Friday, March 11, 2011

Forgotten Books: Death Reign of the Vampire King (a dreaded UPDATE of the Spider)

Perhaps the most reviled series of pulp hero reprints ever done (and for that matter perhaps the only reviled series of pulp hero reprints ever done) are the four updated adventures of the Spider published in 1975 by Pocket Books.

When I read them then, I found the updating annoying, but I was still glad to have the stories. At the time, aside from the four books published by Berkely in the late 60s, they were the only reprints of the Spider readily available.

Annoying as the updates were, it wasn’t hard to mentally substitute the old weapons and old vehicles for their modern equivalents. And the pounding prose of Norvell Page was still enjoyable. For me, the worst thing was the dropping of the word “the,” so that the Spider was always referred to as simply “Spider.”

Now that I have a couple of unexpurgated editions of Death Reign of the Vampire King, I decided to take a closer look at the revisions. I did this by reading both versions side by side. For much of the time, I actually had a paperback open in each hand, reading from one to the other. (And yes, turning pages was a bitch.)

I found it mighty interesting.

First, there were the updates to weapons and vehicles I’d noticed the first time. The Spider’s automatics are changed to Colt Python .357 revolvers. A jiu-jitsu blow becomes a karate blow. His Daimler sedan becomes a Mercedes. His plane, a Norththrup, be comes a Boeing. In similar changes, a Minerva becomes a Rolls-Royce, a flivver becomes a car and a police radio-roadster with curtains drawn becomes a police car with the windows down.

Other examples: Richard Wentworth no longer wears goggles when piloting his plane. His plane’s machine guns are no longer behind the propeller. The speaking tube is gone from his car. When he sends a message via radio, it's via voice rather than Morse code. Cops no longer carry billie clubs. 

History had to change: Wentworth and his chauffer Jackson originally served together in France. That’s changed to Korea. Wentworth’s record as an intercollegiate sprinter becomes an Olympic record.

In one glaring error, one character is said to have been a big shot during prohibition, but the guy is nowhere near old enough to have been an adult in the 20s.

Many changes are due to “Spider’s” new, more debonair image. As envisioned by Robert Maguire on the cover, he’s a white-clad, blond-haired version of The Executioner. In the story, he still dresses in black, but since he no longer wears a hat or cape, they had to be weeded out of the text.

OLD: He was a hunched, grotesque figure and his long black cape made his body blend with the darkness.
NEW: He was a hunched, grotesque figure and his black turtleneck made his body blend with the darkness.

OLD: So much he said before he realized that this sinister, caped man with hunched shoulders - with cold eyes gleaming beneath the brim of a black slouch hat - was no comrade of his.
NEW: So much he said before he realized that this man with the cold eyes was no comrade of his.

In one original scene, the Spider is running at a girl who is shooting at him. He billows his cape, which hangs nearly to the ground, to confuse her as to where his body is. Bullets tug at it as she misses. In the update, with the cape deleted, the bullets still tug - but we don’t know where.

The update editor ran into other trouble with the cape.
In the old version, the Spider runs through a bat attack with his cape over his head.
With the cape removed, this line doesn’t make sense:
Wentworth dared not uncover his head, lest the bats strike at him, and without better vision, he could not shoot. (The reason he can’t see is the cape)

In one scene, the Spider lures bats into his car and swats them to the floorboards with his hat. Since the revisionist couldn’t think of an alternative, for that one scene “Spider” has a hat.

The Spider used make-up and false teeth to turn his face into sort of a fright mask, and sometimes wore a hump on his back . . .

OLD: He donned dark tweeds. When the time came, he would add cape and broad-brimmed black hat, alter his face . . . And the Spider would step forth from the car in all his sinister fearful majesty
NEW: He donned a dark turtleneck and comfortable pants. When the time came he would step forth from the car in all his fearful majesty.

Apparently the Spider’s trademark was considered too corny, so lines like this were deleted entirely:
He slew and left a mocking vermillion seal upon their foreheads to show that vengeance had been exacted by the champion of oppressed humanity - nemesis of all criminals - the Spider!

Some updates reflect changes in word usage . . .

In the old version, the bats “brought their poisoned death to the gay crowd before the motion picture shows.” In another instance, a character was described as being “gay and carefree.” You can guess which word was deleted.

Here’s one due to a yet-to-be-born cultural icon: The villain is originally called The Bat Man. In the update, he’s simply The Bat.

Some changes stem from an effort to be more politically correct . . .

OLD: Dangerous work, this, racing into the muzzle of an automatic, even though it was light in caliber and a woman handled it.
NEW: This was dangerous work, racing into the muzzle of an automatic, even though it was light in caliber. 

In the original version, Wentworth’s servant Ram Singh addresses him as sahib, and calls Wentworth’s lady friend Nita Missie sahib. Someone must have considered this too slavish. Sabib is dropped. And Ram Singh is less deferential.

OLD: “Bring me the cage of bats!” Nita ordered.
Ram Singh sprang from the car and salaamed profoundly. Wah! This woman was a fit mate for his master - a tigress whose claws were as deadly as those of the old one himself. Bring back the bats? He would bring back heaven and hell, let her but command it!
NEW: “Bring me the cage of bats!” Nita ordered.
Ram Singh sprang from the car. Bring back the bats? He would bring back heaven and hell, let her but command it!

In the original, Wentworth addresses Ram Singh, out of respect, in formal language. I can only guess this was mistakenly thought demeaning . . .

OLD: I’m afraid I lost thy knife, O warrior!
NEW: I’m afraid I lost your knife.

In some cases, the old prose was apparently considered too purple, or too archaic . . .

OLD: Greatly they loved, but the Spider could never marry.
NEW: They loved each other, but Spider could never marry.

OLD: Almost he had despaired
NEW: He had almost despaired

OLD: If the gods were good
NEW: If luck was with him

OLD: In a trice
NEW: Soon

OLD: Good God, what an end for a man!
NEW: What an end for a man!

OLD: “Geez!”
NEW: “Jesus!”

To all of which I say, “Geez!” and “Good God, that’s enough for me!”

Covers, top to bottom:
1. 1975: First in Pocket Books updated series.
2. 1935: The Real Thing.
3. 1976: British updated edition from Mews (NEL).
4. 1992: Carroll & Graf #4. The original Death Reign is one of two novels in this book.
5. 2003: From Action Ink. Original text, plus all of the original interior art.

More Forgotten Books: pattinase!


A said...

Very interesting post. I've never read The Spider, but as a whole I can't stand when books are updated to appeal to the current age's sensibilities. The language of the past was so much richer and the context and atmosphere of the work can change from the revision as well.

Charles Gramlich said...

The only one that makes any sense to me is the "gay" thing. Other than that they made it so much more vanilla.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Hot damn! This is an awesome comparison, very thorough and fascinating to read. I've actually never read The Spider before, but this gave me a solid overview of the different version. Many thanks for the swell education!

There is something unintentionally amazing about this line:
"He donned a dark turtleneck and comfortable pants. When the time came he would step forth from the car in all his fearful majesty."

Deka Black said...

Good article. These updates makes no sense! At all! Is like update Dashiel Hammet! Or Mark Twain!

Call me a fanboy if you want. But this to me is a total lack of respect to the work of the original writer. (Yes, i'm looking at all of you who messes with REH)

really, this piss me off.

Jerry House said...

Great post!

If I remember correctly, in the original, the Spider wore an Alamo necktie; in the revised version he carried a copy of EQMM featuring a Skyler Hobbes story. Of course, memory plays tricks.

Randy Johnson said...

I have these four as well. As you admit, glad to have them at the time, though dissatisfied with the updates. never did the comparisons though. Nice post.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Sorry about that, there were too many typos in that first try.

This story, excuse me, "novel", isn't one of the ones I have in my Spider Double reprints by Girasol, I guess they haven't gotten to it yet, though I do have Wings of Black Death, but that's not the same, though I haven't read it either. Matter of fact, I haven't read most of them yet, but I'll get to them.

Greta post, especially the side-by-side part. I'll take the old style, please, with mustard.

J F Norris said...

Now what would Batman look like in a turtleneck and Harlequin mask? Pretty darn silly. Wardrobe updates - sheesh. Did some 1970s fashionista rewrite these?

Admirable job! Hope you didn't sprain a finger joint with the endless page flipping.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My four year old grandson is reading Spiderman books. It starts early doesn't it? This love of the fantastic.

Deka Black said...

Pattinase, your grandson is very young, but wise ;)

Cap'n Bob said...

There were times I wore a black turtleneck and comfortable pants, and darned if I didn't project fearful majesty.

I'm reading a very old western now and it uses gay a lot, but in the traditional sense. "Don't go gay on me" means don't be flippant in this book. It's also very un-P.C. in describing Mexicans, blacks, Asians, and everyone else, but I just accept it as a reflection of the times and don't let it twist my knickers.

Unknown said...

I remember James Reasoner complaining to me about these at the time they were published. I wish I still had that letter.

Evan Lewis said...

I'm glad to know it wasn't James who did the revisions. Gotta wonder if they were done by a writer, or just some editor at Pocket.

David Cranmer said...

I had no idea of these updated books. But then again, I never read The Spider like I did The Shadow or Doc Savage.

Great history here, Evan.

George said...

DEATH REIGN OF THE VAMPIRE KING, no one comes up with titles like this anymore.

Deka Black said...

George... how accurate are you!

Evan: Don't nowwho did it. Sure was only someone doing his job. But... really,i can't stand it. I s like update the El Borak tales to set them in modern times.

Todd Mason said...

Speaking of eye and typing strain, Evan...I suspect that if supposedly literate people can't understand Twain's use of language in FINN, they certainly aren't going to respect Page's in THE SHADOW novels/novellas. Remakable, though...particularly the ones that indeed, as Charles suggests, bland out the work.

Jerry's memory needs further investigation.

Shavager said...

Bought all four of these paperbacks since I'm a big Spider fan, did NOT like the updated changes vs the original words and terminology employed by Norvell Page. Thought the covers were nice, but changing the character's original image to suit a different audience is an insult to the reading public who should notice the description inside the story will NOT match the cover image.

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TC said...

Bantam's Doc Savage paperback reprints were not (AFAIK) "reviled," but some fans, including Jim Harmon and Larry Ivie, disliked the way Doc was portrayed on the covers, with the crew cut and the widow's peak.

I had 3 of the Berkley reprints of The Spider, and I saw the 1975 Pocket versions, although I never bought any of the latter. So I didn't know until now that they made changes in the text as well as the covers.

TC said...
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