A made-for-TV movie titled The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin as journalist-turned-vampire-hunter Carl Kolchak, hit the airwaves. I’m not sure if I saw its original airing or a rerun of it, but I did see it when I was about 14 or 15. And I was dazzled by the premise: a cocky and cynical reporter comes to grips with the fact that an actual vampire is committing murder on the streets of modern Las Vegas, and said reporter must struggle against local politicians’ efforts to cover up the entire thing. Imagine Woodward and Bernstein, after exposing the Watergate scandal, going to Amity Island when its civic leaders were safegaurding the vacation spot’s profitable tourism industry by keeping mum about a certain great white shark with formidable JAWS.
I was also thrilled that the main character has a Slavic-sounding surname. There aren’t many fictional characters with names like mine in American pop culture. Well, there’s Stanley Kowalski. But he’s hardly heroic.
This is the date on the copyright page of the paperback edition of The Night Stalker, by Jeff Rice, the novel on which the TV movie was based. (It had been written prior to filming, but not published until afterward.) Did I read it in 1974 or 1975? Possibly even a year or two after that, I suppose, but I remember being dazzled all over again.
You see, I had never run into a work that played so nicely with placing a vampire, a standard figure of fantasy, into so realistic a story. Of course, Bram Stoker had done exactly that with Dracula, and I’m pretty sure I had read that. But there’s no character named Bram Stoker in Bram Stoker’s story. There is a Jeff Rice in Jeff Rice’s. In fact, Carl Kolchak passes his manuscript to Rice in the hopes that Rice will edit it and see to its publication. And Rice inserts bracketed comments throughout Kolchak’s story. And another character named Kirsten Helms, a mythology professor, appears — and there’s a reference work by a Kirsten Helms in the book’s bibliography. And it’s totally fake, planted among very real books! Oh yeah, and there’s a bibliography! In a novel!
Back when I was still in high school, I didn’t realize that Rice was really just spinning an old trick to bring an added touch of authenticity to a work of fantasy or high romance. Nathaniel Hawthorne does it in The Scarlet Letter (1850) by claiming he found the tale among bundles of documents on “the second story of the Custom-House.” Horace Walpole prefaces The Castle of Otranto (1764) by saying he discovered what follows in “the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England.” I would learn about this time-honored ploy later, as I was earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in English.
I figured I’d end the year by re-reading a used copy of that 1973 paperback edition of The Night Stalker. It was a bit like having a few beers with a friend from high school after some 45 years. A friend whose shortcomings have become painfully apparent with the passage of time. For instance, there’s almost no interiority to Carl Kochak’s first-person narrative. Here’s a guy who grew up hearing his Roumanian grandfather’s “endless folktales in the dark of night,” including one about a bloodthirsty historical figure named Vlad Dracula. Decades later, he comes across evidence that a real-life vampire is loose in Las Vegas. How does that affect him? What’s the process of reality-reassessment, self-doubt, paradigm-shifting, and so on that goes on in the head of a character in such a profound situation? Rice doesn’t give us that, and it strikes me an odd thing to skip over in a novel of this type.
Instead, we get details that don’t seem to add to the story. The novel is already juggling a very large cast, and in Chapter 6, we’re given a chunk of introductory description of someone named Janie Carlson. But she never comes back. Later in that same chapter, we’re told that Kolchak gives a neighbor named Pete Harper a ride to the airport. As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with the story, and we really don’t need any more names. Would a reporter include such irrelvant details? Why did the author?
Now that I’m cocky and cynical, too, let me add that I wish Kochak had a more direct role in gathering key clues to solve the mystery. The police do most of the work — or, rather, witnesses coming forward do. We learn the chief suspect’s name from a character who recalls having met him in Europe. Another character realizes she sold that suspect a house, and she contacts the cops only when that information is needed to propel the plot. What if that realtor had been, say, hard-drinking Kolchak’s AA sponsor or something? What if she had gone to the protagonist himself?
That said, I thought the novel’s pacing and conclusion were good. Having Kolchak tell most of the story raises the intriguing question of his being a liar or a kook, though the follow-up investigation by “Jeff Rice” confirms some of what the reporter claims. And, of course, the character of Kochak himself (very likely thanks to Darren McGavin’s priceless performance) has become a very important, very popular occult detective character. In fact, this novel — along with the TV movie, the sequel, and the short-lived series — were all fascinating enough to nudge me toward pursuing fiction professionally, both as an academic and as a writer. There’s a lot of Carl Kochak in my own reporter/ghost hunter character, Vera Van Slyke. You’ll especially see what I mean if you read “Vampire Particles” in Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries.
Granted, the Vera stories are all completely real . . .
I mean, I inherited them from my great-grandaunt, after all . . .
In the final analysis, despite now wincing at its shortcomings, I still feel affection and appreciation for this novel, this friend from high school. It made a mark on my life and on the occult detective tradition.