Friday, 1 July 2011

Book Review | Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

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An Antarctic research camp discovers and thaws the ancient, frozen body of a crash-landed alien. The creature revives with terrifying results, shape-shifting to assume the exact form of animal and man, alike. Paranoia ensues as a band of frightened men work to discern friend from foe, and destroy the menace before it challenges all of humanity! 


Was The Thing the first movie I ever bought on Blu-ray? I think it might just have been...

I'm an unabashed fan - what can I say? I must have seen John Carpenter's adaptation of Who Goes There? twenty times or more, all told - any excuse is a good excuse - and without fail, whenever in recent memory the credits have scrolled I've made a mental note to hunt out the tale upon which The Thing is based. Oh, and Howard Hawks' 1950s monstrosity The Thing From Another World. That too.

Yet till now, I never did...

...and I'm kind of wishing I never had, at all.

Because it's a pretty tepid novella. Even having made the usual allowances one must for fiction from another era, Who Goes There? seemed to me forgettable pulp - certainly not the "timeless genre classic" (p.10) Logan's Run author William F. Nolan describes in his punchy introduction. Its characters, of which there's something of an over-abundance, are to a one so thin as to appear transparent; and though the notional concept at its core, of an alien desperate to see its species survive after untold millennia frozen in a glacier, still hits home - particularly the shape-shifting and the subsequent paranoia Carpenter made so much of - Campbell seems leagues more interested in exploiting every last drop of the melodrama the premise entails, and haplessly documenting some talking heads talking nonsense.

Perhaps it wasn't always nonsense they were talking... perhaps it's dreadfully crass of me to assert as much. But even allowing for the foibles of such fiction in the late thirties, Who Goes There? is unequal to any variety of comparison with Carpenter's masterful adaptation. The bare bones of the story are there, at least, but the film fashions a body around those bones - developing the potential of certain threads of character and narrative Campbell seems profoundly uninterested in, and abandoning those others than simply do not work where the author of the original novella is content to present a picked-clean corpse.

Rocket Ride Books, however, have gone above and beyond with this edition of Who Goes There? Let's give the small press start-up credit where credit's been duly earned, because Campbell's novella is but one part of the classy package they've put together - and were it that alone, I might still recommend it, whatever its failings, as a curiosity to fans of either film version.

But the Rocket Ride reissue of Who Goes There? goes the extra mile, coming complete with the informative introduction aforementioned, and a whole other thing: the spec script William F. Nolan wrote for Universal Studios' consideration in the late 70s, when they were sniffing around the idea of another adaptation. So not the screen treatment John Carpenter used a few years later - that was from the pen of the late and lamented Bill Lancaster - but a third distinct take on Campbell's tale; an iteration more straightforwardly science fictional than either of the others, and wreathed in Americana. I'm glad, ultimately, that Nolan's script wasn't the basis of The Thing, but assuredly it makes for a fascinating what if?

For collectors, then, the value-packed Rocket Ride edition of Who Goes There? should make for a no-brainer of a buy. It'll be a harder sell to those with less interest in the cinematic lineage of John W. Campell's original story - poised to continue, against all odds, in a very promising prequel slated for later in 2011 - though those potential readers too would be well advised to look beyond the pulpy melodrama of Who Goes There? itself to the pitch-perfect extra features and deleted scenes of this bounteous re-release.


Who Goes There?
by John W. Campbell

UK and US Publication: April 2009, Rocket Ride Books

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