Connant nodded bitterly. “I’m human. Hurry that test. Your eyes—Lord, I wish you could see your eyes staring—”

Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell Jr.

Who Goes There? is one of those books now famous(ish) because of the film that was made from it, or films I should say – in this case the 1951 science fiction horror classic The Thing from Another World!, and John Carpenter’s equally strong 1981 remake The Thing.

Most of the people who read my blog don’t care much about either science fiction or horror, which is fair enough. If you ever make exceptions though, this might be one to make, because this is something of a small masterpiece.

who goes there

Love those old pulp covers.

An Antarctic research station find a crashed alien spaceship, ancient and entombed in ice. They accidentally destroy the ship, but they do at least recover a corpse from the ice nearby.

What follows is actually rather refreshing. The scientists at the base have an intelligent debate about whether it’s safe to thaw it out, some worried that even after 20 million years it may still harbour dangerous bacteria or viruses, the biologist Blair pointing out in return that since humans can’t catch diseases from snakes they’re hardly likely to do so from something that didn’t even evolve on our planet. Some are concerned by less tangible fears, the thing’s expression seems insane, hate-filled, and the mere sight of it causes men to recoil in revulsion. That and those who brought it back had disturbing dreams, but then who wouldn’t seeing such a thing?

Of course they decide to thaw it out, they haven’t really a choice as they know they can’t safely ship it back without it thawing mid-transit, destroying any samples they might later wish to take. They take sensible precautions though. Connant, a cosmic rays specialist, stays up with it overnight since he’ll be up monitoring equipment anyway. It’s not that anything’s expected to happen, they just want to make sure nothing goes wrong. It’s fair to say, things go wrong.

Campbell has a lovely sense of place. Here’s the opening paragraph:

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 burned cooking-fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

There’s plenty of examples as good. You can feel the cold here, smell the stale sweat. Campbell establishes swiftly quite how hostile the environment is, how easy it is to get lost in a whiteout, how quickly you can freeze to death. There’s only one place here life can cling on, inside the base itself. There’s only men, dogs, and the thing which even after twenty million years is very far from dead.

The 1951 movie makes the thing a humanoid plant that feeds on blood. Hokey, but it works in the film. In the book though it’s quite different, much worse. The thing adapts, and how it adapts is by imitation. It can absorb creatures, replicate them at the cellular level, effectively become them. It doesn’t just absorb their bodies either, it takes their thoughts, their instincts –  it’s telepathic, making it the perfect mimic.

What that means is that anything it can reach it can infect, take over. Dog, gull, seal, whale, it doesn’t matter. Anything it can reach it can become. Anything it becomes ceases to be what it was, is now a vessel for the thing, and it remembers every form it’s ever taken. If it gets out it’s literally the end of the world. It gets to the dogs, it starts to become a dog, but the barking of the rest of the pack alerts the men of the base and they find it mid-transformation, kill it with electrical cables. They consider what they’ve seen:

“… It can imitate anything – that is, become anything. If it had reached the Antarctic sea, it would have become a seal, maybe two seals. They might have attacked a killer whale, and become either killers, or a herd of seals. Or maybe it would have caught an albatross, or a skua gull, and flown to South America.”

It’s dead though, they think. Dr. Copper starts to reflect how lucky they were, though Blair quickly corrects him:

“Then we can only give thanks that this is Antarctica, where there is not one, single, solitary, living thing for it to imitate, except these animals in camp.” “Us,” Blair giggled. “It can imitate us. Dogs can’t make four hundred miles to the sea; there’s no food. There aren’t any skua gulls to imitate at this season. There aren’t any penguins this far inland. There’s nothing that can reach the sea from this point—except us. We’ve got brains. We can do it. Don’t you see—it’s got to imitate us—it’s got to be one of us—that’s the only way it can fly an airplane——fly a plane for two hours, and rule—be—all Earth’s inhabitants. A world for the taking—if it imitates us!

That’s where the real horror starts. They killed it, yes, but what if they killed it too late? What if it’s already infected one of them? Assumed a man’s form, copied his mind, is waiting among them for the snows to lift and for them all to be taken home, where it can spread and colonise?  Connant spent the whole night with the thing, is he still Connant? Who else might it have got to? It could be anyone, it could be several of them, all they know is that it can’t be most of them since if it were it wouldn’t bother hiding any more.

What follows is probably the most chillingly paranoiac novel I’ve yet read. There were times I had to close it just because the claustrophobia was too strong, the sense of dread and isolation. The radio’s quickly smashed so as to stop the thing calling for an emergency airlift out, but time’s passing and with it the season. Eventually the relief crews will come, birds will start to pass overhead again, all it has to do is wait, pretending to be one of them, pretending to be just as afraid as everyone else.

I won’t say much more about what happens, I don’t really need to – you can probably imagine. They develop a test to distinguish between someone who’s still human and someone who just seems human, but who do you trust to administer it? If a man refuses to let the person with the test near them does that mean they’re a monster, or that they’re human and don’t know if the person doing the testing is a monster? Every man is trapped in his own solipsistic hell, except of course that’s not true because some of them aren’t men anymore.

There’s not a lot else to say other than that this really is a quite brilliant little novella. Obviously if you’ve no patience for pulp tales of alien horrors from beyond the stars it’s not for you, but if you can swallow that part what follows is intensely evocative, so much so that I was glad it was short and I could come out of it blinking in the summer sunlight, if still feeling slightly cold. I don’t know if it’ll make my end of year list yet, but it’s a definite candidate. A wonderfully chilling little tale, and golden age science fiction at its best.

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20 Comments

Filed under Campbell Jr., John W., Horror, Novellas, SF

20 responses to “Connant nodded bitterly. “I’m human. Hurry that test. Your eyes—Lord, I wish you could see your eyes staring—”

  1. Well, I love the Carpenter remake, and I now have to read this. Look forward to it. I’m always game for some serious paranoiac chills.

  2. Sounds like the perfect gift for one’s favorite Antarctic researcher. That cover is priceless.

  3. Lee, the Carpenter remake is one of the greats. The original is good too though. It has a very unusual scene where a scientist opens a door to see the monster right on the other side. That’s not unusual, what’s unusual is he does the intelligent thing – he promptly slams the door shut and then he runs away. I don’t recall if he survives the film, but he survives the scene. Most characters in a horror movie don’t behave anything like so sensibly.

    Here too they all behave intelligently, which is really refreshing. The debate about whether or not to thaw it is short in terms of pages, but effective in terms of establishing that these are bright people who make sure they understand the risks. Their decision actually makes sense, even if it does turn out to be horribly wrong.

    Scott, perhaps better as a return present, lest you put them off going. The cover is great. It’s even better because that is actually what the monster looks like, before it starts assuming other forms. Of course, that may well just be the last thing it took over…

  4. I love the film ,i am not big sci-fi reader actually didn’t know there was a book for this film ,i would read this as it is one of my favourite classic sci-fi movies .

  5. I tend not to suggest SF books to non-SF readers, there’s no obligation on any of us to like a given category of work after all and we can’t read everything. This is something of an exception. If aliens, telepathy and so on aren’t complete barriers on principle this is well worth reading, for the atmosphere if nothing else. If you’re a fan of the film it’s a must-read.

  6. I should probably add, if you’re not a fan of the film of course the odds are you’ve not seen the film.

  7. I think I’m with Stu on this one, Max; I’m not a big reader of Sci-Fi, but love the Carpenter film. I can feel the horror and pace of the book from the rhythm of your review. Tremendous stuff, as ever…and what a cover!

  8. Ha! Well, I’ve seen plenty of examples of the vagaries of dramatically-exigent idiocy so it’s a refreshing change. I really should watch the original. I think, stupidly (although I too would slam that door), I found the Carpenter film so spectacularly good I just thought, “It can’t top that. And that’s why it’s been remade, obviously. The original was poor.” Which is another way of saying I either didn’t want to sully my thoughts of the remake or I was lazy and wanted to spend my time moving onto other films such as Abel Ferrara’s paranoiac remake instead…(which has one great scene and a lot of stuff that seems to want to emulate Bottin’s finest moments).

  9. PS don’t read the Goodreads reviews of this – slightly depressing.

  10. Hi, Max! I AM a science fiction fan, you know, and a writer of SF. I think I might like this, because it seems to be well written. It reminds me of at least two different episodes of StarGate:SG1. One is laid in the Antarctic and they dig up an alien. I have a feeling the writers had read Who Goes there? My novella Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder has an element of horror – psychological horror that leads to physical horror – and a great deal of shock value. I’m still hoping you might read the copy I gave you sometime because I would love to have your opinion..

  11. I’m another fan of the Carpenter re-make. It’s one of my favourite films for the genre. Now off to Goodreads to read the depressing reviews.

  12. sendra

    Always loved that book. When you’re 12, it’s great. When you’re 30-odd, should know a little better and there are no surprises, it’s still great. My brothers and I would play a variation of ‘it’ based on the story. It shows how strong the novella is, that despite it being for the purposes of fun even the game was bloody scary. Like you I had to stop reading every so often and mentally turn the night light on. Imagine what King would have done with the idea. Bloated page count, cheesy pop references and for some reason, there’d be a high-school bully on the team. And it would take place in a small middle American town. Give me THE THING over CHRISTINE any day. I don’t think horror/sci-fi has to be bad or even silly in an imbedded sense. But it has to be a little special. The ideas and execution have to get under your skin. Skin. Brrrr. Great choice.

  13. leroyhunter

    Another Carpernter fan here. It sounds like a decent read Max.

    Great cover as well. 15 cents! People just won’t pay for books any more.

  14. Jim F

    Well to be precise, the cover above is a comic book adaptation, not the actual novella.

    (Have you seen Classics Illustrated? The better the source material, the more out-of-focus the adaptations are.)

  15. Jacqui, pacing is critical to these kinds of stories I think, though it’s precisely what some of those goodreads reviews (I looked) that Lee mentioned criticised it for. Obviously I don’t agree with them.

    Lee, I think the original is good, very good even, the Carpenter great. Unlike the bookread reviews which I didn’t really think were any of those things…

    Lorinda, I know the episodes you mean. I rather liked the Antarctic one, where if I recall correctly the Col gets asked if he can’t just McGuyver something (an in joke, he’s the actor who played McGuyver apparently). Great show Stargate. Silly, but well made silly.

    I do still plan to read yours, but I’m afraid it’s not even the longest outstanding review copy I’ve got (not even close to be honest, I have some from much longer back). It’s one of the reasons I don’t tend to take review books much, I never know when I’ll get to them and it’s frequently years.

    Guy, I couldn’t resist toddling off there either. To be fair, some of them are probably good reviews that I simply don’t agree with, but I prefer blogs – you know the person’s voice and tastes and can factor it in. A mass of reviews and it can be harder to hear that individual voice.

    Sendra, I have a soft spot for King’s early stuff, but I know what you mean. This is taut.

    Leroy, it is, though clearly not for everyone. 15centrs, a definite bargain.

    Jim, I didn’t know that, so thanks. Still a great cover. I think I have seen some of those before, but I’d forgotten them. The Moonstone looks like some kind of HP Lovecraft-esque horror tale, I wonder if it is.

  16. I saw the Carpenter film again recently and I really enjoyed it although I never buy this idea that an alien being can realistically imitate a human being with all their thought processes and knowledge of language and our culture etc. Another fun story inspired by this one is the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who adventure, The Seeds of Doom. That’s a lot of fun with plenty of well, not very realistic snow…

  17. It works better here because it’s made explicit that the alien’s telepathic. Of course that has its own issues, but in 1938 wouldn’t have seemed any more incredible than the rest I suspect.

  18. Peter Watts wrote a great mini-sequel/response from the perspective of the alien. Well worth the read:
    http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/

  19. Sorry, I missed your comment while on holiday. I’ve read that short story being a Watts’ fan of sorts, it’s excellent isn’t it? A really good counter-interpretation.

  20. Pingback: The 1938 Club: welcome! – Stuck in a Book

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