Jeff Rice’s The Kolchak Papers

On Saturday, April 25, at about 2:30 A.M., Cheryl Ann Hughes was tapping her foot angrily as she waited at the corner of Second and Fremont streets.  She glanced repeatedly at her watch.  The young man she was currently living with, Robert Lee Harmer, was supposed to be picking her up for “breakfast,” and then a ride home.  Harmer was nowhere in sight.  He was at that moment quietly puffing away at a joint with some members of a local rock group, oblivious to the time.

Cheryl Ann Hughes: twenty-three, five feet five and a half inches tall, one hundred and eighteen shapely pounds, Clairol blond hair and light-brown eyes.  Swing-shift change-girl at the classic Gold Dust Saloon, a gaudy western-styled casino built when Vegas was younger, smaller, and– some say — friendlier.

Cheryl Ann Hughes: Tired. Hungry.  Disgusted at having waited twenty-five minutes for a ride, was now mad enough to walk the eight blocks to the small frame house she shared with Harmer just off the corner of Ninth and Bridger.

Cheryl Ann Hughes: now walking East on Fremont Street, past Schwartz Brothers’ Men’s Shop, determined to make it home in time for the 3 A.M. movie and a bowl of chili, but still keeping an eye out for Harmer.

Cheryl Ann Hughes: alone with her irritation, now crossing Las Vegas Boulevard having just passed the white-plastic dazzle of the latest Orange Julius stand, its three male customers giving her a brief appraising glance.

Cheryl Ann Hughes: a girl with less than fifteen minutes to live.

The passage catches one’s attention, doesn’t it?  It comes from the book The Kolchak Papers, finished by author Jeff Rice on October 31, 1970.  The odds are very good that you’ve never read the novel, but you are very likely to have seen, or at least heard of, its television adaptation, The Night Stalker (1972).  The television series is so firmly ingrained in my mind that I cannot read the text above without hearing the voice of the awesome Darren McGavin narrating as streetwise reporter Carl Kolchak.

Rice’s novel was unpublished when it was optioned for television, and only had a brief print run when the series grew in popularity.  In 2007, however, Moonstone Books released a new edition which also includes the sequel, The Night Strangler:

I got this book as a Christmas book, and was very eager to read it: would the original novel live up to the fond memories I had of the television movies and subsequent series?

The Night Stalker (both novel and movie) follows Carl Kolchak as he investigates a series of murders in Las Vegas that seem to be the work of a single individual. As he investigates deeper, strange facts come to light — the victims have all been drained of blood, the killer is immune to bullets — and Kolchak realizes that the city is being threatened by something no longer human.  City officials, however, are eager to keep the information from the public, so Kolchak must clash with police and city hall as well as the vampire.

The novel is somewhat groundbreaking in that it is one of the first vampire tales set in modern times; Interview With the Vampire would not be published until 1976.  The vampire is not a romanticized pretty-boy, however, but a remorseless, monstrous predator.

The real star of the story, however, is Kolchak — as depicted by Darrin McGavin in the television serial, he is a treat to watch.  He dresses in an outdated white suit, wears cheap running shoes and and even cheaper hat, and usually carries a compact camera that is woefully inadequate for the night stalking he does!  He is loud and obnoxious in pursuit of a story, especially to the authorities, but is also surprisingly courageous and noble when on the case (even when he’s screaming in terror).

Kolchak was created by Jeff Rice, but the screenplay for the telemovie was written by famed horror author Richard Matheson (no stranger to classic vampire stories himself), and clearly Darrin McGavin plays the character brilliantly.  So how much of Kolchak’s character is due to each of these people?

In a stroke of what I consider true brilliance, Matheson hardly changed anything in the screenplay.  Kolchak’s narration, which really sets the atmosphere for the story, is translated to the screen more or less word for word.  I could see only two substantive changes between the novel and the movie.  First, Matheson made Kolchak a little less edgy for the television audience — for instance, he dates a prostitute in the book, and this is changed to a showgirl in the movie.  Also, Matheson makes the climax of the film a little more perilous for Kolchak, which is also understandable; the substance of the scene, however, is unchanged.

If I were to assign credit for the character of Kolchak, I would say that Rice sculpted him, Matheson smoothed out some of the edges, and McGavin breathed life into him!

It is interesting to note that Jeff Rice introduces Kolchak to the reader using a very old storytelling element — Rice himself is the “meta-narrator”, who has received notes from Kolchak and is relaying them to the reader, together with occasional research notes.  This is the way Edgar Rice Burroughs used to introduce his adventure stories, such as the Venus series.

The novel is very good; it contains relatively few surprises, but the character of Kolchak and Rice’s well-crafted narrative make it a very compelling read.

The first print edition of the novel came out after the success of the television movie.  With this success, another Kolchak movie was planned, but this time the screenplay was written entirely by Matheson and Rice wrote the novelization of the screenplay.   This story, dubbed The Night Strangler (1973), finds Kolchak in Seattle after being kicked out of Vegas.   He manages to get a job at a local paper just as a new series of mysterious murders begins, and Kolchak quickly realizes that this is again no ordinary serial killer (but it isn’t a vampire, either).  He finds out that similar murders have happened every 21 years for over a hundred years, and his quest eventually leads him into forgotten parts of the Seattle Underground.

The second novel is included in the Moonstone Books edition, and it is also very enjoyable, though significantly shorter.  I almost get the impression that Rice’s heart wasn’t in the novelization; perhaps he wasn’t enthusiastic about transcribing someone else’s work?  The novel does accurately follow the screenplay, though it is amusing to note that Rice makes the character more edgy again from Matheson’s work!  In the screenplay, for instance, Kolchak befriends a local exotic dancer in what seems like a rather casual relationship; in the novelization, Kolchak and the dancer start a very sexual relationship!

I won’t describe the secret of the “monster” in the second novel for those who haven’t heard it; I will, however, tell you what it isn’t!  Matheson overtly rejected the idea of the killer being the immortal Jack the Ripper, as it was too close to the classic horror story Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper penned by Matheson’s good friend Robert Bloch (who would become most famous himself for the novel Psycho).  In a bit of irony, however, when Kolchak: The Night Stalker was turned into a short-lived television series, the very first episode was titled, “The Ripper”!

There isn’t really much information about Jeff Rice online, and it seems that he didn’t follow up his classic novels with other horror fiction.  His influence remains today, however; The Night Stalker was a major influence in the creation of The X-Files (for good or ill, I suppose).  A new television version of The Night Stalker was released in 2005, but replaced the boisterous McGavin-style Kolchak with a sedated Stuart Townshend-style version; the show gratefully did not last long.

One mystery remains for me, however. I vividly recall watching The Night Stalker on television when I was a child, and we used to have “pizza night” when it came on.  However, the series was aired between 1974 and 1975, which would have made me 3-4 years old!  Presumably I saw a repeat of the show, but this also seems strange considering it was supposedly canceled due to low ratings.

In any case, I can recommend Jeff Rice’s The Kolchak Papers as classic, influential horror novels.

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9 Responses to Jeff Rice’s The Kolchak Papers

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    He finds out that similar murders have happened every 21 years for over a hundred years, and his quest eventually leads him into forgotten parts of the Seattle Underground.

    Did The X-Files rip that off for their Eugene Victor Tooms character? I wonder.

    • Hmm… I’d never really thought of that; It’s certainly a possibility. At the very least, though, the explanation of the Tooms character and the explanation of The Night Strangler are quite different.

    • Blake Stacey says:

      I guess even Chris Carter isn’t entirely unoriginal . . .

      • I always thought he was quite clever — unfortunately, his love of money seems to have completely corrupted any artistic integrity he had. (Don’t get me wrong — I love money, but when you’re running your series into the ground purely to squeeze a few dollars more out of it, I find that less than admirable.)

  2. The Ridger says:

    Night Stalker was, despite its short run, a rather familiar show in syndication for a while. You could have been as old as 8 or 9 when you saw it. (Me? I was 20… )

    It’s a seersucker suit, by the way.

    • I had a feeling it was something like that, but I’ve labored for years under the (naive?) impression that I was watching its first run when I was a child. 8 or 9 sounds about right.

      It’s a seersucker suit, by the way.

      Hmm… I actually should have known that…

  3. Lucy Harrison says:

    I’m curious to know if you are familiar with “Progeny of the Adder”, written by Leslie H. Whitten in 1965.
    Even though one takes place in Washington and one in Vegas there are many similarities in his book and Jeff Rice’s.
    In fact, I believe Whitten’s writing is far superior, and I’ve always wondered if Jeff Rice got some of his ideas from Whitten.
    It was kind of sad to me that Rice’s work was so popular, but it seemed that nobody ever heard of Whitten but me. Leslie Whitten also wrote “Moon of the Wolf”, one of my favorites. The movie with David Janssen was not bad, but the book is really good.
    Any thoughts?

  4. Tim W. says:

    Whitten is a great writer. “Moon of the Wolf” was one of the first contemporary horror novels I read.

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