Who Goes There – Book Review

Title – Who Goes There?

Author – John Campbell

Genre – Sci-fi, Horror

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John Carpenter’s cult classic of the eighties, The Thing, was one of my favorite horror movies growing up. I recently found out the movie was based on a book by John Campbell titled “Who Goes There” , published in 1938 under the pen name Don Stuart. In the 1970s the book was voted as one of the finest science fiction stories ever written, and was adapted into three films. I haven’t watched the 1951 “The Thing From Another World” , but I loved the 1982 “The Thing” , and didn’t think too much of the 2011 prequel to the 80s movie of the same name. Carpenter’s film is the most faithful adaptation of the book and the most well made, with it’s haunting theme tune.

I picked up the book as soon as I heard about it and finished it over the last two nights. Set in the extreme climatic conditions of the Antarctica of the 1930s, the story follows a group of researchers towards the end of winter and awaiting spring, who happen to discover an alien spaceship crashed and buried in the snow. Assumed to be over twenty million years old, the team attempts to thaw it with a thermite charge, but end up destroying the ship. They do discover the equally frozen remains of the pilot, buried some distance away from the craft – possibly having emerged out to look for warmer climates and succumbed in the harsh new environment. Hoping to not repeat the damaging result of the aircraft, they carry the ice block with the visitor frozen inside, to thaw it “naturally” in their headquarters. And that’s when havoc ensues.

In spite of being a complex organism, the creature’s cells function like those of simple organisms – they revive when thawed and the animal comes to life. The peculiarity of the unwelcome visitor is that it’s cells function as a separate entity from the whole organism. “Every part of it is all of it. Every part is a whole. Every piece is self-sufficient.”  It can latch on to other beings – birds, animals and humans alike – and mimic their cells perfectly to form a  whole new organism that looks, thinks and behaves exactly like the original, and the original organism dies in the process.

The team of pathologists, biologists, meteorologists, physicists, aviation mechanics, and those of varying expertise in their fields must now work together to quarantine the shape-shifter before it takes over all the humans and animals on camp, and moves on from Antarctica to the rest of the world population. But how can the team trust each other when anyone could be a potential threat? “We’ve got monsters, madmen and murderers. Any more M’s you can think of?”  Are people going mad due to cabin fever? Are sane men murdering potential mimics? How do they discern friend from foe, identify who are the real humans and which ones are the clones? Are the sled dogs really dogs or mimics? Are the cows they are milking providing real milk or foreign entities? How does one destroy a creature with no natural enemies? If it can become whatever attacks it, no one or nothing is seen as a threat but as a means of absorption and assimilation into a whole new organism.

The entire book is written in the third person narrative, ensuring the reader is constantly kept guessing about who/what/where the alien could be. Do we look for behavioral signs? Any hint of suspicion in what the characters are saying? Do their feelings, thoughts or dreams identify them as potential aliens? “The idea of the creature imitating us is unreal, because it is too completely unhuman to deceive us. It doesn’t have a human mind.”  As the suspense and paranoia build up slowly, the reader is left questioning one’s own sanity about what and whom to believe. Every one says “I’m human”, but what makes us human? The way we look, our thoughts, our feelings, our ambitions, our will to survive. If all of these are mimicked to perfection, can the mimic be called “human” too? A must-read for sci-fi and horror fans, the book can be described in one word as atmospheric.

~ “Three quarters of an hour, through -37° cold, while the aurora curtain bellied overhead. The twilight was nearly twelve hours long, flaming in the north on snow like white, crystalline sand.”

~ “It was white death. Death of a needle-fingered cold driven before the wind, sucking heat from any warm thing.  Cold and white mist of endless, everlasting drift. It was easy to get lost in ten paces.”

~ “The huge blowtorch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurgingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.”

~ “A low rippling snarl of distilled hate. A shrill of pain, a dozen snarling yelps.”

~ “The three eyes glared at him sightlessly. He realized vaguely that he had been looking at them for a very long time, and understood that they were no longer sightless.”

~ “An odor alien among the smells of industry and life. And yet, it was a life-smell.”

Very creepy and well written, with a pounding sense of dread that makes one marvel at the era in which the writer produced it. There are references to the first people who ever made it to the North and South Poles, with these memorable expeditions so close to the time when the story was actually written. Antarctica is a harsh continent even today. One shudders to think of the conditions the crew would have to deal with in the 1930s. The plot is riveting, the pace evenly thrilling, and just like the creature, each part of the story adds to the whole. The characterization is excellent, with each specialist’s contribution to the proceedings imperative to the monster being dealt with. A seminal piece of old-school horror and science fiction that was way ahead of it’s time! Go ahead and read it, if you haven’t already.

Rating – 5/5

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I read the book on Kindle. This was the paperback version when the book originally came out. Current cover versions refer to “The Thing” instead of the actual title.
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