Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Night Stalker

Most dedicated vampire fans have probably seen the vintage TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER, which was followed by a sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, and spawned a short-lived series, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER. The original movie began as a novel by Jeff Rice, working title THE KOLCHAK PAPERS. The iconic horror and SF writer Richard Matheson (author of I AM LEGEND) adapted it into a screenplay, and the novel was published as THE NIGHT STALKER (1973) after the TV broadcast of the film. The author structures the book in documentary style, inserting himself into the narrative, with a letter from Carl Kolchak to Jeff Rice and a prologue by Rice himself explaining how he became acquainted with Kolchak and compiled the facts of the case. The main text comprises Las Vegas journalist Kolchak's first-person story of the murder mystery and his involvement in it. The few third-person accounts of incidents he couldn't have witnessed are framed as Rice's reconstructions from the available reports.

For at least half of the book, the characters realistically assume that the multiple murders of young women in Las Vegas have been committed by a human serial killer. Kolchak pushes for recognition of links among the crimes as well as a connection to thefts of blood from blood banks. His editor, with whom he's constantly at odds, tries to rein him in, while the police resent his interference and only grudgingly allow him access to information. Kolchak does have some allies in law enforcement, though, including an FBI agent. One thing I like about this novel is that the police don't look stupid, as they do in much horror fiction. They're fairly efficient and, on their own terms, sensible. They do, however, reject Kolchak's theory too vehemently, in my opinion. When the reporter maintains that the killer is probably a deranged homicidal maniac who believes himself to be a vampire, the bloodless condition of the bodies makes this idea seem perfectly reasonable.

Later in the book, evidence begins to accumulate that the suspect, Janos Skorzeny (born in Romania, naturally), may in fact be supernatural or at least preternatural, rather than a very strong but quite human lunatic who looks strangely youthful for his alleged seventy years of age. The story moves along at an unrelenting pace, victims piling up as Kolchak researches vampirism and the suspect's past. The gruesome scene discovered by the police and Kolchak when they break into Skorzeny's lair constitutes one of the more horrific moments in the vampire fiction of the 1970s. The law enforcement agencies' subsequent cover-up of the truth about the killer and his destruction, foreshadowed in the prefaces, seems to spring inevitably from the incredible nature of the crimes.

The novel portrays Kolchak as the archetypal world-weary, hard-drinking, authority-defying veteran crime reporter, dedicated to unearthing the truth despite the futility of that endeavor. The murderer is neither the charismatic vampire of film and romance, a ruthless aristocrat in the Dracula mode, nor the bloodthirsty, nearly mindless animated corpse of folklore. He displays cunning and intelligence by evading capture through many decades of murders and false identities. We get no glimpses of his inner life, however; through Kolchak's eyes, we see him as purely a monster to be destroyed. The book ends with an appendix reviewing the "Jack the Ripper" case and a bibliography purporting to list Kolchak's research materials.

Margaret L. Carter

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