read, write, ramble

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A menagerie of Things

At some point in the recent past I was struck with an urge to read Who Goes There?, the John W. Campbell novella that inspired one of my favourite movies, The Thing. I can’t recall where that urge came from—maybe it was nothing more than a desire to read something new and yet also familiar—but it was suddenly very important that I read it. Unfortunately it turned out that I did not, in fact, own a copy of Who Goes There? nor could I find a sufficiently cheap copy online that would arrive quick enough to scratch the itch.

What I did have, I soon remembered, was an ebook of Frozen Hell, the original version of Campbell’s novella which I had picked up through Kickstarter several years earlier. This version had been discovered among Campbell’s papers some years after his death. By all accounts it is largely the same as the eventual published version, the inclusion of three introductory chapters being the major difference from the novella.

Reading this triggered something of a descent into a rabbit hole during which I read almost everything Thing-related that I could get my hands on and—because this is how things work—my thoughts on all of them are below!

Frozen Hell

Frozen Hell book cover

You can read more about the backstory to this version of Campbell’s novel here. My completism doesn’t quite extend to needing to read the published version as well, so I consider it to be an acceptable substitute for Who Goes There? By all accounts it’s essentially the same piece of work: just a little longer and lacking a handful of edits. 

It was an interesting experience reading something hailing from the ‘Golden Age’ of American science fiction and I came away with two main thoughts:

  1. People really don’t write like this anymore (duh), and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
  2. Given the huge stylistic differences, there is a surprising amount of commonality with John Carpenter’s movie here.

On the first point this is really about the way that narrative styles have evolved over the last hundred years or so, veering away from a sense of artifice and drama towards something more naturalistic. Campbell’s characters are, nevertheless, very human—they react in predictable ways to the fact that there’s a creature among them that might not only kill them but destroy the entire world—but there were still moments that I found odd. Characters would often laugh or giggle, which seemed jarring given the situation they’re in. At other times they would come across as almost too blase. 

Furthermore, while Campbell’s descriptive writing is superb, there was an awful lot of talking—and I’m talking primarily about expository dialogue here. Despite the brevity of the tale, and the leanness of the plot, the narrative is very dense and I had the sense of having to wade through it to get to the end even though this is really a very short and enjoyable read.

Given the above, it was a pleasant surprise to discover quite how much Bill Lancaster had taken from the original novella when writing his screenplay for Carpenter’s adaptation. I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here, but a lot of the tentpoles are already in place—the blood test; the doctor going insane; the shape-changing. While Lancaster undeniably used Campbell’s blueprint and turned it into something fresh and new, it’s immediately clear that he took far more than just the basic concept from the novella.

The Adaptations

I’m not going to talk much about the 1982 version of The Thing; partly because there’s already so much written about it out there, but also because it’s such a part of my cinephile DNA that I’m not sure I can say anything objective about it at this point.

The Thing From Another World 1950 movie poster

What I can talk about instead is the Howard Hawks 1951 movie The Thing From Another World (which I will note was directed by Christian Nyby, but almost everyone considers it to be a Hawks movie). I had seen this movie before (as in several decades ago) but I purposefully rewatched it before writing this blog post because I am at least that much of a completist.

It’s a pretty good movie, albeit not one I would personally regard as essential viewing. It’s a surprisingly loose adaptation. Again, there are moments from the book—the discovery and subsequent blowing up of the spaceship; the creature’s first encounter involving dogs—but it mostly goes off in its own direction. One major change is the monster which, due to special effects limitations of the day, is just a man in a suit rather than the shape-changing terror of the novella. This is a shame in my view: I think the very same limitations would have produced a truly tense drama had they opted to retain the ‘trust no one’ foundation of the novella. One thing they did do, however, was work in a pretty clever way to ensure that the alien (despite being reduced to a simple monster) still posed a global threat.

Characterisation was once again interesting. A lot of work had clearly been put into the interpersonal relationships between some of the (large cast of) characters, but this again resulted in some unusual moments of levity. There’s a clear excess of joviality in some scenes given the likelihood of death and global extinction lurking around the corner. I’m not sure if this was a holdover from the novel, or simply the film-makers’ choice. 

One final thing that stood out is the frequency of scenes where characters would talk over each other—a naturalistic choice that was likely heralded by Orson Welles with 1941’s Citizen Kane, but which wouldn’t become a common dramatic choice for many more years to come. (Note: I have since been advised that it was His Girl Friday, released a year before Citizen Kane, that introduced overlapping dialogue. Given that was also a Howard Hawks’ film, it makes perfect sense that the technique would also be used here.)

Short Things

Short Things book cover

One interesting companion piece included within the Frozen Hell Kickstarter was Short Things, a short story collection inspired by the original novel (not, I repeat, not by the Carpenter movie or its 1951 predecessor). Most of the stories were pretty good fun, especially the opener by Alan Dean Foster which efficiently undoes the ‘happy’ ending of the novel. There are various direct follow ons and some more tangentially related tales. Most baffling was a story by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro which offered some fascinating ideas but seemed to have no relation to The Thing, and then simply stopped. Whatever that one was supposed to be, I’d love to read the rest of it! 

I wouldn’t say this collection is an essential read but it’s definitely a fun one so long as you’re familiar with the John W. Campbell inspiration.

The Return Of The Thing (TV Miniseries)

The Thing 1982 poster

What TV miniseries I hear you ask? Well, in 2005 there was lots of buzz around a proposed TV sequel (to John Carpenter’s movie) to be aired on the Sci-Fi channel. This eventually evaporated into nothing but through my Thing rabbit-hole I found a copy of the script!

… which was not great.

Had it been made it would have possibly been entertaining, but it would more likely have been terrible. The script reads as though the one takeaway the writer got from the 1982 movie was the idea that the creature can change into other lifeforms. The logic surrounding when and why the creature would do this is barely thought through and mostly seems to be there as an excuse to have a special-effects set-piece or action scene at regular intervals. There’s the kernel of a good story revolving around a remote US town succumbing to alien possession but with this setup there’s always the risk of simply repeating the Carpenter movie, or ending up retelling Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. In any case, any opportunity to recreate the paranoid dread of Carpenter’s movie is undermined at almost every opportunity by relatively illogical twists for the sake of having a twist.

A fun read, but I’m generally relieved this didn’t get made.

The Thing (2011)

The Thing 2011 movie poster

I’m likely in a minority of people who think that the 2011 prequel was not bad, although I’m far from alone in finding it almost completely ruined by the needless inclusion of CGI effects (which were used to replace the practical effects painstakingly created for the film in honour of its 1982 inspiration).

I chose not to rewatch the film on this occasion, but I did find a copy of Ronald D Moore’s original script. Now, my main complaint with the movie is that the occasions when the Thing reveals itself don’t always make sense. There’s a certain logic to Carpenter’s movie (and Lancaster’s script) wherein the creature will only expose itself if it either has an opportunity to imitate someone new (i.e. they’re alone) or if it’s threatened and the game is up. This logic is sometimes followed in the 2011 movie, but there are also several moments where it seems the creature is shown purely because the script demanded a set-piece.

To the best of my memory, the first half of the script is somewhat different than the movie, but once the Thing shows up it’s effectively the same plot, which is disappointing since this is where most of the issues are. Unlike Return Of The Thing, there is a good sense of paranoia and distrust which drives the latter sections of the narrative, but it is somewhat hobbled by needing to work as an authentic prequel to Carpenter’s movie.

I did not reread the Dark Horse comics for this. I recall being quite excited about them when they were first announced in the early 1990s but lost interest in them quite quickly due to the same lack of narrative consistency that plagued most of the attempted sequels described above. I understand there’s also a sequel novel to Who Goes There? in the works but I don’t plan to rush out and read that. I suspect The Thing is best left to rest (having already produced a genre-defining novel, a science-fiction classic, and an iconic sci-fi horror movie) but given the obvious franchise appeal I’m sure we’ll see more stories or movies sooner or later.

One more Thing

Actually, two more things. 

First, I wanted to give a quick plug to the awesome short story The Things by Peter Watts, which tells the story of The Thing (the 1982 version) from the perspective of the creature. A great read, which was nominated for a Hugo among various other accolades.

Also, in the process of reading all of the above my mind inevitably started pondering various other narrative threads and I found myself thinking “how does a creature like the Thing come into being?” Well, if you want to read what I came up with then check out my short story Imitations Of Life, which you can read for the high price of nothing over on my Slightly Odd Tales site.

#interesting – Saxophone

Today I discovered that the saxophone is banned by the Vatican, which is a delightfully random and utterly useless piece of knowledge. Strictly speaking, the saxophone was banned by Pope Pius X in 1903 (to avoid the temptation of churchgoers indulging in sexydancing, or something or other) and the ban has never formally been repealed. What might happen if you were to turn up in Vatican City with a saxophone I do not know.

The saxophone was also banned by the Nazis as a tool of ‘degenerate’ art due to its popularity with black jazz musicians (but mainly due to the Nazis being irredeemable walking piles of crap). Not to be outdone, Stalin also banned the saxophone due to its links with jazz, but in this instance it was because he viewed jazz as “the embodiment of bourgeois American imperialist culture” (i.e. he hated all americans, not just the black ones … though I expect Hitler wasn’t too fond of americans either after they beat him).

Knowing all this gives me newfound respect for the sax.

#interesting is a series of random facts that I find interesting, and will be posting here during 2021 for your edification, amusement, derision and/or diversion.

#interesting – Contact

If you’re a fan of science fiction movies then you’ve hopefully seen Contact. And, if you’ve seen Contact you’ll remember The Machine, which has one of the more striking designs seen in the film (unsurprising, since the film generally relies on existing real-life locations and technology to preserve its sense of realism).

Turns out The Machine was not an original design for Contact, but is based on an unused concept (by Steve Burg) for Terminator 2, in which we would have finally seen the time displacement machine that sends our heroes and villains back in time.

Once you note the way time travellers in the Terminator movies tend to arrive in spheres of lightning; and travellers in The Machine sit inside a spherical pod it all seems rather obvious …

Why waste a good design, eh?

#interesting is a series of random facts that I find interesting, and will be posting here during 2021 for your edification, amusement, derision and/or diversion.

#interesting – Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan, arguably best known for her Prince-penned hit single I Feel For You (but who has a celebrated career spanning half a century) is the voice you can hear in the chorus of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love (arguably giving us a glimpse of how compelling this very whitest of MOR hits could potentially sound). Once you hear her, you can’t imagine how you never recognised her voice in the first place.

More interesting that that, however, is the fact that another iconic MOR hit—Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love—was originally intended to be a duet with Chaka Khan. It’s hard to imagine how Addicted To Love could be improved, mostly because it’s so indelibly etched in commercial music history, but I suspect we’ve been deprived of something even more remarkable here.

(I’ve picked up a lot of really interesting factoids reading through Tom Breihan’s very excellent Number Ones series, in which he has pledged to write a post on every single song that has reached number one on the Billboard chart. I highly recommend bookmarking it for a rainy day (or several.)

#interesting is a series of random facts that I find interesting, and will be posting here during 2021 for your edification, amusement, derision and/or diversion.

2020: Week 52

(December 28 – 2021)

The end of the year. The start of 2021. We actually made it! It would take a whole website to adequately sum up 2020, and all the thoughts and feelings within, but I’m at least grateful that things in my neck of the woods are far better than I could have ever expected them to be when everything started changing back in Feb/March.

This is usually the time of year when I think about how the format of my blog is going to work for the following year. While I enjoy these weekly posts, I’m less and less driven to do them as the year goes on—I certainly don’t schedule time to write them, they just happen when I feel like it. Consequently, I think it’s time to move away from the weekly post. I still want this blog to focus on my writing, however, so maybe what I’ll try is writing a post whenever I wrap up a writing project—either a new story, or a chapter in the novel.

There’s also something else I want to do. Something that’s bugged me is that I have a terrible memory for trivia (I have a terrible memory for many things, but tiny nuggets of random info have a particular habit of falling through the sieve). So, in a bid to improve that I’m going to take a note every time I find myself thinking ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ and I will then share those random snippets with you as we go. I may just do them as separate tiny blog posts, or I may append them to the main posts. Let’s see …

2020: Week 51

(December 21 – 27)

It is the week of Christmas which means a few things. It means no work for starters. I always enjoy this period of the year: a chance to zone out and mentally reset … and also to catch up with various odd jobs around the house (mostly tidying and sorting).

In theory there should be plenty of time for writing, but in practice the lack of routine, the need to prepare for christmas, and the drive to strike things off my household to-do list means that writing takes a back seat.

I have committed myself to focusing on the novel as my main writing project. While I don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore, I do intend to finish this one off in 2021. I’m currently working on the opening to chapter two and, in a familiar refrain, it’s needing a lot of surgery. At this point the characters are better defined than they were in chapter one, but there’s huge icebergs of exposition that I need to carve up and rearrange a bit more elegantly. This has required going back and forth over the first quarter of chapter two several times … but I think it’s been worth it, and I think I’ve finally reached a point where I can move onto the rest of chapter two.

2020: Week 50

(December 14 – 20)

I managed to finish my Christmas story and I’m pretty darned pleased with it too. It may be just a slight trifle of a tale, but I got a bit more substance in there than simply a monster hiding in a child’s room. The plan now is to promote my previous christmas tales and then publish this new one on or before Christmas Eve.

I’ve decided to continue using Medium for now. It has a nice, easy to use interface, I get stats telling me how many people have looked at vs read my stories, and I’m able to publish my stories under my ‘Slightly Odd Tales’ strand.

I still have one of my christmas stories on Vocal (dot media) and I’ll leave it there for now, but I’ve already deleted the other one (which had barely any views). This was the story I recently did an edit on, but it turns out Vocal does not let you edit stories once they’re published, which is a big no-no given my propensity for leaving typos (aka easter eggs) in stories for my readers to find. Furthermore, I couldn’t even delete the damn thing without having to email the folk at Vocal first and waiting several hours for them to come back to me. It’s a nice enough platform, but I need full control over my content.

I have also been continuing to revisit the novel. I’m up to chapter 2 now, which is needing even more invasive surgery than the first chapter. The latest section in particular has taken on the semblance of a jigsaw: I’ve separated out the various scenes (and by scenes I mostly mean dialogue exchanges which convey a distinct aspect of plot or character) and am currently working out how to make them fit together, and which pieces belong in a completely different part of the story altogether.

Most people, of course, would do this sort of thing before actually writing the novel. However, if you’ve been reading this blog long enough you’ll recall that I took a hybrid approach to this one: I went in with an overall plot for each chapter, but left enough room in for the story and characters to find their own way. I think it’s paid off in the wild and crazy tangents this tale has taken, and tidying up these inconsistencies was always going to be part of the deal.

Who knows: maybe I’ll finish the damn thing next year!

2020: Week 49

(December 7 – 13)

Excellent: it turns out that I already released the haunted mobile phone story last Christmas (which probably explains why it was in fairly good shape already). Even though no one actually read it, it still feels like cheating to release it a second time around, which leaves me with the problem of having to come up with something new.

So I’ve had a necessary trawl through the Archive Of Unfinished Masterpieces (coincidentally also the title of the next Indiana Jones movie) and found this fragment that I scrawled down earlier in the year:

I know it’s hungry.

I can hear its tummy growling.

It hides in the darkness in the corner of my room, waiting in the shadows where I can’t see it. It stays away from my bed. But I know it’s there.

The air is cold and moist with its breath

Now, if that doesn’t have the makings of a classic Christmas tale then I don’t know what does. Watch this space.

2020: Week 48

(November 30 – December 6)

This week I remembered my semi-official tradition of releasing a new spooky story each Christmas and decided that this was a thing I also wanted to do for this Christmas.The inevitable problem is that I always remember this tradition too late in the year to give me a chance to write anything new.

To solve this dilemma I’ve dug out an old, almost-finished story about a man being haunted by his mobile phone. It’s a very M.R.James inspired story (one might even suggest it’s a plain rip off of Casting The Runes) but one I’ve never managed to get quite right.

That being said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what good shape it’s in. So far all the scenes seem to be in the right place and it’s needed nothing more than a light polish.

2020: Week 47

(November 23 – 29)

I’ve been very ugh enjoying revisiting the novel (I’ve been through the prologue and have almost finished chapter one now). Given that this is my second editing pass through it, I’m quite surprised at how much I’ve needed to rework. It’s almost entirely character stuff, but my two leads remain a little unpolished in these early stages. There are also moments where I’ve clearly enjoyed myself too much and thrown in lines and exchanges that don’t really belong and disrupt the flow of the narrative. As such there’s been some chopping as well as some changing.

The good news is that I’m enjoying this process enough that I’ve rebooted my evening writing shifts. Of late I’ve found myself either too tired or too uninspired in the evenings to tackle any writing, so I haven’t done any writing. This week however I simply felt like carrying on where I left off in the morning. Excellent.

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