I have a long history with The Thing.
One of my earliest memories is watching the 1951 Howard Hawks version with my mom and dad. I was about three or four years old, curled up on the couch in between them, with the blankets pulled up to my chin. I can still vividly remember my horror as I watched the shadow of Will Arness' Thing out in the blizzard, casually slaughtering the team's sled dogs. To this day, that scene of the arctic scientists trying to determine the shape of the magnetic anomaly in the ice—cheesy music sting and all—holds an eerie power for me.
Catching the 1982 John Carpenter version on cable was one of my formative pre-teen experiences. I was already a horror film junkie by that point, well versed in everything from Hellraiser, to Evil Dead, to Alien. I considered myself quite the jaded little gore connoisseur. And if you had told me I was about to watch a movie that would blow me out of the water, one that would genuinely scare me, I would have laughed right in your face.
The Thing, though, was some straight up next-level shit. Everything about it, from the Ennio Morricone score, to the perfect cinematography, to the still-unequaled practical creature effects, was a bar-raising landmark. Combine that with the tight pacing, the claustrophobic sets, the paranoid direction, and the virtuoso acting performances, and you have one of the most perfect horror films ever made.
Naturally, when I got around to reading the original novella that inspired both films—1938's Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell—I was already predisposed to liking it. And I did. No, it's not quite the timeless masterpiece of horror storytelling that Carpenter's film is. The ending isn't nearly as exciting. The sense of menace doesn't quite build the same way that it does in Lovecraft's better-written tales. Aside from McReady, the characterizations are thin to non-existent.
But as a pulp SF tale of the "men-with screwdrivers" school, it more than delivers. Campbell sets the claustrophobic tone in the story's first lines, describing the queer, mingled smells that choke the Antarctic camp's tunnels. When McReady comes on the scene—here as a meteorologist rather than a pilot—he is described in appropriately pulpy terms, a red-haired giant, a bronze demigod come to life. When the creature is at last revealed in the block of ice, Campbell gives us the almost superstitious reactions of the otherwise coldly rational scientists. The discord produces a fantastic effect.
All in all, the opening scene is a master class in establishing mood, setting, and tone while simultaneously kicking off the story with a bang. I'd even go as far as to say this opening is the one thing that Who Goes There? legitimately does better than either of the film versions, both of which take a little time to orient the viewer before introducing the horror.
Which is why despite my excitement, I have a few reservations about the upcoming release of Frozen Hell, from Wildside Press.
In case you haven't heard yet, writer Alec Nevala-Lee recently rediscovered the lost manuscript for the original, novel-length version of Who Goes There?. A Kickstarter campaign to cover publishing costs met its goal in less than twelve hours, meaning we'll all get to read it early next year.
Admittedly, my first reaction to this news was sheer, unbridled joy. And for part of me it still is. So why the reservations?
According to the project's Kickstarter page, Frozen Hell is apparently 45 pages longer than Who Goes There?, with most of the new material taking place before the novella's opening. In other words, that fantastic, moody first chapter will take place somewhere around page 30-35 or so.
Which brings me to an interesting thought about the novella, and half the reason for today's post.
One of the most common bits of advice trotted out to new writers is not to open a story with the dreaded "info-dump." You should hook your reader into the story first, giving them relatable characters and conflict, before giving them blocks of expository text or dialogue. Otherwise, the reader won't care.
There's plenty of truth to that advice, enough where it's a pretty reliable rule of thumb. But what always struck me about Who Goes There? is how much of that opening scene really is just info-dump. For several pages, we have McReady and the other scientists just standing around in a room, talking about this frozen creature.
What's more, in this same scene Campbell violates another piece of writing advice that's become akin to gospel over the years: having characters talk about things most of them already know, purely as an excuse to fill in the reader. Or "As you know, Bob," dialogue.
Campbell partially sidesteps it here, by having Commander Garry address the assembled men first:
You know the outline of the story back of that find of the Secondary Pole Expedition. I have been conferring with second-in-Command McReady, and Norris, as well as Blair and Dr. Copper. There is a difference of opinion, and because it involves the entire group, it is only just that the entire Expedition personnel act on it.
The rest of the opening consists largely of McReady and Blair explaining the events leading until now, events many of the assembled men were already present for. But because it's presented as a briefing intended to get the station's personnel all on the same page, it works.
Even so, it was a genuinely audacious storytelling choice, particularly in a format as dependent on fast-paced thrills as the pulps. The whole thing is carried by Campbell's moody description and the gradual reveal of the situation through dialogue, both of which give the scene its necessary suspense. More proof that you can break any writing convention, provided you do it with style.
Of course, the discovery of the Frozen Hell manuscript reveals that scene's original placement, which was roughly a quarter of the way into the story. That's much more in line with the standard "hook your reader, explain things later" advice. While I'm genuinely curious to see what hook Campbell uses, something tells me it won't be quite as innovative or memorable as an in-media-res, "as you know, Bob," info dump.
There's no question that I'm going to buy Frozen Hell the second it's available for general release. Maybe it's better than the novella. Maybe the scenes leading up to that tense, wonderful cold open will somehow make it more powerful. Maybe not.
In some ways, I feel like a kid who snuck a peek behind the curtain at a magic show. Now that I've seen all the mirrors and the hidden trap doors, I'm just sitting in the audience, hoping the Astounding Campbell can still wow me.
Here's hoping. Either way, I'll be the first in line.
For a limited time, I'm making my Roman-era steampunk short "Pax Mechanica" available as a free online read.
Want to know what happens when one of Ceasar's War Walkers encounters the Celtic Britons? Click here to find out.
Pop quiz, hot shot.
Let's say you're a complete newcomer to roleplaying games. You and your friends want to jump into D&D. And you, you lucky bastard, have been elected Dungeon Master. Well, guess what? You're literally the only player who needs to have the rules on hand. Serves you right for being so handsome and personable.
What do you do? What do you do?
90's action-movie references aside, your options are as follows:
Amazon can take the sting out of the cost of the core rulebooks, dropping the cost to around $60 for just the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual. The Starter Set generally runs close to retail, but you can sometimes find a third party seller packaging it with extra dice.
My personal recommendation? Don't start with "official" D&D. Start with the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game.
Like most independently-published retro-clone games, the core rules are available as a free PDF. Unlike most of them, that free PDF includes all art and illustrations. The game's publisher has also made the print version available at cost, meaning a physical copy of the rulebook will only set you back $5.
And that rulebook is an all-in-one, containing the complete Players' Guide, Game Master information, and Monsters. Getting the same "complete" rules for 5e will run you around $150.00, by comparison.
Below is my copy of the core rulebook, along with six sets of dice (and bags) I scored for $10.99. Total cost? Less than sixteen bucks before tax.
For my money, this is the best "D&D Starter Set" you can build. It's cheaper than the official one, provides complete rules, and each player gets their own set of dice. Hell, if you wanted to be extra generous, you could buy each player a copy of the rulebook. You'd still come out of it cheaper than the 5e Players' Handbook.
Sure, BFRPG lacks some of the bells and whistles of 5e, like Backgrounds and Feats. But it's close enough to give you (and your players) a real taste of the game. You can always upgrade to 5e later, after you're all hopelessly addict— er, umm... comfortable with the game. Even if you don't, BFRPG has enough free supplements available to keep your group going for years.
No matter what version of the game you start out with, just remember: the smart DM lets his players buy the pizza. The wise DM gives them an XP bonus to make sure they do it again.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.