Discover more from A Lonely Impulse of Delight
Only the Monster Wants the Story
The Thing and Burning It All Down
A few days ago, Missoula got several inches of snow. It was a little too much snow for October, even by the standards of the Northern Rockies. Even better, the temperature mostly stayed well below freezing for days, varying just enough to let incipient melt pools and slush piles turn entire streets into sheets of black ice. Oh and it’s also been windy. Enough so that I woke up at 3:30 am a few nights ago to an eerie shrieking that battered my rickety windowpanes at a time that should belong to silence.
You could say I haven’t been going much of anywhere.
About ten minutes into John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) stands with his comrades over the husk of an exploded helicopter. All around them is a vast expanse of white, broken only by cliffs and low-slung concrete buildings. These men have just been shot at by a team of raving Norwegian scientists who managed to blow up their own helicopter in a mad pursuit of what appears to be an ordinary sled dog. Surveying the wreckage, MacReady says, “First goddamn week of winter.”
You could say I felt him on that.
The Thing is a movie about guys trying to chill. The team of American researchers whose afternoon is interrupted by the surprise Norwegian assault is settling in for a long winter. It’ll be boring, it’ll be claustrophobic, and it’ll involve heavy drinking. What it shouldn’t be is eventful, unless something catastrophic happens. That such a thing could happen is why the team has at least two pilots and a stable of sled dogs—the only way to get help would be to get out. Otherwise you’re just where you are, surrounded by snow and cold.
And who among us doesn’t see the appeal in spending our winter in such a way? I’ll give you a choice. You can hole up in a ruggedly beautiful place with little to do except bond with a ragtag team of misfits. Or you can stay involved in [gestures around]. Maybe Antarctic exploration isn’t your bag even when the alternative is [gestures around], but you at least thought about it.
There is an obvious pandemic take about The Thing. Consider that the movie’s antagonist is a shape-shifting space alien that cunningly blends in among its victims by taking on the form of their allies. In other words, anyone in the room could be the monster that will get us all killed. Oh my God it’s not wearing a mask, it wants to hug me! Droplets are flying everywhere and we’re inside!!
I’m not into that take. All else being equal and as long as you don’t have to visit an ICU, a pandemic is a state of anxious boredom more than a state of active crisis. Banality and fear are a combination that can wear you down without ever yielding a good story. Stories have peaks and valleys. Stories are not just a trudge through an endless expanse of knee-deep snow that could cave in beneath you but is unlikely to do so on any single step.
They say there are only two stories: A stranger comes to town, or someone leaves town. A more salacious, Carpenterian way of saying that might be, the story starts when the monster arrives, or when you seek out the monster. The characters in The Thing do both. First the monster comes to them. And then, to their horror, they feel forced to keep seeking it out, first at the burned-out Norwegian base and then among themselves.
It’s all so unfair to a group of guys who were just trying to hunker down. In a recent piece on Chekhov, I posited a basic test for fictional characters: Do they want to be in a story, or not? The answer is clear in the case of The Thing. None of these man asked for this, but their narrative-less place to chill has turned into a story.
The only solution to the monster indeed turns out to be to destroy the place itself. They’ve realized that the monster doesn’t care about them at all; it just wants a way to get somewhere with more organisms, so it can infect them all. So after a graphically unsuccessful series of attempts to fend off the monster, the last few survivors decide that the only solution is to blow up their entire camp. Fire is the one thing they know can defeat the monster. They delve and plant dynamite. The grotesquely growing monster almost gets them all, but MacReady famously yells, “Yeah, well fuck you too!” as he hurls a stick of dynamite at the thing. The camp goes boom. MacReady and Childs, the last two men (?) standing, share a bottle of whiskey as the wreckage burns and a wickedly cold night descends.
Did it work? The dynamite, the sacrifice, the killing of comrades who turned out not to be monsters—was it all worth it? If it stopped the monster from infecting everyone else on earth, then probably so. But we don’t get to know that. The Thing is smart enough to resist tying a bow on a burning ruin in a frigid wasteland. We fade to black without knowing whether the monster is dead or alive. We know only that we have failed in our search for chill, and have been rewarded with inevitability of cold.
It has often felt, lo these past seven months or more, like the only useful thing we can do is burn shit down. Yet what most of us do, most of the time, is hunker down. We mostly don’t want to be in a story any more than these unlucky guys do. I find myself looking around my tiny apartment and wishing more than anything for a better place to shelter. Probably no place would be good enough, but I can dream of finding a place so remote and peaceful that the only thing a monster would want from it would be to leave.
And if I end up having to blow that place up, well, I guess the final consolation would be that it made for a good story.
Calvin and Hobbes Corner
We’ve come in from the cold:
A rare moment of sincere warmth from Hobbes in that first panel. It occurs to me that I probably learned too much about friendship from this mercurial tiger. I like to jab and tease and antagonize my friends; I’ve had to learn to soften up and be more considerate, or at least to pick my spots. Pick my stripes?
By the second panel, Hobbes is once again wry, distancing himself from Calvin’s concern. He’s also bragging and embellishing, something I’m realizing I may have also picked up from this comic strip. No story has sunk into me more deeply than Calvin and Hobbes. Doing this analysis is helping me understand myself.
Anyway, the punchline here is that Hobbes’ reality contradicts that of Calvin’s parents. Only Calvin can resolve this contradiction, and he does so by indicting his friend. And I don’t blame him. If Hobbes had been more humble, he’d have set himself up for the benefit of the doubt. As it is, well, he doesn’t get much more trust than the characters in The Thing give each other.
Theodore Roethke is waking