had any doubt about the identification of the killer with Christie herself, this should put it to rest. Christie is the murderer, even if she appears in the story under a different face and name.

Agatha Christie

This, I think, is why the original novel has always been such a spectacular success: it gets closer than any other to the uneasy way in which the author and the killer, rather than the detective, turn out to be one and the same. Christie’s guilty party is one of the earliest exemplars of a character type that we recognize from John Doe in Seven, Jigsaw in the Saw movies, and even Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker: the killer whose control of the story is so complete that he can’t be separated from the screenwriter. In my discussion of the television series Hannibal, I noted that it sometimes seemed as if Lecter himself was in the writers room, or dictating material to Thomas Harris: he was so adept at manipulating the men and women around him that he practically became the showrunner. If the detective in a mystery novel is a surrogate for the reader, who approaches the text as a series of clues, the killer can only be the writer, and by removing the detective from the story entirely, Christie makes this identity even more explicit. We’re cast in the part of an invisible sleuth, moving unseen on the island as the victims are eliminated one by one, with Christie as our ice-cold antagonist, seated at the other end of the board. (The writer selects her victims as carefully as the killer does: note that all the characters are childless and—except for the servant couple—unmarried, which allows them to be dispatched with a minimum of regret.)

And those ten figures on the dining table aren’t there by accident. They’re tokens in the game that Edward Fitzgerald describes in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

But helpless pieces of the game he plays
Upon this chequerboard of nights and days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

Christie certainly knew that verse: it appears only a few lines before the stanza that she used a few years later for the title of her novel The Moving Finger. And Then There Were None confirmed her as the genre’s ultimate chess master, and one of the pleasures in reading it again comes from our knowledge of how cunningly she uses the elements of the novel itself—like the third person omniscient point of view—to mislead and ensnare us. (That’s one way in which the miniseries, for all its cleverness, can’t match the novel: Christie moves in and out of the heads of her characters, including the killer, without cheating. A televised version of the same story only has to concern itself with the surfaces, which makes its job relatively easy.) Christie tricked us here in ways that can’t be reproduced, regardless of how many other works have copied its central twist. Mysteries come and go, but And Then There Were None is where the genre begins and ends. And there can only be one.

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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