(Brilliant? Yes? Effing brilliant? Yes.)
We recently re-read the 1950 story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell as part of our search for weird stories for this big book of weird we’re doing. The experience of encountering the story was an interesting one, in that it no longer evoked any kind of horror for us. This wasn’t simply because we’d read the story before, but because we had the overlay of John Carpenter’s The Thing in our minds. (The 1950s movie version of The Thing, which adheres more closely to Campbell’s story, is hardly the classic it’s made out to be, btw.)
In a sense, the story had been annihilated by the movie. At times, too, Campbell’s SF sensibilities work against the horror in the piece, and the story has a certain dated quality as well.
The idea of the movie eclipsing the story I found interesting, since The Thing seemed to have a ripple effect. For example, Michael Shea’s “The Autopsy”, for me, gets hit by the edge of this ripple effect, aided by the existence of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies. “The Autopsy” retains more of its power, but it doesn’t fully retain it.
Peter Watts’ recent story “The Things,” while representing a bold move only partially escapes this situation. By writing from the viewpoint of the Thing, Watts re-energizes the scenario. However, the story also energizes readers to imagine their own version of the monster’s point of view, and inasmuch as that version differs from Watts creates difficulties in enjoying the story. As I was reading it, I was already constructing my own narrative from the monster’s POV; perhaps this is solely a writer’s problem, but perhaps not—readers who are not writers definitely engage in this kind of storytelling extrapolation, especially when invested in a story.
Most interesting of all was encountering The Thing in the context of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. A chapter entitled “The Thing: White War and Hypercamouflage” completely reinvigorated the scenario, in the context of a “fake” academic paper contained within the more conventionally fictional frame of Negarestani’s fascinating and often brilliant book. (More on the book in a separate post.)
In a sense, Negarestani had imbued his chapter with the spirit and horror of The Thing in a kind of hyperlink way, without having to rewrite the story itself. All of the best parts of The Thing resonate within the piece.
Our reading for the big book of weird has been interesting in part because of issues of duplication, resonance, context, re-contextualization, and issues of debating what older fiction is still interesting as fiction and which is more interesting merely as history within the field. Our own gut feeling for this volume is not to include works that are no longer as powerful or resonant as when they first appeared in print. That helps us focus, and it still leaves us many, many powerful and entertaining works to choose from, across all of the decades we’re covering.
One question for readers would be: Are there other fictions that you no longer find as compelling because of versions from other media?