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Faux Tarzan

Excerpted from Tom Soter's upcoming book DRIVING ME CRAZY

What is one to make of Tarzan: The Lost Adventure? It has a terrible title (more a blurb than a proper name for a book) and was released in 1995 by Dark Horse Books with much fanfare: the cover has an illustration of Tarzan (looking a bit like the version in the Disney cartoon) crouching with a knife before a panther. The J. Allen St. John logo (from the ninth novel Tarzan and the Golden Lion in 1922) sits at the top of the art, with a little gold circle below it proclaiming, “First time in print! Burroughs’ final Tarzan novel.”


Don’t be fooled. If this were a Hollywood film, the credits would read “By Joe R. Lansdale, based on material by Edgar Rice Burroughs.” For this dreadful novel has about as much connection to Burroughs as the Bush Administration’s tales of Iraq had to the truth.

Lansdale, a prolific writer of mysteries, horror fantasies, and science fiction novels and short stories, might seem to some like just the man to finish the 82-page manuscript left unpublished at the time of ERB’s death in 1950. Lansdale – who has been called “a genre unto himself” – has written screenplays, television series, and comic books and has a dedicated following of his own, probably dwarfing the current following of ERB and the original stories. I can picture some marketing type asserting to the publisher: “If the Tarzan name doesn’t draw them in, then the Lansdale brand is sure to. We can’t miss.”

Sadly, he would probably be right. But for fans of the true Tarzan and the fast-paced writing and plotting of “The Master of Adventure,” this book is a disaster. When renowned science fiction author Fritz Leiber wrote the authorized “25th Tarzan novel,” an adaptation of the 1966 film Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, he took great pains to sublimate his own prose style and try to match ERB’s. He also worked hard to tie the novel in with the previous books, recalling (and even footnoting) past characters and situations. The pastiche read almost like Burroughs and was certainly more true to the spirit of the novels than was the film on which it was based.

Lansdale says he grew up watching the old Tarzan movies on TV and read Burroughs’s novels some time after that. It doesn’t show. Unlike Leiber, Landsdale demonstrates no appreciation for Burroughs’s skill at storytelling – his pacing and prose style in particular – and rewrites Burroughs relentlessly, recklessly, and ruthlessly. He presents a Tarzan that few real fans would recognize.

Take the opening pages, which introduce the ape man in typical style: “The man, naked but for a G-string, moved as silently through the forest as did the man-eater behind him. He was moving up wind, and the scent spoor of' the carnivore was carried away from him. But he had another keen sense always on guard to warn him of approaching danger, and when one of' Numa's padded paws snapped a little twig the men turned and f'aced the lion. With only a knife, he faced the king of' beasts.”

Burroughs’s writing is clean and to the point. To this paragraph, Lansdale makes unnecessary additions (in italic): “The man, naked but for a loin cloth and his weapons – spear, bow and arrow, knife, and rope – moved as silently through the forest as did the man-eater behind him.”

Two sentences that follow have been changed as well. The original: “…when one of' Numa's padded paws snapped a little twig the men turned and f'aced the lion. With only a knife he faced the king of' beasts.” The rewrite (indicated by italics):   “…when one of' Numa's padded paws snapped a little twig the men wheeled and f'aced the lion. He dropped the rope, bow, and quiver from his shoulder, let go of the spear he was carrying, and drew his great knife. With only a knife, the man faced the king of beasts, and at this close range, that was the way he preferred it.”

These changes are subtle but demonstrate Landsdale’s basic misunderstanding of the character of Tarzan. The apeman is not a  macho redneck, preferring to fight a lion with only a knife. He fights with a knife because he has to, not because he prefers it.

In subsequent paragraphs, Lansdale adds unnecessary similies (for instance, to the sentence, “And constantly the knife rose and fell,” he adds, the phrase, “the man clinging to Numa as tight as entwined ivy vine.”) and equally unnecessary descriptions (a whole paragraph is added essentially repeating the description already given of the battle by ERB). And in place of a simple but eloquent description (“Suddenly the lion stood still on wide spread f'eet. It stood thus for brief seconds; then sank to the ground”), we get banality (“Suddenly, the lion went limp and sank lifeless to the ground”).

Some may say I’m a purist, that I’m just a nit-picking fool. Certainly George McWhorter would. The curator of the Burroughs Memorial Collection and editor of the Burroughs Bulletin, you’d think he’d know better. But for whatever reason, he has decided to act as an apologist for Lansdale’s hatchet job.

Apparently anticipating the complaints of true followers of Burroughs, he excuses Lansdale’s rewrites in an introduction to the book. First, he offers an outright lie: the 82-page manuscript “was not a finished product, scarcely more than an outline, and we have no proof that [ERB] lavished much time and care on it.” The original manuscript is much more than “an outline” – it is roughly one-third to one-half the length of a regular Tarzan novel, has a fully-drawn set of characters and plot elements, and is certainly more polished than the poorly written (but published) nadir of the series, Tarzan and the Forbidden City.

Disingenuously, McWhorter also claims that “a few minor changes were made, but his prose reads fluently and the story now has a beginning, a middle, and an end that holds the reader’s attention.” To which one might add, “like watching a car wreck.”

David A. Adams, in the online Edgar Rice Burroughs Summary Project clearly contradicts McWhorter’s claims, observing that ERB’s original, untitled manuscript consists of 83 numbered pages. It is typewritten and double-spaced with 16 numbered chapters but no chapter titles. There are four main villains in the story and four safaris: Hanson, Gromovitch, Hunt, and lastly, Hanson’s Friends, who are to meet him at Ur, but they never show up since the manuscript ends before they reach that goal…[this is] rather more than an incomplete beginning of a novel."


The book is full of anything but “minor changes”: a plot involving “man-apes” in the lost city of UR and wholesale alterations to the character of Tarzan have been grafted onto the original manuscript. Those who study him, know that ERB’s ape-man is a stoic individual, who smiles infrequently, and is a man of few words. He never brags about his prowess, does not often threaten (he doesn’t have to, his presence is so strong), and does not take pleasure in death. He is fluent in a dozen languages, although French was his first.

It is hard to recognize ERB’s work in the new pastiche, but Landsdale’s  heavy hand is obvious when Tarzan says: “Do not cross my path again or I will kill you”; “Let the woman go or I will kill you…I want the pleasure [emphasis added] of killing you myself.” Then there is the “grin thing”: “Tarzan almost grinned”; “a faint smile [was] on his lips”; “‘I might be an ape’s mate,’ [she said]. Tarzan grinned.”

And Lansdale adds a description of Tarzan that ERB never used:  “His English, though good, was odd. Not quite American or British. Formal and stiff. Accented, but with no influence Hanson could name.” Considering that the Tarzan of this book speaks (and speaks a lot) in a casual colloquial manner, adding that description is bizarre, to say the least (unless it is there to show off Landsdale’s knowledge of the first Tarzan novel, in which Tarzan learned to speak from a Frenchman).

Adams, in The ERB Summary Project, offers these keen insights: “As it stands, [the unfinished manuscript] might take on the appearance of one of Michelangelo’s so-called ‘incomplete’ statues made as the end of his life. People seem to be pushing their way out of the stone to become whole, well-defined entities, yet the very restraint of the naked stone that holds them fast gives these works their uncommon power. Who would ever think of finishing one of Michelangelo’s statues by carving away the ‘useless’ stone?

“…I suppose the most appealing thing to me about this torso is the fact that it IS unfinished and thus rather modern in effect. The lost city of Ur remains a promised goal to the north which [is] not reached within the written pages of the manuscript…

“Knowing what Burroughs wrote and did not write in the Lansdale pastiche is extremely important in considering late ERB..”.

Adams is too polite. Tarzan: Lost Adventure is an abomination, an insult to Burroughs, Tarzan, and the fans who love both. Rather than stitch together this unholy monster, the Burroughs estate would have been better off simply publishing the original unfinished manuscript. It worked for Dickens’s incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and I think ERB’s many followers would have been happy to have the original not some bastard child.

May 15, 2015