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.
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.