Saturday, March 3, 2018

Jeff Rice and THE KOLCHAK PAPERS


Warning! While it’s impossible to “spoil” great art (we all know that Charles Darnay and Elizabeth Lavenza get married at the end of “Romeo and Juliet,” but that doesn’t stop us from continuing to listen to the opera), this post does contain very specific information regarding the endings of both THE NIGHT STALKER movie and the novel by Jeff Rice. 

Please note the placement of Jeff Rice's name in the upper left corner, hidden amongst all the ballyhoo about the TV movie, while Matheson's name is separate at the bottom. Hm.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of participating in the FOUR BRAINS ONE MOVIE podcast with host Bradley Kornish and Dan Pullen, where the topic was the original Kolchak TV movie, THE NIGHT STALKER. Airing originally in January 1972, it was the highest-rated TV movie up to that point, earning a 54-share, meaning that 54% of all TVs turned on at the time were watching it. Seventy-five million people watched at least some of it. It was a rousing success that spawned a sequel movie and then a short-lived TV series that today maintains a loyal cult following and inspired just about every supernaturally themed TV show that’s appeared since.

In the opening credits of the THE NIGHT STALKER, we learn the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, “from an unpublished story by Jeff Rice.” Matheson’s name was already legendary by that time. He was the writer of one of the most famous TWILIGHT ZONE episodes of all time, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which featured William Shatner as a panicked plane passenger who sees a hairy man on the wing. He was also the author of the well-regarded story collection SHOCK, and the novels THE SHRINKING MAN and I AM LEGEND, both of which had already served as the basis for very famous films.

But who was Jeff Rice? And why was this story “unpublished”? For that, matter, why mention that particular fact at all?

Jeff Rice was a writer for the Las Vegas Sun in the 1960s. He began writing a novel called THE KOLCHAK PAPERS in 1970, and apparently finished writing it on October 31 of that year. The book was a fictionalized account of Rice’s difficulties in getting stories published about actual corruption in the city—including stories about the mob, crooked and inept politicians and police, editors colluding to hide the truth, and so forth.

Rice submitted the manuscript to Matheson’s agent. Matheson’s agent then turned around and sold the movie rights to ABC, without informing Rice. By the time Rice learned what had happened, he was essentially locked into the deal. He’d sold his first—and as yet unpublished!—novel manuscript to the movies! He must have been excited yet frustrated by this turn of events. Can you imagine being in that situation, in that era? If he turned down the offer and fought to assert his intellectual property rights at that time, it might have caused the whole deal to collapse—and cause him to lose any future opportunities to have his work published. So he went along with that deal, hoping he might at least get a chance to adapt the screenplay.

But, no: Matheson’s agent had already negotiated for his client to write the screenplay as well.



Reading Rice’s original novel, it’s difficult not to (a) filter the story through the lens of Rice’s own experiences and (b) lament what might have been for Rice as a horror writer. THE KOLCHAK PAPERS is uneven and repetitive at times, but it also has a raw energy and verisimilitude that keeps you reading. It also has a really engaging title character, even if he’s not quite as powerful as the character inhabited by the great Darren McGavin.



The novel starts out with a letter written by Carl Kolchak to Jeff Rice. Kolchak, now reduced to “prostituting my God-given talents as a flack for actors,” has, between bouts of drunkenness, written and recorded a series of notes regarding “the greatest manhunt in the history of Las Vegas”:

“The only clues to the killer’s motive and his “weapon” were so unbelievable, that to this day the facts have been suppressed in a massive snow-job by mutual consent of the law enforcement agencies involved and the local press.”

Following this letter, and one page whose authorship is left unclear in the Pocket Books mass market paperback from 1974, there’s a Prologue written by Jeff Rice, in which he describes meeting Kolchak in Los Angeles. Rice writes: “He was seedy, gross, aggressive, slightly drunk, and a general hindrance to all of us.” He lived in a “shabby one-room apartment”. And he “later lost all his clients to alcoholic excess.” The Carl Kolchak that Rice meets in Hollywood is a desperate, lonely, sad man who has been mistreated by forces completely outside his control. All he wants is to find someone to tell his story. Kolchak’s opening letter signs off with the poignant line “I just can’t fight it alone, anymore.” He believes that Rice is the man to help him finally get his story out. Rice, after some convincing, agrees.

In his Prologue Rice tells us that he intended just to organize Kolchak’s rambling notes and tapes “into a compact, cohesive report by eliminating his endless digressions into unrelated subjects, his endless comments on fellow workers, and dissertations on various mundane aspects of Las Vegas not absolutely pertinent to the facts.” Rice ends up becoming almost Kolchakian himself, furthering his investigation and wondering if he’ll ever have another night of peaceful sleep himself.

Following the Prologue, Kolchak’s manuscript begins with the staccato, hardboiled voice that fans of the movies and TV series will recognize:

“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…”

In describing Cheryl Ann Hughes, her situation, the world of Las Vegas at night—Kolchak himself comes to vivid life. That is a distinctive voice. It’s the voice of a series character, feeling at once classically pulp and at the same time unique. This is the perfect character to lead us into this decadent and depraved world.

The voice is so good, in fact, that Matheson seems to have lifted quite a bit of it for his screenplay. (Is it possible Rice or perhaps someone else might have edited it to include Matheson’s voice over scripting?)

The Kolchak manuscript within the novels details the cynical but strangely hopeful journalist’s attempts to learn the truth behind the murders of at least five people between April 25 and May 15, 1970. Over the course of Kolchak’s investigation, he comes to believe that the culprit is a vampire. Kolchak believes that it’s important to let the public know what they’re potentially facing and just what exactly is stalking them. But he’s very much alone in that belief. At least where it counts. When he first tries to get the story told his way, the newspaper’s managing editor, Llewellyn Cairncross, says, “Bullshit! Kolchak, for years I have suspected you were mentally deranged and now I have confirmation of that suspicion. Why don’t you go to Alaska or Florida or anywhere and plague somebody else for a change?”

But the story is published, with heavy redactions. This earns the newspaper a call from the District Attorney, who attempts to intimidate Kolchak and the paper by suggesting that the Daily News should send Kolchak to study mentally ill patients “from personal experience—up in Sparks, Nevada, the Bedlam of the Golden West.”

Later, at an inquest where the coroner has suggested that the killer might actually be someone who has drunk the victims’ blood after biting them, Kolchak feels validated. But the District Attorney quashes the story:

“This ‘vampire’ stuff is to stay right in this room. Until we have the assailant in custody we say nothing about these girls being drained of blood. No more rumors. No reports in the papers,” he added, looking directly at me and ignoring my colleague from the opposition press. “The official opinion at this time is that the cause of death is ‘undetermined and under investigation.’ We don’t want to start a panic. It’s bad for police operations. It’s bad for the people. And it’s bad for business.”

The newspaper is all-too willing to agree with this official position, even going so far as to airbrush away the bite marks on the neck of one victim before publishing their photo. In between bouts of trying to get the story out, Kolchak gets drunk. It’s how he copes with the frustration and powerlessness he feels. There is a deep feeling of sadness that permeates the book. Kolchak continues on, despite one setback after another—somehow expecting he’ll finally win, and the story will be told.

Finally, the police and the local politicians seem to agree with Kolchak, and they take his advice to bring Crucifixes, holy water, and wooden stakes with them in their search for the vampire, Janos Skorzeny. Kolchak even accompanies the police when they find his home and stake it out. While in the movie Kolchak uses an informant (played by the great Elisha Cook, Jr no less!) to find Skorzeny’s home before the police, in the book, Kolchak is brought along by the police when they find Skorzeny’s home. Kolchak is essentially ordered by Detective Jenks to kill Skorzeny with a wooden stake, even as Skorzeny lies at their feet, melting from having holy water poured on him.

This makes the ending of the book even more powerful. In the film, of course, Kolchak takes the initiative himself and stakes Skorzeny. So, tortured as it might be, there’s a kind of a case to be made that what Kolchak did was “premeditated murder.” In the book, the police very deliberately instruct Kolchak to stake him. Then, while they don’t run Kolchak out of town that day, they do make it so toxic for him in Las Vegas that he’s forced to leave, under threat of a murder charge.



The book ends with an Appendix on Jack the Ripper.

Huh?

Rice tells us that Kolchak shared Rice’s interest in the Ripper murders, and had even intended on one day writing a book about them. (Another book from Rice that we’ll never get!) There are then about two pages of notes on the murders. Why were these pages included? I think there’s a clue to that in the final note from Rice which reads, in part:

“Perhaps, because of my association with Kolchak, and the experiences I had in Las Vegas, I may have become somewhat sensitive to the smell of a cover-up, but I theorize that the ‘Ripper’ was caught, and that he (or she) was someone very prominent, and that it was all hushed up, the killer being quietly ‘put away’ forever. —JR”

This is Rice letting us know that Kolchak’s experiences were very much based on Rice’s own. It’s a highly personal, idiosyncratic book. It’s a real shame that we didn’t get more from Rice, beyond his novelization of the second Kolchak movie. Whatever was the cause, Rice apparently couldn’t bring himself to write more with the character, or to write anymore fiction that he felt he could share.

The character has lived on, however. Speaking of which—the graphic novel I scripted, KOLCHAK: DAWN OF THE DEMONS, should be available shortly, after some lengthy and unexpected delays.