book: Kolchak: The Night Strangler (1974) by Jeff Rice, based on a screenplay by Richard Matheson

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Someone is knocking off belly dancers and other fit young women in the city of Seattle, and draining a small quantity of blood from their brains. Investigative reporter Carl Kolchak, freshly arrived after having been run out of Las Vegas at the end of The Night Stalker, does what he does best: annoy just about everyone in sight, become rather quickly involved in a love affair with a woman far younger than he is, and discover the truth underlying the murders. It seems the alchemical elixir of life — or, at least, one formula for it — requires the blood of young women. Furthermore, the elixir lasts only so long — about twenty or twenty-one years, in fact. Deep beneath the streets of modern Seattle there lurks a century-old alchemist who, every couple of decades, must harvest blood from a half-dozen young women.

Can Kolchak persuade the authorities to entertain his seemingly madcap theory as to what’s going on before the would-be immortal kills again?

Of course not . . .

It seems rather back to front to have the lesser of two writers create the print adaptation of the other’s screenplay — the book’s based on Richard Matheson’s screenplay for the 1973 TV movie The Night Strangler — and I confess that, having read Rice’s earlier Kolchak novel, I didn’t have the highest of expectations for this one. In the event, I liked it quite a lot more.

The fact that it’s about one-third shorter certainly helped. That sounds like a snide jibe, but isn’t. One of the aspects I disliked about the earlier novel was that it sort of meandered, with long passages of what seemed little more than padding — as if Rice had been given a wordcount and told he had to hit it to produce a marketable novel. Here, although there’s an infodumping section on alchemy in general and the Comte de St. Germain in particular, the narrative is far tauter. There’s a passage of extreme silliness, presumably intended as comic relief, where Kolchak and his managing editor, Tony Vincenzo, each maddened by what he sees as the pigheadedness of the other, throw items of office equipment around, like tantrumming toddlers do, but aside from that Rice devotes himself to telling his tale like grownups do.

And it’s the actual telling that marks the real difference, for me, between the two novels. Of course, Rice was able to lift chunks of Matheson’s writing (especially dialogue) directly from the screenplay, but it’s as if the influence of Matheson went way beyond that — indeed, I briefly speculated that Matheson might have played some mentor role, or at least had editorial input to the final text. Whatever the truth of the matter, if what you’re looking for is an all-out Matheson novel you should be looking elsewhere, but The Night Strangler, and its telling, definitely do have a strong Mathesonian feel to them.

Which is, of course, no bad thing!

As I say, I was very pleasantly surprised by The Night Strangler, and I was rather regretful as I reached its end that there weren’t more Rice/Kolchak novels to read. Although there’s the occasional reference back to the events of The Night Stalker, I don’t think it’s necessary to have plowed through the earlier novel in order to enjoy this one.

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4 thoughts on “book: Kolchak: The Night Strangler (1974) by Jeff Rice, based on a screenplay by Richard Matheson

  1. Never come across this one – had the original Rice book been published when the TV Movie was made? The impression I had was that the studio bought it while it was in galleys?

    • I’m not sure it had even reached the galleys stage — my own impression is that it was still seeking a publisher (as the standard euphemism has it).

  2. Pingback: #113 Kolchak, the Night Stalker | Wonders in the Dark

  3. Pingback: Kolchak: The Night Stalker — tying it all together | Noirish

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