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Beware! Of Rewrites
by Alan Hanson
When Edgar Rice Burroughs first mailed his manuscripts to magazine editors, they often were not pleased with the stories on first reading. These editors then had three options open to them. The first, and the one used most often, was to return the story to the author with a rejection slip. Second, the editor could return the story with a request that Burroughs revise it along suggested lines and resubmit it. Finally, the editor could turn the story over to a member of his staff for rewriting and then seek Burroughs’ permission to print the story as revised.
When the editor undertook the revision process in house, it often resulted in radical departure, not only from Burroughs’ text, but also from Burroughs’ style. The two most obvious examples of this are when Chandler White turned Tarzan and the Forbidden City into The Red Star of Tarzan for a 1938 appearance in Argosy, and when Leo Margulies’ turned Burroughs’ Murder in the Jungle into Tarzan and the Jungle Murders for Thrilling Adventures in 1940.
Another story that underwent major reconstructive surgery on the editor’s desk was Beware! Burroughs’ efforts to market the 24,000-word story, written in 1922, are detailed in Irwin Porges’ biography of ERB. Munsey editor Bob Davis returned Burroughs’ first submission with an evaluation labeling it, “the nearest approach to mediocrity that ever came from your pen.” After a series of other rejections, Raymond Palmer finally purchased the story in 1939 for his Fantastic Adventures. Palmer oversaw major changes in the story, and it finally appeared under the title The Scientists Revolt in the July 1939 issue of the magazine.
Burroughs’ original version of the story was an attempt at a suspenseful, contemporary mystery. The tale opens in the mythical kingdom of Assuria with the royal family under siege in the palace. The new-born Crown Prince Alexander is spirited out of the country disguised as the son of a loyal officer, Lt. Terrance Donovan. The next day Alexander’s parents disappear after the rebels storm the palace.
The story then jumps 22 years forward, apparently to contemporary times. Macklin Donovan, who the reader assumes to be the aforementioned crown prince, is unaware of his true identity and is working as a secret service agent for the U.S. government. “Mackie” is conducting an undercover investigation of wealthy American Mason Thorn and his relationship with a gang of Assurians. Mackie arrives at the Thorn townhouse, where the remainder of the story takes place during the ensuing night. In addition to Donovan and Thorn, the principals gathered at the house include the butler Goertz, Count Saranov, and his daughter Nariva, who Mackie has fallen in love with. After Mason Thorn is shot dead in the hallway outside Nariva’s door, Goertz disappears and Lt. Terrance Donovan is part of the police contingent that arrives to investigate the murder. The story then becomes an overnight hodgepodge of warning notes, gunshots, and disappearing characters.
The rewrite that resulted in The Scientists Revolt produced changes of two general types. First, modifications were made to increase the readability and pace of the story. Second, elements were altered and added to transform the story from a contemporary mystery to a science fiction story.
Palmer’s editor must have been concerned about the slow pace of Beware! because he made several changes so the story would read easier and faster. For starters, The Scientists Revolt has more paragraphing. Many of Burroughs’ long paragraphs were split into two or three parts to make the story less formidable to the reader’s eye. The adding of chapter titles was probably another cosmetic feature to give the story more surface attraction.
A more significant change, however, aimed at increasing the pace of the story was the deletion of much of Burroughs’ background information. Palmer’s editor edited out any material he felt did not contribute to moving the action forward. For instance, a Beware! paragraph reads, “The three men walked directly to Macklin’s room, which like the hall, was in darkness, although Donovan distinctly recalled that the lamp on the reading table had been lighted when he left the room. Just inside the doorway was a switch which operated two inverted dome lights suspended from the ceiling. Macklin pressed this switch and the room was flooded with light.” The Scientists’ Revolt shortens the middle sentence to, “Just inside the doorway was a switch.” The rewrite editor apparently judged the reference to what it operated as extraneous.
Again, in Beware!, when Macklin’s room is being searched by the police, Count Saranov becomes impatient for the gun he had planted to be found and suggests Captain Bushor search Mackie’s bed. In his version, Burroughs had Bushor ignore the suggestion for several moments while he searched several other pieces of furniture before turning to the bed. Palmer’s version sends Bushor straight to the bed after the suggestion. Again, the action was being pushed along in the magazine version.
Several longer background passages were removed as well. In Beware!, after Mackie stumbles into the adjoining mystery house and is pushed back through the closet into the Thorn house, he has a conversation with his two police guards concerning where he has been the past few minutes. Revolt leaves out this four-paragraph discussion. In all, more than a thousand words were removed from Beware! by eliminating Burroughs’ background information. (The length of the two stories is about equal, however, since in other places Palmer’s directed rewrite added about as much as was cut out.)
Not only did Palmer’s editor remove material to speed up the story, but he also added a couple of subtle elements for the same purpose. After hearing a scream at night, Mackie forces Nariva’s door with his shoulder. To give the scene a greater sense of action, Revolt adds, “The bolt and keeper tore through the wooden frame and the door swung inward.” To enhance suspense in another situation, a Burroughs sentence which reads, “Mystified, Donovan came from the closet and locked the door,” was changed to read, “Hair crawling on his scalp with eerie pricklings, Donovan came from the closest and locked the door.”
All of these changes to speed the pace of the story really do very little to alter the mood Burroughs created. In fact, they are the kind of changes that the author probably would have made himself if the editor had so requested. However, the changes made to transform the story out of the world of realism and into the realm of science fiction were so extreme that they should have earned Palmer’s editor a credit as co-author.
First, Revolt moves the setting of the story well into the future. In Beware! the prologue concerns the escape of baby Alexander from Assuria. The first chapter is titled, “Twenty-two Years Later,” and apparently puts the main action of the story in a time-frame contemporary with its writing. In the magazine version, the prologue carries the date “2190 A.D.” With the same twenty-two-year advance in chapter one, the story resumes in the twenty-third century.
Palmer had to remove several other references to a twentieth century setting. Dropped is Mackie’s suspicion of Thorn that, “At first we thought the Reds had gotten hold of him.” Cut also is Mackie’s conclusion that he “might as well connect Young Roosevelt or Joe Cannon with Red activities as a Glassock of Philadelphia.” Palmer’s version labels the law officers in the story as “strato-police,” and so Lt. Terrance Donovan’s recollection of walking a beat as a young policeman is necessarily dropped. A reference to Kipling, along with six lines from his poem Tommy, appear in Beware! but not in Revolt. Finally, in Beware! a rattled housemaid exclaims, “I wouldn’t go back to my room alone if you’d give me Broadway.” In the Fantastic Adventures version, Broadway gives way in the housemaid’s hyperbole to “Television Follies.”
To inject an atmosphere of science in the story, Palmer’s editor had Burroughs’ traditional emphasis on monarch rule changed to rule based on scientific knowledge. The ancient ruling dynasty of Assuria becomes a “science dynasty.” This alteration required a wealth of terminology changes throughout the text, such as dropping or changing titles. The “emperor” becomes the “Science Ruler;” the title “prince” is dropped in reference to Sanders and Alexander; and “Her majesty” is omitted in reference to the Science Ruler’s wife. In Beware! the characters Semepovski and Drovoff are said to be the respective heads of the “monarchist” and “Republican” parties. In Revolt their namesakes Sanders and Danard head the “scientists’ party” and the “so-called New Freedom Party.”
In dropping all references to the Assurian royal family, the following passage concerning Macklin Donovan’s education was deleted: “There had been other things in his education that had seemed in a way bizarre—fencing, for example, and riding; two accomplishments that his father had insisted upon his gaining proficiency in.”
To provide a foundation for a society based on science, Revolt included a long footnote at the end of the Prologue to explain the rise and fall of the Science dynasty. The opening chapter contains two added two paragraphs on the success of science in America and on Mackie’s job as a Secret Service agent to investigate elements threatening that science-based society. In the same chapter an interesting change eliminated a sexist reference and replaced it with a prejudiced one based on science. “From Beware!: “You know I never smoke. I don’t approve of women smoking.” From Revolt: “You know I never smoke. It’s unscientific and harmful.”
Palmer’s version invented and added some technologically advanced gadgets to boost the futuristic backdrop of the story. A paragraph in Beware! that has Mackie take a conventional taxi to the Thorn house was replaced in Revolt with a paragraph that has Mackie going to an aerial taxi tower to catch an air-taxi. The conventional guns used in Beware! were changed to “needle pistols” in the Palmer directed rewrite. A two-sentence footnote explains that the needle pistol fires a tiny, needle-shaped pellet. The switch from bullets to small pellets then required a couple alterations in the text. “The report of a firearm reverberated through the house,” became, “The faint report of a needle pistol came to his ears.”
The biggest addition of gadgetry, and Palmer’s major contribution to the story, was the changing of the Thorn townhouse to the Thorn Tower. In Beware! the Thorn house, situated in a fashionable neighborhood, has balconies on its exterior, and the houses on either side are “similarly disfigured by these mid-Victorian atrocities.” It turns out that Drovoff and Saranov used the house on one side as a base to come and go from the Thorn house in their efforts to kill Mackie. While the conspirators use the secret passages through the closets of the two houses, Mackie, in his investigations, makes the trip to the mystery house by two other routes. First, he climbs along the balconies and enters a window of the adjacent house, and later he makes his way next door by using the scuttles on the roofs of the two houses. Only at the end of the story does Goertz demonstrate to the Donovans, and the reader, the passages through the closets.
In Revolt the neighborhood is not marked by fashionable houses. Rather, the Thorn Tower is situated amidst, “the giant hive of Lower New York, with its half-mile high buildings, housing thirty-four millions of people.” The Thorn Tower is described as being one of the two tallest towers in the vicinity, with another tower of comparable height about a mile away. In Beware! Mackie never discovers the secret of the closet, but in Revolt he does. It turns out that Nariva’s closet is also a “radio-transmitter of matter.” Mackie enters the closet, pulls a coat hangar, and after being bathed in a weird blue light, finds himself transported to the matching tower a mile away. Beware!’s seven paragraphs taking Mackie between the two buildings by way of the scuttles was completely rewritten for Revolt into 12 paragraphs about Mackie’s transmission between the two towers. Near the end of the story, as Greeves shows the Donovans the secret of the transportation between the two towers, Palmer’s editor added a footnote explaining the principle of radio transmission of matter.
Finally, in viewing Palmer’s sponsored rewrite, there are a couple of other minor, but interesting, changes to be noted. First, the magazine version removes a racially offensive word from Burroughs’ text. When Officer McGroarty broke through Saranov’s door, Burroughs had Terrance Donovan observe tongue-in-cheek, “There is nothing heavier than a ton of Mick.” In Revolt the final word is changed to “Irish.” The closing line of Beware! has Mackie telling Nariva, “Emperor or Mick, I’m going to marry you.” In Revolt the closing line reads, “Prince of Science or Mackie, I’m going to marry you.”
A final change involved Burroughs’ repeated reference to a mannerism that Macklin Donovan exhibited. When Mackie finds the note he supposes is from Nariva requesting that he come to her room, his “right palm went to the back of his neck in a characteristic gesture of perplexity.” While Revolt retains this passage, it deletes two other later references to the same mannerism. In his room, as he later ponders Nariva’s role in the adventures of the night, the hand goes to the back of Mackie’s neck a second time. Again, as he wonders what information his father is keeping from him, “The inevitable palm went to the back of his neck and rubbed slowly back and forth.” These last two occurrences are left out of the magazine version, and with the story being weak enough in characterization, it’s puzzling that the one mannerism that gives Macklin Donovan, the lead character, some distinctiveness was purposely weakened.
In conclusion, it seems that Palmer’s efforts to make the story read easier and faster do work. Reading The Scientists Revolt is less of a chore than tackling Beware! However, the changes to make it a science fiction story are ineffective. The story remains essentially a murder mystery, and moving it into the future with its added gadgetry adds nothing to the plot. In fact, compared with Beware! the setting of Revolt is bothersome. Beware! may be a rehash of an at-the-time already overdone scenario, but at least the setting, the characters, and plot work together, unlike in The Scientists Revolt, where they seem to be continually getting in each other’s way.
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BEWARE! / SCIENTISTS REVOLT IN ERBzine C.H.A.S.E.R.
Written as "Beware!" in November 1922 under the pseudonym "John Tyler McCulloch" but did not sell until 1939.
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