AS THE STORY GOES, author Jeff Rice hadn’t even published his first manuscript, The Kolchak Papers, before it was snapped-up by executives at ABC Television and adapted into one of the highest-rated made-for-TV movies of all time. The film, about a vampire in Las Vegas, premiered on the evening of January 11, 1972, and it’s estimated that one out of every three televisions sets in America was tuned-in to the broadcast.
Let that sink in. One out of every three television sets in America.
Normally, a book comes out before its film adaptation. In this case, the book was not published until nearly a year after everyone saw the movie, and it’s for that reason—I believe—that Rice’s novel, published as a paperback by Pocket Books and re-titled The Night Stalker to cash-in on the film’s monster success, has been largely lost to history.
But that can change, and it should. The Night Stalker is out of publication now, and though used copies can still be found they’re usually expensive. But the good news is it’s available for Amazon Kindle and other e-book platforms at a relatively low price. And I say that’s good news because The Night Stalker deserves to be rediscovered.
Rice’s premise was brilliant. He was a Vegas newspaperman with intimate knowledge of the landscape—a neon-lit world where night was just like day, only without sun; a tourist town where strangers and weirdos went mostly unnoticed; a place known affectionately as Sin City, where lurid crimes didn’t raise eyebrows and nobody asked too many questions. The perfect hunting ground for a vampire, Rice thought. And the rest is history.
The story is told through the eyes of a world-weary newspaper reporter named Carl Kolchak, the kind of dogged fact-finder that politicians and law enforcement officials hate—even before he starts threatening the tourist trade with screaming headlines about bloodless murder victims with puncture wounds in their necks that suggest the work of a vampire. Or, at least, someone who thinks he’s a vampire. But the murders continue, and after a spectacular battle between the killer and an outmatched police force—wherein the creature exhibits unnatural abilities—humbled officials have no choice but to turn to Kolchak for help.
IF YOU’VE seen the movie, you will find that the novel was faithfully adapted. The great Richard Matheson hit all the high points in his screenplay, but he left a lot of detail to be enjoyed on the page. As I suggested earlier, Rice, who passed away in 2015, knew Las Vegas the way only a local news reporter can know a place, and that knowledge allowed him to create a painstakingly real-world setting for what is a decidedly nightmarish tale.
The novel also has much more to offer on the titular vampire, Janos Skorzeny. No glittering heartthrob here, but a cadaverous, Stoker-esque creature who is every bit as horrifying as his unnatural existence would suggest.
AND THEN there’s Kolchak. Though the character will always be personified in the hearts and minds of fans by actor Darren McGavin (top), who was just wonderful in the role, all of the raw material McGavin used to create his characterization is right here in the novel—every bristle, brainstorm, and burst of bravado in the face of authority.
McGavin, of course, went on to play Carl Kolchak in a followup TV movie, The Night Strangler (1973), based on Rice’s second novel, and again for one glorious season on ABC’s now legendary monster-of-the-week series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974). And Kolchak’s literary adventures continue to this day in a host of officially-licensed novels and comic books.
But it all began with an unpublished manuscript, and horror fiction will forever be indebted to Jeff Rice for having a great idea, and, more importantly, putting it down on paper.
If you like good vampire fiction, or if, like me, you’re a fan of all things Kolchak, do yourself a favor and read this book.