Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 27, 2012


The Angry Planet (1945) and The Red Journey Back (1954, also published as SOS from Mars) by John Keir Cross

John Keir Cross (1914-1967) made his living writing and producing radio plays for the BBC, first as an employee and later as a free-lance writer.  In America he is probably best known for his collection The Other Passenger:  18 Strange Stories; nine of those stories were published by Ballantine as Stories from The Other Passenger in 1961 (when Ballantine was publishing a lot of horror with those great Powers covers).

     Cross wrote a couple of novels under the name "Susan Crowley" but the majority of his book work was for juveniles under his own name and that of "Stephen MacFarlane".  Cross and his alter ego MacFarlane cross paths in the two juveniles covered here.  The conceit is that Stephen MacFarlane and John  Keir Cross are cousins, both writers.  MacFarlane, in The Angry Planet, is good friends with reclusive scientist Andrew McGillivray.  McGillivray has inherited some money and is conducting experiments on a type of fuel needed to push rockets into space.  Once the formula is discovered the two make plans for a secret journey to Mars.  (Why Mars? you ask.  Well -- ahem -- as is explained in the story, Mars is the closest planet to Earth.  Why our muddle-headed protagonist believe that, I don't know.  Science may not have been a strong suit among scientist in 1945 maybe, or at least not a strong suit to BBC script writers.  Of course, Mars may be closer than Venus if the latter planet were one the other side of the sun, but this does not seem to be considered.)

     The rocket takes off and soon the two discover three accidental stowaways:  MacFarlane's nephew, 11-year-old Mike Malone, and Mike's first cousins Paul (age 14) and Jacqueline (age 12) Adams.  Unable to turn back, the five of them go to Mars and land safely.  Mars, it turns out, is inhabited by telepathic plants.  One race, calling themselves "The Beautiful People" are mobile, using tentacle-like roots to move around.  The Earthlings soon make good friends with them and are welcomed into their city.  For every yin there's a yang; for The Beautiful People, it is The Terrible Ones -- a race of bloodthirsty [sapthirsty?] plants with an overwhelming desire to eliminate The Beautiful People.  The Terrible People discover the rocket ship and a battle ensues.  The Earthlings soon discover that bullets will  not harm these evil plants.  During the battle one of The Terrible Ones captures Mike and makes off with him.  Even alien plants should realize that it is unwise to kidnap a plucky 11-year-old boy.  After being held captive for a week, Mike escapes in time to warn his friends of an imminent attack designed to wipe out The Beautiful People once and for all.  The attack comes and many plants on both sides are killed, then...Oh, did I mention there were volcanoes on Mars?

     The five Earthlings escape in their rocket after one of their Martian friends sacrifices himself to save Mike.  Unfortunately, they had to leave all evidence of their trip behind them.  They land in a field in France and are soon feted for their unprovable adventure.

     The Angry Planet sold well in England and Cross wrote a very successful radio play from the novel.  In America, the book went through at least four impessions.  So a sequel would be a foregone conclusion.  Still, it took nine years before it was published.  Memory can do funny things over nine years.  Now Paul and Jacqueline are "distant cousins" to Mike, rather than first cousins.  Mars could well still be the closest planet to Earth, although that's not specified in this sequel.

     One year has past and some people are begining to doubt our heroes' veracity.  McGillivray and MacFarlane are fed up with this petty carping and decide to return to Mars in the ultimate attempt to gafiate*.  Once again, they head into space, this time sans stowaways.

     Enter John Keir Cross, who is in Scotland to report on tests being held for a revolutionary airstrip devised by Roderick Mackellar.  The airstrip has a special coating that can amplify certain radio signals, specifically radio signals from Mars...Yep, Stephen MacFarlane is sending signals back to Earth from Mars, and, in a stupendous performance of Coincidence Theatre, manages to communicate with his cousin in a code they had invented when they were children!  The messages are spotty and come in over a period of weeks.  Their rocketship landed near the fabled canals of Mars, but on leaving the ship McGillivray in engulfed by a wide cloud of yellow dust (actually trillions of semi-telepathic seedlings).  To the rescue comes Malu, The Beautiful People warrior who had sacrificed himself at the end of the first book.  He saves McGillivray, now injured and blind, and he and the two earthmen hole up in the ship.

     Most mysterious of all was the final message sent:  "The children...There is only one way in which you can save us...Bring the children -- somehow bring the children!  Paul and Jacqueline and Michael...Ask no questions -- no time, no time to answer; but bring those three to Mars or we are lost...!"


     The three adventurous youths soon make contact with the American scientist Dr. M. B. Kalkenbrenner, a rival of McGillivray's who is building his own spaceship.  Dr. K agrees to go to Mars with the children to rescue the stranded travellers.  Also along for the ride are Katey Hogarth (an actress who would act as a chaperone for the children) and Keith Borrowdale (a young engineering assistant to Mackellar [remember him?  The airstrip guy?] and Katey's fiance).  You can't have a rescue trip to Mars without a stowaway; this time it's Maggie Sherwood, Dr. K's tomboy 12-year-old niece, smuggled aboard by that rascal Mike (purely for impish and non-sexual reasons, mind you).

     So the seven of them go to Mars and face such horrors as the Crawling Canals, the Yellow Dust, The Terrible Ones, and the Living Brains.  They meet tragedy.  They return to Earth.  Huzzah!

     These are typical SF juveniles of their time, those dark ages before the invention of YA.  Yes, you have to abandon your sense of logic.  And, yes, stereotypes abound.  But if you can manage to release your inner 11-year-old and just go along for the ride, these two books can provide a few enjoyable hours.

*gafia = Getting Away From It All, something akin to taking one's ball and bat and going home.


For more Friday's Forgotten Books, with links, visit Patti Abbott at Pattinase.

1 comment:

  1. I read John Keir Cross's STORIES FROM THE OTHER PASSENGER. You're right about Ballantine publishing some great horror in those days. And those wonderful Powers covers still linger in my memory.