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We all have things we love, and then we all have things - books, music, movies, characters - we REALLY love. Most probably they were encountered in our youth and affected us strongly, and so we cherish them in our memories and are a little forgiving in our adult critique of them.Carl Kolchak is a character I REALLY love. As a kid, I was never athletic enough to have sports heroes, nor was I smart enough to have science heroes, nor ambitious enough to have political heroes. I couldnt play an instrument (and didnt care about rock music) so rock stars were out and while I read a lot, comic book superheroes may have been inspiring but they werent real people and real writers seemed untouchable, vague figures (I couldnt really do THAT!). But Carl Kolchak was my hero - a wise-mouth reporter who fought monsters and who no one listened to - acerbic, unpopular, not really athletic (but boy could he run!), spent a lot of time in libraries. Yes, Kolchak was my replacement for Jupiter Jones when I finally outgrew that personal hero.And as I am spending a good portion of this year looking backwards, and as I have two Kolchak story anthologies waiting to be read (and which Im kind of dreading - more on that when I read and review them) - I thought I would re-read my Kolchak related materials, starting with the two paperbacks - a previously unpublished novel that was adapted into the initial, ratings-blockbuster TV movie (and so, unsurprisingly, got published) and an adaptation of the second TV movie into novel form, both written by Kolchaks creator, Jeff Rice. I first read this novel back in 1978 - I was 11 years old and staying with my Grandmother in Brooklyn for the summer.The conceit of the book is that Jeff Rice has been given a washed up reporters notes and tapes (THE KOLCHAK PAPERS was the original title of the novel) after a chance meeting, detailed notes that sketch out a coverup involving a series of murders in Las Vegas during the summer of 1970, the reporting of which cost the reporter his career, his friendships, his social connections and, ultimately, his sobriety. All the details concerning the killings, all the witness and verifiers, are being swept under the rug, and shortly after Rice agrees to work the papers into a book, Kolchak disappears as well...The first thing that has to be said is that Rices character is somewhat different than the character as brought to the screen by ABC. Darren McGavin was charming in his rumpled, journalistic bulldog persona, equally sharp and honey tongued, depending on what info he needed to acquire. Rices Carl (Karel, his given name, became Americanized for ease) Kolchak has the same characteristics as McGavins portrayal, but not softened up for television and, most importantly, with no intention on the authors part for him to become a series character. He is on his way down, in other words, with no future in front of him, whether it be in Seattle or Chicago. The length and depth of a novel - even a novel like this, that is deliberately written in an unadorned, flat, descriptive reportage style - gives the reader a chance for many insights into a character that seemed born, full-blown, on the TV screen. So heres some interesting ways Kolchak of the novel differs from the character on screen, and some other things about him we never learned from television.Hes older than in the TV film (47 years old in 1970, thus born in 1933), out of shape and bordering on overweight (near 200 pounds), he hates physical exercise and likes eating spaghetti and garbanzo beans. Hes balding and (in this conception at least) looks like a boozy ex-prizefighter. That boozy part is important because Kolchak is a hard drinker, bordering on an alcoholic even before the killings start - he keeps little bottles of White Horse Scotch on him and drinks at work (he hits the skids after all is said and done and when Rice meets him, Kolchak is described as seedy, gross, aggressive, slightly-drunk, irascible and unbalanced). He smokes cheap, smelly cigars and has a foul mouth (Rice also claims to have cleaned up his language in the text). He likes torch songs from the 40s & 50s (he name drops Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn). On the personal side, he has an arrangement with Sam, a warm-hearted Las Vegas hooker who likes his company - they keep each other from getting lonely. His anachronistic seersucker is not in evidence (he mentions throwing on some chinos and a bush jacket at one point). The memorable porkpie hat is not mentioned.Hes a vet of WW2, a knee injury from which kept him out of Korea. He has a degree in Journalism from Columbia. He considers himself a second rate hack (he occasionally took adult education writing classes at night - his teacher thinks his writing is sloppy with atrocious grammar and that he squandered his talents). He has a good relationship with the Vegas police force because hes always given them a fair shake in his reporting, while not letting them get away with much.And so what happens is that this man, a crime reporter at the LAS VEGAS DAILY NEWS for a decade, is just doing his job when women start being killed in Sin City - always at night, always with the blood drained from their bodies. And because of his Polish background (in particular, a yarn spinning grandpa from the old country), and his love of old movies (he name drops Laird Cregar!), Carl Kolchak starts to wonder if a man who thinks he is a vampire is committing these killings. And the cops seem to be playing the whole thing close to the vest.As I said, Rices stylistic choice is apt for the tale - THE NIGHT STALKER is filled with terse, punchy descriptions, just as a reporter would bang it out on a Smith-Corona. Nothing flowery here, just flat, no-nonsense writing salted with some deft character sketches (Rice also claims to have cut back on some of Carls vituperative tangents about various fellow workers, public figures and descriptions of Vegas - but much remains to enjoy), comedic observations and real-word detail (you could practically plot the two big police chase scenes on a street-map with all the details given here).Honestly, THE NIGHT STALKER is less of a horror novel than it is a crime novel with a horror component (more on that in a moment) and I was going to label it noir but, in truth, thats maybe a bit of a stretch and misapplies a rather currently trendy label. True, STALKER does portray a rather sour worldview, exposing the corruption, political grandstanding, nepotism and all-around chicanery that goes into running a city founded by the mob. It strikes a Nixonian-era chord of public officials, long thought untouchable, being exposed as willing to do anything for personal gain or to avoid responsibility (the vampire idea is bad for business we are told by a mayor on his way to being Governor and a police force worried about being seen as inept). Kolchak is battle-hardened and world weary, and yet he still believes in journalistic honesty, and that the public has a right to know what the guys in charge know (although buried deeply in there is also some self-aggrandizement, the desire to be proven right, to be proven smarter than the cops and to score the big story). His ex-professor considers him a lazy man who longs for adventure and Rice says he has a knack for reading people, a reporters intuition.Still, Im not sure if noir fits as a classification - the book is more of a journalistic/police procedural, in a way. For instance - after Carl collects all the information he can about vampires, he gathers a bunch of colleagues and students together to read the many books and condense them into a document he can refer to when making his case (he pays them with beer and sandwiches) - this is the kind of detail that tends to get skipped over in most genre books (especially now, when the internet is the lazy writers dream information machine) but seems to be pure reporting skill at work. Other moments focus on newspaper details: the size and font type of headlines (font aficionados will dig that, Im sure) and the details of how a paper is put together. The reporter aspect of the story means theres lots of shifting between social strata for our intrepid newshound - professional (editors, reporters, photographers), official (police, D.A., mayor), entertainment (dancers, swing shift casino girls, stage actors), education (professors, teachers, students), the lower depths (prostitutes, drag queens, used car hucksters) - Kolchak moves among them all fluidly, acquiring information. Also on the newspaper tip, Rice does a nice job of setting the murder news in the context of concurrent events of the day - air disasters, political strife, campus unrest, etc. - its a nice way of pointing out how, before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, events like these killings were *local* crimes, first and foremost.The murders themselves bring up another interesting aspect - THE NIGHT STALKER is, stripped of it genre details, a serial-killer novel before that term for either the crime or subgenre of fiction existed. Obviously, books like Psycho touched on the idea before, and Im pretty sure there had to have been some hard-boiled crime or noir novels with a city in the fearsome grip of a psycho killer, but I wonder if any crime novel really spent the time that Rice does here examining the phenomena in historical detail (the mid-novel chapter on vampires is followed by an examination of real-life monsters - Peter Kurten, Karl Denke, the Manson Clan - Jack The Ripper even gets his own appendix because Kolchak found the case fascinating). Its important to remember that Carl initially thinks the killings are being done by an insane man whos convinced hes a vampire (presumably using some sort of suction device to drain the blood from the bodies). But as strange evidence begins to mount, and after a first hand encounter, he begins to wonder... but he still isnt really convinced until the climax. Janos Skorzeny, the killer, is an interesting portrayal at a time when vampires were rapidly becoming passe. Although Barnabas Collins on tv soap DARK SHADOWS, Chelsea Quinn Yarbros St. Germaine character and, of course, Anne Rice pretty much helped steer the vampire character into popular revival by humanizing him in the 70s (the end result being TWILIGHT), the early part of that decade saw the iconic monster floundering - capes and evening dress, European accents, royal titles, blah-blah vocalizing - familiarity (THE MUNSTERS, TV horror hosts, horror comedies) had all but killed vampires as a legitimate threat.Rices way of dealing with this is interesting. He strips away a lot of the ephemera - Skorzeny is not charming (in fact hes given barely any dialogue), and his breath reeks of the grave. He does not turn into a bat, wolf or mist, nor hypnotize people. He is capable of planning his escape and attacks, buying airline tickets, keeping up facades with passports and fake ids, but he comes across as feral most of the time, barely in control of his drives. Blindingly sunny, desert-baked Las Vegas seems the last place a vampire would want to go, but it makes logical sense (Vegas has an active nightlife with people moving about at all hours, and no one notices strangers because Vegas thrives on strangers) although the gaudy neon, loud casinos, strippers and hookers are a long way from Transylvanian castles (a good example of this: when were eventually shown Skorzenys lair, its a one-bedroom cinder block ranch home on the outskirts of Vegas enclosed in a bad chain-link fence. The insides are nearly barren, aside from a coffin and an armchair. No sitting around in opulence and brooding like Lord Byron here! Even the ABC TV movie felt the need to drama this bit up, giving him a spooky old house with a dramatic staircase). Ironically, although its not dwelt on, Skorzeny IS from Transylvania (or Romania, at that point) and he IS a Count, officially at least. In the end, cornered in a clothes closet, scrabbling and whining like an animal, he cuts a pathetic figure.But he is a vampire - really, truly. Hes exceedingly strong, can run as fast as a car, and can shrug off bullets, beatings and a near drowning. This hits just the right tone for the book - odd enough to seem eerie, but not enough to seem unreal. In a way, an interesting moment is passed over quickly as, pinned down by police, an officer strides up to Skorzeny, places his magnum against the killers temple and says move and Ill blow your head off - suffice it to say, more mayhem results (the action/battle/police chases in this book are very memorable - exciting, suspenseful writing, really capturing dramatic press scribing at its best) but I wonder what would have happened if that event had taken place. Well never know. And one final thing - the climax, as I intimated above, is still surprisingly disgusting - every detail of Skorzenys dissolution and decay spelled out in lurid detail. You want to take a bath after reading it.Ive babbled on long enough - I enjoyed re-reading this and could appreciate more aspects of the writing now, as an adult. Unlike THE NIGHT STRANGLER, theres nothing overtly clumsy about the prose at any point (although modern readers who are used to quick service will probably think it meanders a bit, Id still make the case that thats all in service of style) so Id probably give this a 3.5 but will bump it up to 4 for nostalgias sake.See you over at The Night Strangler. Give em hell, Carl!



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