Saturday, October 31, 2015

Kolchak Is Dead! Long Live Kolchak!

It's Halloween and it's a sad holiday in one respect. Forty-five years ago today Jeff Rice completed his original manuscript for The Kolchak Papers, the story which would be picked up a few months later by ABC Television and director Dan Curtis, and with the minor help of screenwriter Richard Matheson would become The Night Stalker. It was a blockbuster, a rollicking and lucrative television success for most involved, but not so much for the author Jeff Rice.

 Jeff Rice has left us, passing away in July of this year. Unfortunately I only learned of this a few weeks ago when on a whim I picked up The Kolchak Papers from Moonstone Books and started to read the great story again. As is my wont when I'm reading a book, I researched a little bit and soon stumbled across a few columns announcing the untimely passing of Rice. You can reference them here and here. I was amazed I'd not run across this information before, given the significance The Night Stalker had for many in the community I ramble across on the great wide web. Likely I was just oblivious, but clearly the news was not widespread.

The story of how Rice created and sold the story which became The Night Stalker is told eloquently by his friend Mark Dawidziak at the article linked above. How he failed to realize the riches he'd deserved because of that success is equally narrated. Rice became yet one more Hollywood story of woe and distress, ironically not unlike his luckless hero Carl Kolchak.

The second Kolchak novel The Night Strangler was written by Rice based on the screenplay by Matheson, a reversal of their roles on the first superior effort. And despite getting name credit on the short-lived single season of Night Stalker Rice did not realize much in the way of remuneration. Apparently his life since had been a struggle, his retention of the publishing rights seemed to be a burden and not a boon.

Thankfully a deal was struck with Moonstone Publishing some few years ago allowing Rice's two Night Stalker stories to see republication, and which allowed me to finally read them. Spoilers below for those not already familiar with these two delightfully frightful tales.

On this reading I tried as much as possible to focus on those aspects of the novel which make a brisk and compelling crime narrative. The horror elements get all the attention, but what makes The Night Stalker (The Kolcak Papers) such a vivid experience both in print and on the small screen is the way it conforms to modern crime stories. We have an irascible reporter who doggedly follows a story which the mostly corrupt officials seek to keep quiet for all sorts of reasons, some base and selfish and some reasonable. We see the story of a vampire killer in Las Vegas through Kolchak's eyes but also we have the direct voice of Rice as he interrupts the story to add information which had "come" to him since Kolchak left the case. We get information before and after the main story which add to our understanding of the true nature of Rice's theme, not so much the fear of the supernatural in the modern world, but the dread of venal corruption which coats all of modern society with a grime that slanders the truth. The nature of how the story is related echoes Bram Stoker's great novel Dracula in that it is told indirectly through personal accounts and other materials. The complete narrative is left for the reader to partially assemble from the disparate elements making of the reader an active participant in the composition of the tale, giving it an immediacy which it might otherwise lack. We are so removed from Stoker's London atmosphere to feel that in his tale so much, but Rice's 1970's Las Vegas still feels modern despite its documentation of a small town on the verge of becoming something more elaborate and something less desirable. For fans of the movie, the novel does offer some intriguing differences, especially the finale, so reading the tale is well worth the investment of time, if one wants to know all there is to know about what it's like when a vampire appears in the shadows of a modern American city.

The follow-up novel The Night Strangler which adapts the screenplay by Matheson is not nearly so good a story as the original, mostly because much of the heft and ambiguity of the character Kolchak have been removed and replaced by the charming bluster and bombast of Darren McGavin's interpretation of the character. In this story, which takes place in Seattle and relates how a mysterious dead man prowls the streets both above and below ground killing lovely women for ancient arcane reasons, we get the Kolchak we recognize though to the detriment of the narrative heft of the story. In place of mildly complicated characterization we get shouting contests between Kolchak and Vincenzzo and a romance with a beautiful stripper which doesn't hardly make much sense at all given Kolchak's nature. To be honest some of the shouting between Kolchak and his soft-hearted boss actually stop the narrative in its tracks and seems weirdly forced. It's hard to sympathize with Carl in this one as he blunders into crime scenes and seems to cause as much damage to the police effort as he does in spelunking to find the answers. There's an aroma in this story of it all being a little too neat in the final analysis, though admittedly the story itself is plenty fun to read. It doesn't hold a candle to its predecessor sadly.  

So let me take a moment to remember Jeff Rice, a complex man who saw the darkness within society and decided to call it out. That he made the corruption he found into a dark fantasy has made it linger in the imagination, but the real message of the failings of the human animal are no less apparent.

Rest in peace Mr.Rice. Thank you for The Night Stalker.

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Fantastic Giants!

Happy Halloween! It's been fun gathering together all these various giant monsters in comics, some classic monsters from film and others giant threats to sundry superhero universes across the decades.

Since forever mankind has been menaced by giants who are possessed of great power which makes man seem puny, and points out the weaknesses of our species. These giants can only be defeated by wit and not power, showcasing man's greatest advantage, his mind. It is our worst selves that create the monsters in the world and our best selves that try to defeat them.

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Friday, October 30, 2015

Godzilla - The Final Showdown!

Sending Godzilla through time did free (for a time) the 20th Century from his threatening tread. As it turned out Godzilla traveled to the distant past, to a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, a time when Godzilla, still recovering his true size thanks to the application of Pym Particles, could himself become well and truly "King of Monsters".  But there was a rival.

Devil Dinosaur was the creation of Jack "King" Kirby, who had returned to the Mighty Marvel Bullpen after some years abroad at the Distinguished Competition. He returned with a flourish helming the titles Captain America and Black Panther, as well as creating new ones like The Eternals and Devil Dinosaur. Devil and his caveboy friend Moonboy proved to be a doughty team for nine issues which wrapped a few months before this crossover with Godzilla.

Big G and Devil do what you'd expect, they encounter each other and do ferocious battle, each gathering a smattering of respect for the power of the other.

Later that power is harnessed in tandem to battle the larger threat of the Lizard Warriors who menace the peace of the great valley which Devil and Moonboy protect.

Eventually Godzilla's battles in the deep recesses of the past come to an end as he continues to grow and is drawn back into the modern world of New York City, which must at last finally face the unleashed might of the King of Monsters.

Seeing as how this is the Marvel Universe, the superheroes are assembled to confront the threat of Godzilla and the Avengers take the lead.

Thor, Iron Man, Vision, Yellowjacked and Wasp work together to stem the threat posed by the giant monster which rumbles through the city.

Eventually they are able to turn him away from the center of the city if not defeat him, and Godzilla finally at last completes his tour of the great American continent as he steps into the harbor beyond New York City and for the last time in the Marvel Universe disappears beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

And so it ends, one of Marvel's most unusual partnerships. Bringing Godzilla to the comic book universe had taken much too long and trying to fit the giant monster into the Marvel mythology, even for a relatively short time was a challenge. The massive destruction caused by the monster and the countless people who suffer because of that damage make it incredibly difficult to have any empathy for the fate of the monster who for the most part exists apart from man, who lives by rules which are beyond our control and arguably our understanding. Godzilla is to be endured and like any great storm which finds landfall, the recovering is costly and long lasting.

But that's what makes for a great monster!

For the record Marvel revived Godzilla (sort of) in the pages of Iron Man when it is shown that Dr. Demonicus has gained control of the giant monster and mutated him, altering him sufficiently to stave off lawsuits. They needn't have bothered as the monster they made was too pitiful to sue over.

In the end there's only one "King of the Monsters"!

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