What Do H. P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell, Jr. Have in Common?

Things From Outer SpaceThings From Outer Space
Hank Davis, ed.
mass market paperback $7.99
ebook $6.99 Amazon, $8.99 publisher’s website

This book came out at the end of August.  I’m still reading it, so this isn’t going to be a review of the whole book.  That will come after I finish reading it.  I am going to discuss John Campbell, Jr.’s classic “Who Goes There?”, which is the lead story and the inspiration for the anthology.

I’m also going to discuss H. P.. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”.  That’s not the Lovecraft story in the book, btw.  Davis chose “The Colour Out of Space”.  Probably because it fit the theme better than AtMoM.

I have read somewhere, and it was long enough ago that I don’t recall where, that Campbell may have been inspired to write “Who Goes There?” after reading “At the Mountains of Madness” in Astounding Stories in 1936.

I don’t know if this is true, but there are some strong similarities between the stories.  There are some key differences as well.

We’ll look at them briefly, starting with Lovecraft.  He submitted the story to Weird Tales in 1931, but Farnsworth Wright rejected it.  Lovecraft’s agent Julius Schwartz submitted the story to F. Orlin Tremaine at Astounding Stories, who edited the story severely, excising significant portions.

Lovecraft,_Mountains_of_MadnessLovecraft’s story concerns an expedition to Antarctica from Arkham University (where else?).  While exploring the at the time largely unknown continent, they discover a chain of mountains higher than the Himalayas.  After one of their outposts at the base of the mountains is attacked and all living things killed, including all the sled dogs, a couple of men retrace the explorations of the dead men.

What they find on the other side of the mountains are the remains of a vast city that stood for centuries.  Of course they explore…

I’ll not give away details for those of you who might not have read the story.  Opinion is split on whether it’s one of Lovecraft’s best or worst.  I’ve seen comments about how slow and dull the writing is.  Others have the opposite opinion.  Me, I rather liked the story.  I read it…I guess about six weeks ago now.  (Yes, it’s taken me that long to find make the time to sit down and write this.)  While I can certainly see why some people might find it dull, it held my interest over three or four days.  Given the chaos in my schedule right now, that’s pretty good.

lovcraft mountains interiorBefore I read “At the Mountains of Madness”, I reread “Who Goes There?”  I’d not read it since I originally read it in the SFBC edition of Ballantine’s The Best of John W. Campbell, and that was the fall semester (or was it spring?) of my freshman year in high school.

“Who Goes There?” is undoubtedly John Campbell’s best known work.  Most of his other stories, whether written under his name or his pseudonym Don A. Stuart, have been forgotten except by a dwindling number of people who remember Campbell or a few geezers-in-training who like the old stuff, such as Your Intrepid Blogger.

It deserves to be remembered.  It’s a solid story with science that has held up in the nearly 80 years since its publication (1938).  Also published in Astounding Stories, Campbell’s story is shorter than Lovecraft’s and contains many more characters who play an active role in the events.

astounding august 1938This story also starts off with an Antarctic expedition, although one much smaller than Lovecraft’s expedition.  A team investigating the geology of a distant area uncover a crashed spaceship which has been frozen for thousands of years.  Their attempts to get the ship free of the ice end up destroying it, but not before they are able to remove the body of one of the crew.  They take the body of the alien back to their base camp for further examination.

Of course it turns out that the crew member isn’t exactly dead, just frozen.  It’s still alive, and it’s a shapeshifter.  A shapeshifter that not only takes on the form of other organisms, it grows and spreads as it does so.  It isn’t long before the creature has taken the form of sled dogs and people.

The men ASF38-08-0061begin to suspect each other of being the monster.  The dogs don’t like it, so it goes after the dogs.  Eventually they manage to come up with a way to determine who is and isn’t human.  It’s a great bit of scientific logic that holds up well even today.

As I said, it’s been years since I read “Who Goes There?”  I’d forgotten most of the details, so in many ways it was like reading the story for the first time.  (I suspect that’s going to become a more common occurrence as I grow older.)  The story, both writing and execution of the tale, were well done.  The style was a little different than what contemporary readers might be used to, but nothing anyone who is a regular reader would have trouble with.  It’s easy to see why the story has inspired more than one film and even a video game.

So wFilm1951-TheThingFromAnotherWorld-OriginalPosteras Campbell influenced by “At the Mountains of Madness”?  Probably, although I can’t say for sure.  The approaches to similar situations are entirely different.  Lovecraft dealt with ancient horrors and tied “At the Mountains of Madness” in with the other stories in what’s come to be called the Cthulhu cycle.  Campbell, on the other hand, was more of a rationalist, at least at this point in his life.  The problems Lovecraft’s protagonists face are usually beyond their ability to solve, and their fates are difficult if not impossible to escape.  The typical response is to run.  Campbell, in contrast to Lovecraft, has his heroes use their brains fight back.  While I thought there were some strong similarities, such as some of the scenes with the sled dogs, overall the stories were more different than alike apart from the Antarctic setting and the plot device of discovering something ancient in the ice.

So my best guest is that Lovecraft, either consciously or not, influenced Campbell.  But Campbell was enough of a writer that he put his own very successful spin on the same basic situation of Antarctic explorers finding something evil and ancient that is best left alone.

I will say that I enjoy both Campbell and Lovecraft and intend to read and reread more of them.  So that’s one thing they have in common.

6 thoughts on “What Do H. P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell, Jr. Have in Common?

  1. Gill Avila

    I’m convinced that Lovecraft read “The Greatest Adventure” by John Taine before he wrote ATMOM because of the similarities between the two.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Gill, I’m not familiar with “The Greatest Adventure”. I’ll have to look for it. Thanks for the tip.


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