The Perils of Partnership: Starrett, Otto the Red and Martians

“The Menace of Mars” is a true oddity in the great library that is Vincent Starrett’s published works. It is a story about Martians, in which they never appear; it is tale of world domination in which earthlings, not aliens, are the bad guys; and it is one of the few times that Starrett collaborated with another writer.

The Chicago Ledger cover for Feb. 4, 1922

Vincent Starrett normally worked alone. It’s not a surprise. Most newspaper reporters are lone wolves, doing their own research and writing their own stories. Collaboration happens, but is not the norm. And in the 1920s, even as Starrett was branching out into short stories, poetry and other forms of writing, he was still by trade a newspaper reporter.

Considering his newspaper background, it is no surprise that Starrett spent most of his writing career working solo. So it was surprising to pick up a copy of the Chicago Ledger for Saturday, Feb. 4, 1922 and see a truly remarkable cover illustration promoting “A Very Strange Story” by Vincent Starrett and Otto McFeely.

It is “a very strange story” indeed.

A bit of background before turning to the story itself: The Chicago Ledger was a weekly publication that started in 1873 and continued until 1924. Selling for just a nickel, the paper proudly claimed a circulation of 1.25 million! Each issue would feature a dramatic cover story like “His Inheritance and the Moth-Eaten Maid” or “Kill or Cure: The Story of a Strange Elopement.” Each cover contained a full-page illustration designed to catch the eye and entice the reader to give up his 5¢.

The cover for Feb. 4, 1922 was especially striking, and feels more like something that would be seen in a Flash Gordon tale, if Flash Gordon had been around in 1922. (Flash, Dale Arden and Ming the Merciless wouldn’t be published until 1934.) Indeed, the cover is part of trend that would flourish in the days of comic books right up to today: Entice the reader to part with his cash by showing a flashy cover promising a unbelievable story, then give the reader standard fare inside.

In a scene that’s never described in the story, the cover shows Earth in a circular “screen” being observed by the queerest Martian around. He has the head of Ming the Merciless, the body of an oversized frog, and a robe that looks like it came from the back of a Harry Potter fan’s closet. Ming wears a pair of very cool headphones and holds a device that might be controlling the globe and screen. Or maybe not. Since none of this shows up in the story, it’s hard to tell.

If this is confusing, the story itself is downright baffling.

“The Menace of Mars,” condensed

It is just after the end of the Great War and the narrator, Dr. Ted Forster, is a former newspaperman turned physician. His old friend, Frank Cottingham, was an ambulance driver in the war, who later joined the Secret Service where his ability with foreign languages proves especially useful. Cottingham has been missing since the war, but Forster gets a call to visit Cottingham at his nearby family home and immediately responds. No sooner does Forster approach the Cottingham home when he spies a man lurking at the gate. Forster passes him on the way to the front door and panics after he’s shot at by the lurker.

Gaining entrance to the home, he sees his old friend Cottingham looking weak and unwell. Cottingham is attended by a Mr. Kroknoff, As soon as Kroknoff leaves the room, Cottingham thrusts a book on Forster, asking the doctor to get the book out of the house and “tell my story.” “I know too much and they are afraid of me,” confesses Cottingham. Who is afraid of him? The International, “the most powerful group in the world.” Explains Cottingham: “They claim to be protecting our civilization. Well, I differ with them.”

Fearing Kroknoff will come back soon, Cottingham hastily explains that the book contains “a part of what I know about our communication with Mars.” It appears that Martians have been “in touch with earth ever since the telegraph and telephone were invented.” A simple radio handset operator could “listen to Mars if he knew the few simple things I have written down in that little book.” It appears that Mars has a civilization that’s much older and “more perfect” than ours and has been watching us for 5,000 years. “The outbreak of war was reported in Mars as quickly as it was in New York City.” However, the International “which, in effect, owns the earth, knows that it would be dangerous to allow our people to know what goes on in Mars.”

Hearing a sound at the door, they pull it open to have Kroknoff fall inside, where they tie him up, drug him and roll him under a table. With Kroknoff out of they way, Cottingham can finally explain to Forster why the International fears about Mars: It seems that Martians “don’t have private property!”  That’s right, Martians practice “cooperation and communism.”

Fearing the International agents that surround the house will attack, Forster sneaks out a window only to be taken at gunpoint just a block from his own home. The mysterious man with the gun gets the little book of Mars facts and sends the doctor on his way, knowing that no one will believe Cottingham’s fantastic story without the proof. No sooner does Forster get into his home when his wife runs down the stairs to tell him that the Cottingham home is on fire. Cottingham runs to Forster’s house and prepares to give him the Martian code, but is stopped by another agent. Cottingham is taken away, begging Forster tell his story. Meanwhile, the remaining agent explains once again that Cottingham is delusional and made up the whole Mars tale.

Cottingham has since “disappeared completely,” leaving a confused Dr. Forster to write this account even though he does not know what to believe.

As I said, it’s a baffling story.

“The Menace of Mars,” decoded

There are so many questions it’s hard to know where to start.  If the Martians have such an advanced civilization, why don’t they find easier ways to connect with Earthlings? Why don’t they just learn an Earth language? (After all, they’ve had a few thousand years of watching us.)  Or why don’t they just show up here in their advanced space ships?  And how can the International keep the lid on something like this if anyone with a simple radio handset can pick up the signal? And…Oh never mind.

Dr. Forster

Starrett could not have written this story by himself. The fantastical elements about Mars might be his, but the story is really about the threat of an international cabal that’s set on preventing Earthings from learning the secrets of paradise. While Starrett might have held strong political views, there is very little in his writing from the time that supports the notion that he had Communist sympathies.

Otto McFeely, however, was another kettle of Martian frogmen.

Born in 1875 in Marion, Indiana, McFeely worked for the Chicago Evening Post from 1900 to 1906. He then became the first managing editor and director of the Chicago Daily Socialist. He caught the eye of the party leadership and left the Daily Socialist to become the PR manager for Eugene V. Debs during his 1908 presidential campaign, traveling more than 19,000 miles around the country on the “Red Special.” When Debs lost, McFeely went back into journalism, this time as the editor of Oak Leaves, in Oak Park, Illinois. It was a role he held for the next 34 years.

In his memoir, Born in a Bookshop, Starrett talks about working with McFeely. McFeely “had retired some years before from the nervous excitements of daily journalism” and Starrett worked for him part-time in the late 1910s and early 1920s, “editing and writing copy about suburban events. The work was not onerous; it was just boring.” It’s worth noting that while McFeely shows up on several pages of Starrett’s memoir, he never mentions McFeely’s political views. Why is not clear, but Starrett’s memoirs were published in 1965 and the memory of the McCarthy era might have yet been too fresh. *

It would be impossible to say with certainty which of the co-authors was responsible for what portions of this tale. But the political portion of the story does not sound like Starrett. Rather, it feels like McFeely was using “The Menace of Mars” to continue his campaign to criticize those who would suppress unpopular views.

The bottom line: It’s easy to see why Starrett stayed a solo writer after “Menace of Mars.” What might have been an intriguing science fiction story about Martians contacting Earthlings instead turned into a political polemic that hijacks the premise.

The best part of this story is the cover illustration.

*Speaking of McFeely: One of Starrett’s better anecdotes about the man involves McFeely’s friend, Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. During the Great War, McFeely was a major and Burroughs was one of his captains. “Strolling down the street together, booted and bespurred, after military exercises — Burroughs a huge mastiff of a man and McFeely of the terrier breed — they looked like Texas and Rhode Island talking a walk together.”

NOTE:  “The Menace of Mars” is rarely reprinted, perhaps for obvious reasons. It did appear in a 1925 issue of a girlie magazine called 10 Story Book. If anyone has a copy of this, I would love to see it.  Just for the articles, mind you.