I was struck by a feeling of déjà vu while reading Who Goes There?. In retrospect this isn’t surprising, since it is a novella whose shockwaves continue to be felt throughout science fiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. elucidates this basic horror-story concept for its first, and perhaps best, iteration. Science fiction’s ties to its speculative cousin of horror are quite clear here. The ingredients are simple: an isolated research station in Antarctica; a startling discovery of a frozen alien body; its reanimation results in it absorbing life-forms and changing its shape to emulate them perfectly. Suddenly, the protagonists don’t know who to trust: anyone could be the monster.
What strikes me as most unusual about Who Goes There? is the thread of optimism that runs through the entire story. Most modern adaptations of the monster-within-us plot emphasize the way in which this fear leads to the group of people tearing itself apart through mistrust. Yet Campbell’s characters are, if anything, rather jolly about the whole problem. They see it as merely a challenge to be confronted, an obstacle to be surmounted. To be sure, they recognize the gravity of the situation: several times, one or another of the characters mentions the possibility that they will have to sacrifice themselves rather than allow themselves to be taken over by the monster and let loose upon the world. Yet, aside from Blair’s breakdown, everyone maintains a sense of calm. It’s remarkable, bordering on incredible. But maybe this is merely Campbell’s own optimism for the human condition shining through.
Who Goes There is a work of suspense, its capacity for horror lying in our need to know what happens next. Who is the monster? Who is human? The characters devise a serum test that fails spectacularly, only to come up with a much simpler and seemingly correct test in a much shorter period of time. This quickly reveals the monsters, who begin to fight for survival but find themselves outmatched by the remaining humans. As far as writing goes, this is hopefully not Campbell at his finest: the prose is serviceable at best, with clunky descriptions and a plodding pace. When we finally approach the climax, it is with frenzied enthusiasm that does not live up to the story’s resolution.
On its own, this story isn’t overly great. Yet it clearly has merits, considering how it has inspired so many other works of fiction and served as the source material for numerous adaptations. And it’s a good enough yarn for an evening read by the fire—provided you’re not in Antarctica, of course.
Read as part of The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels.