Monday, September 07, 2015

Jeff Rice and Kolchak [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Today is a good day to be a horror writer, whether in print or comics. If your work gets picked up by a cable network, you are on your way. Robert Kirkman made it big with his comic The Walking Dead, perhaps the most popular show on the planet. Kirkman wisely signed on as a producer. Now Blake Crouch is doing the same thing with the Wayward Pines show. Based on his novels The Pines (2012), Wayward (2013) and The Last Town (2014), he is now a producer and writer on the show. I don't know if this is a sign that agents are getting better at writing inclusion clauses or if TV executives are just finally getting that, yes, the original writer just might be an asset to the show. In the past, it wasn't so. Take Jeff Rice for instance...

I've always wondered how Jeff Rice was involved (or not) in the creation of the Kolchak saga and why he didn't use the show as a launching pad to a career as a popular horror writer. Reading his interview in a copy of Marvel's attempt at a Famous Monsters type magazine, the very enjoyable Monsters of the Movies #1 (June 1974), I found the inside story on his novel The Kolchak Papers. The TV rights were sold even before the book, with Richard Matheson scooping up the screenplay job before Rice could (and winning himself an Edgar Award for the task). Titled The Night Stalker (1972), the TV movie was a huge ratings winner, setting records for that time. It was followed by a second, admittedly repetitious, but popular, The Night Strangler (1973) and then Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the poorly regarded TV show of twenty episodes.

The original novel was eventually published as The Night Stalker after the TV movie aired. It had a picture of Darren McGavin on the cover, turning the show's inspiration into a mere after-the-fact marketing tie-in. Customers must have been a little confused by Rice's novel, which was intended to be a stake driven through the heart of Las Vegas. When The Night Strangler was produced, written again by Matheson, Jeff Rice got the job of writing the film into a novel, reversing the roles from the first book. The Night Strangler novel appeared in 1974. Both books sold very well. The Night Stalker, according to the Rice interview, sold half its copy run in the first month.

The Kolchak TV movies were making money too. Matheson and William F Nolan even wrote a third script about android replicas, but the network canned it in favor of the series. The only problem was that they didn't have Rice's permission to turn the movie series into a TV series, and he sued. Settling out of court, Rice was given credit as the series creator and Darren McGavin returned for the twenty episodes. This legal solution may have blacklisted Rice in Hollywood, ending any career in Tinseltown. Decades later in 2005, copyright was not a concern when ABC revived the show. Rice retained the rights to Kolchak in print, but not on TV. The new show did not last even as long as the original, only ten episodes. Somehow viewers knew something was missing, and that something was Jeff Rice.

The two paperbacks are all the books Rice ever wrote. Why? If I had two media-tied paperbacks, I would have struck a deal with the publisher for a series of books. Imagine Night Stalker #17: The Deadly Bees or Night Stalker #32: Project Deathbot. As one who remembers all the Man From UNCLE and Planet of the Apes paperbacks of the 1960s and '70s (ghost written by John Jakes, Keith Laumer, Bill Pronzini, and Frank Belknap Long),  this is a natural. Short, 60,000-worders with photo covers from the show. Only it never happened.

Because of the settlement, Rice was not allowed to use anything created by the show, only his original novel, making it hard to milk the occult detective cow for a few years even with the show faltering after one season. Only decades later, as Kolchak's cult grew, was this possible with Mark Dawidziak, a friend of Rice's, writing The Kolchak Papers: Grave Secrets in 1994. The novel did well enough to interest Moonstone Comics in a series, with tie-ins to other famous characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moreau. Jeff Rice appreciated that fans still loved Kolchak, especially after Chris Carter acknowledged that it was the show that inspired his popular X-Files. Still, no Jeff Rice resurrection came...

Rice's personal life is a bigger horror story than the novels he wrote. His father had been aligned with the mob in Las Vegas and Rice knew of its evils first hand, both from his private life and as a reporter. How did the original Night Stalker go over in Sin City with its anti-Vegas agenda? We can imagine all kinds of conspiracy theories involving black cars driving past Rice's house. Hard up for money, depressed and suffering from phobic paranoia, Rice remained a virtual recluse, writing no further books. He died under strange circumstances on July 1, 2015 at the age of 71. Even the sleaziest of entertainment programs made no mention of the fact. Hollywood had forgotten Rice in 1975 and that never changed.

Jeff Rice ends his Monsters of the Movies interview, which took place before the TV show, by saying, "The Night Strangler came out in February and is also doing record business. So, it looks like I am finally launched on a career as an author and, hopefully, I may soon sell my screenplays, as several producers have shown an interest. My career as an actor we won't talk about in this interview; at least the offers are coming in now." A frozen moment in time before the crap storm that was 1975. Hopeful, excited, ready for more. This is the Jeff Rice I like to remember. The man who gave us Carl Kolchak.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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