Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on Kolchak in Print

By Mark Dawidziak

     There was a time (that time being the mid-'70s to the early '90s) when it was ridiculously easy to keep track of Carl Kolchak in print. There was the 1973 Pocket Books edition of the novel that started it all, Jeff Rice's The Kolchak Papers, published under the title of the 1972 TV movie, The Night Stalker. Then there was The Night Strangler, Jeff's 1974 novelization of Richard Matheson's screenplay. And that was it. You had those two paperbacks and you had the complete Kolchak in print.

     Nothing much changed for the next seventeen years. Jeff Rice wanted to do more original novels and novelizations for Pocket Books. When the 1974-75 series was starting production, there was talk of a five-novel deal for Jeff. All of that vanished like a vampire exposed to sunlight in August 1974 when Jeff's attorney notified Universal that the studio hadn't settled key rights questions with his client. Jeff was barred from the lot and the deals disappeared. He eventually had to file a six-count civil lawsuit, and, after months of legal wrangling, it was settled on the day the trial was supposed to begin, and, key to all this, Jeff emerged with firm control of  the literary rights to his character. That meant he could authorize Kolchak novels, short stories and comic books.


     Flash forward from 1974 to October 1991. Some guy named Dawidziak adds one more book to that oh-so lightly weighted shelf of Kolchak books. Image Publishing brings out Night Stakling: A 20th Anniversary Kolchak Companion. Although non-fiction, this first history of the Kolchak character set the stage for new fictional stories with our seersuckered hero.While I have it on good authority that the author of Night Stalking greatly enjoyed the writing of that book, he was not satisfied with Image Publishing’s design and distribution (or lack thereof). But Kolchak creator Jeff Rice was satisfied with what he considered the balanced account of his novel being turned into a hit TV movie. Jeff was so pleased, in fact, he agreed to sign a five-year contract with Image founder Ed Gross for new Kolchak novels.


     It was the start of an often-stormy four-year relationship between Rice and Gross. The initial five-year plan, however, was sound and ambitious. Gross would use Image's sister imprint, Cinemaker Press, to publish a mix of original novels and adaptations of the series episodes. Rice would have approval of the writers for books he did not wish to write himself. He also would have editorial control of the project. Publishing two or three books a year in the trade paperback size (six by nine), Cinemaker projected anywhere from ten to fifteen novels by the time the five-year contract was finished. It didn’t quite work out that way.


     The project was to start with a reprint of the first two novels, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. These would be followed by an original novel. Gross did not have the funds to make it worth Rice's while to write a new novel, so Gross asked him for a recommendation. Rice suggested the author of Night Stalking. I was flattered but not at all certain I could come up with a story worthy of Rice's character. Before agreeing to terms, I submitted five story ideas to Rice and Gross. Everyone agreed that the first idea was the most promising, so I set to work researching the book that would become Grave Secrets. Each of the books was to be published under the umbrella title of The Kolchak Papers (Rice's original title for The Night Stalker). In other words, the titles would be The Kolchak Papers: The Night Stalker, The Kolchak Papers: Grave Secrets, and so on and so on.


     Unfortunately, we never got to "so on and so on." The reprint of The Night Stalker was published in 1993 with a foreword by Stuart M. Kaminsky and original artwork by Kevin Barnes and Sterling Clark, Jr. It was printed in paperback and hardcover, but Gross was having no luck finding a distributor who could place Kolchak books in bookstores. Delays with artwork pushed Grave Secrets, the first original Kolchak novel  in twenty years, ahead of The Night Strangler. It was published in late 1994 as a trade paperback with original artwork by veteran illustrator Ed Silas Smith. Bringing Kolchak into the '90s was tricky, but the trick was accomplished in concert with Jeff Rice. How to deal with the twenty years before the end of the series and new adventures? Simple, just act as if they didn't happen. We decided that the last episode of the series, "The Sentry," was the case that got Carl fired from the INS Bureau in Chicago. A little later, Tony took a  job as an editor with the Hollywood Dispatch, a scrappy little tabloid nicknamed "the Disgrace" -- respectable, but just. Tony, of course, hires Carl, and, fast-forward, it's 1994. Carl is the same age. He talks the same. He acts the same. Jeff updated the character biographies accordingly.


     During a trip to Los Angeles, Jeff Rice and I scouted locations for Carl’s new home base. The old Hollywood Citizen-News building, a few blocks off Hollywood Boulevard, became the site for "the Disgrace." We checked out an unbelievably depressing hotel nearby and decided to check Carl in. "Dare we do this to him?" Kolchak’s creator asked me as we stood in the shabby room. As we left, Jeff Rice opened the minuscule closet and observed, "Hmm, just enough room for a straw hat and seersucker suit."


     Grave Secrets opens with the mysterious death of land baron Glen Gilmore. The grave secret behind this killing is buried more than two-thousand miles away and more than 150 years in the past (heh-heh-heh).


     I was pleased. And I was even more pleased to learn that Jeff Rice was pleased. All in all, a very pleasing situation, right? It would have been if Grave Secrets had received anything that could be charitably called distribution. Back at Cinemaker, though, things were going from bad to train wreck. Instead of Night Strangler, Ed announced an Omnibus edition of both The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. Meanwhile, writer Doug Murray had finished the second original Kolchak novel, The Grand Inquisitor. Neither the Omnibus nor The Grand Inquisitor ever saw print, although Ed Silas Smith completed a striking Omnibus cover showing Kolchak "haunted" by Janos Skorzeny and Dr. Richard Malcolm.


     In 1996, about four years into his five-year-contract with Cinemaker, Jeff pulled the plug and pulled back the rights to his characters. So, after four years, Cinemaker published two Kolchak books, the reprint of The Night Stalker and Grave Secrets. Work on the Omnibus and The Grand Inquisitor was completed, but neither book was published. Ed Gross, later editor of Cinescape magazine and co-author of Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages (Little, Brown, 1995), accepts responsibility for the projects’ failure. He admits he is “no businessman,” and concedes that his ambition was greater than his resources. He remains a friend and an enthusiastic Kolchak fan. Indeed, much of his well-intentioned efforts were fueled by his great love of the character.


     The Cinemaker collapse left Rice and Kolchak without a publisher. There were overtures from a couple of major publishing houses, but nothing on terms creatively and financially acceptable to Rice.


     The publication of Night Stalking also sparked interest in Kolchak from comic book companies. Here, too, would be a path leading through years of frustration. By 1997, Topps Comics had been promising a series of Kolchak comic books for about four years. The company's biggest sucess has been its line of X-Files comic books, so a Kolchak connection makes sense. Topps' other titles included Dracula (a tie-in with the Francis Ford Coppola movie), Jurassic Park (another tie-in) and The Ray Bradbury Chronicles. All in all, it would appear that Carl would be in the right place. Jeff Rice signed a Topps contract in late 1992. He also wrote a comic-book script for The Night Stalker. After that, both Marvel and DC Comics  expressed an interest in Kolchak. But in the spring of 1997, Topps' new editor-in-chief stated his intention to put Kolchak In May of that year, however, Topps pulled the plug, telling Jeff that a new policy prohibited the launching of "any new titles."


     A few months later, Glass House Graphics, which had packaged comic books for all the major companies, made a run at Kolchak. An understandably frustrated Jeff decided to withdraw Carl from the field in late 1997. So the only quasi-Kolchak comics to appear at that point were: the 1974 Marvel spoof, The Night Gawker; Marvel's Night Stalker-inspired Paul Butterworth -- The Night Stalker (The Tomb of Dracula, April 1976); and Carl's Rice-approved cameo appearance in Sterling Clark's The Renegade No. 1 (Ripoff Press/Magnecom, October 1993).


     The only new Kolchak book that appeared in 1997 was the revised, reworked Night Stalking, published by Pomegranate Press as The Night Stalker Companion: A 25th Anniversary Tribute.


     And that's how things stood in 1999. The Kolchak river ran deep, indeed. Many a fright-minded filmmaker or writer has been swept up in its powerful current, exhilarated by the thrillingly tricky eddies splashing terror over mirth. Still, anyone getting far enough from shore's safety to know that river was deceptively deep also realized that it wasn't exactly what you'd call wide. From this perspective, the Kolchak world was severely limited. You could cross it rather quickly, if you so chose, covering everything that existed of Carl on film and in print.


     Enter Moonstone, a Chicago area comic book publisher making the Kolchak world a great deal wider and richer. I was contacted in 1999 by Moonstone founder Joe Gentile, proposing, of all things, a Kolchak comic book. I was not, to put it mildly, encouraging. I explained to the master of Moonstone the many failures. I described to him just how burned Jeff felt by past experiences with the comic-book world. I warned him what Jeff's reaction might be to publishers bearing lofty promises. To his undying credit, Joe was undaunted and undeterred. His proposal was forwarded to Jeff, and after some frank haggling on both sides, Moonstone received the green light.


     Some thirteen years later, Moonstone remains the official Kolchak publisher for comic books, short stories and even some new novels. To date, they have published more than 40 Kolchak titles. The decision was made early on to follow the Kolchak universe established in Grave Secrets, a Los Angeles setting that allowed for an embracing of the sensibilities of the original novels, the TV movies and the series while also allowing for experimentation and expansion. The first comic book, Jeff's adaptation of the original novel, appeared in 2002 -- thirty years after the TV movie aired. It was followed that same year by Fever Pitch, an original story by Stuart M. Kaminsky and "Get of Belial," an adaptation of the unfilmed Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode. In 2004, those three comic books, along with Stefan Petrucha's "Mask of Moment," were collected in a trade paperback published with my introduction as Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Volume One.


     That same year, 2004, saw the publication of the comic books Devil in the Details, another Stefan Petrucha story, and Lambs to the Slaughter, with a story by Gentile and me. Lambs to the Slaughter and the adaptation of the unfilmed Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode "Eve of Terror" were collected in the 2008 trade paperback, Sound of Fear.


      Many more titles followed, including CJ Henderson's Pain Without Tears and Pain Most Human, as well as several issues of Kolchak: Tales of the Night Stalker, edited by Dave Ulanski.


     In 2005, Moonstone got into the short story business, publishing the anthology Kolchak: The Night Stalker Chronicles. It featured 26 stories by the likes of Elaine Bergstrom, Max Allan Collins, P.N. Elrod, Stuart Kaminsky, Ed Gorman, Peter David, Chuck Dixon, Jason Henderson, Richard Valley, Brett Matthews, Clay & Susan Griffith, Richard Dean Starr, Martin Powell, Lou Agulair, Steven Grant, CJ Henderson, James Anthony Kuhoric, Mark Leiran-Young, Gary Phillips, Adi Tantimedh, Fred Van Lente, Robert Weinberg, Gentile, Ulanski and Mike W. Barr. It also included my Barnabas Collins-Carl Kolchak crossover story, "Interview With a Vampire?" That story was turned into a comic book for Kolchak Tales Annual (2009).


    A second anthology, Kolchak: The Night Stalker Casebook appeared in 2006, with 17 new stories by Pierce Askegren, Mike Baron, Rachel Caine, Tom DeFalco, P.N. Elrod, John Everson, Gentile, Christopher Golden, Rick Hautala, Elizabeth Massie, John Ostrander, Gray Phillips, James Reasoner, Robert J. Randisi, Richard Dean Starr and Ulanski. This one included my introduction/tribute to Darren McGavin and my  novella, "Cancellation." The Chronicles and Casebook anthologies were collected into one hardcover edition, Kolchak: The Night Stalker Compendium, in 2011. Moonstone also published an omnibus edition of Jeff's two novels, The Kolchak Papers, in 2007.


    Rounding out the Kolchak shelf is Richard Matheson's Kolchak Scripts, the 2003 Gauntlet publication collection Matheson's screenplays for The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler and the unfilmed The Night Killers (written with William F. Nolan). 

15 comments:

  1. Good God, that's quite an interesting history. I remember sitting in on a few Topps meetings regarding the KOLCHAK comic book project (I was West Coast Editor of Topps Comics at the time), and I believe Jim Salicrup actually had lunch with an enthused McGavin. It was probably Len Brown, who inherited Jim's role as East Coast Editor-in-Chief of Topps Comics, who was saddled with the "we can't launch any more new titles" edict from higher up, and Topps' flirtation with comics in general ended about a year or so later. In any event, it's nice that Carl has finally found a home for ongoing, original adventures. Question: Did you folks pay extra for the legal right to use Darren McGavin's likeness as CK? And Jonathan Frid as Barnabas, for that matter? I can't help thinking about comparable situations with Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney -- if someone wants to license classic horror properties from Universal, they have to make a separate arrangement with the heirs of these stars in order to replicate the specific actor's likeness. That's why many of Universal's dolls and figures based on Dracula feature a generic, fang-faced Count -- those licensees who want Bela Lugosi's distinctive countenance have to work things out with his estate. I can't imagine Mr. McGavin saying, "Sure, go right ahead... use my face on any product you want, as often as you want. I won't ask for compensation." Then again, he WAS actively interested in participating in the Topps Comics version -- so who the heck knows?

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    1. Gary, you couldn't be more right The first Topps contact was with Jim Salicrup, and Len Brown certainly was the editor-in-chief who passed along the no-new-titles edict. In regards to likeness rights, in the Cinemaker years, the decision was made to go with a near-likeness that suggested McGavin and incorporated features of the Carl Kolchak described by Jeff in the book. You'll notice that the Cinemaker illustrations are far from spot-on McGavin likenesses. That's also true of the early Moonstone comics. From my perspective, the likeness got closer to McGavin in the later Moonstone comics, but this really is a question for Joe Gentile. I started out with a "creative consultant" title for scripts and stories, although this was an unpaid position and, truth be told, highly ceremonial. I was more on board, I suppose, as the closest thing Jeff Rice had (or has) as a representative. I do know that, as you say, likeness rights can get pretty tricky. With my crossover tale, which started life as a short story, I secured the permission of Dan Curtis to use the Barnabas Collins character and Jeff Rice to use Kolchak -- and each of their permissions to cross the characters as I did. I was not involved with the comic book, except as the source of the story. But I believe Dan Curtis Productions controls the likeness rights to the characters as they were portrayed by the actors. Still, I'm no expert on this or even the comic book realm. Joe and I hammered out the story that became "Lambs to the Slaughter" and they used the Barnabas story as the source for another comic, but that's about the extent of my comic-book experience and expertise.

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  2. I absolutely love how seamlessly Carl and Tony and the entire Kolchak-verse transition to the modern world--it's a true sign of the timelessness of the characters.

    I mentioned in another comment somewhere that the Tales Annual is, hands-down, my favorite of them all; I know absolutely nothing about Dark Shadows, but your story is done is such a way that I don't need to know anything about it to enjoy it. And I also adore the other story in the Tales Annual--Tony definitely needs to go along on more of Carl's misadventures!

    Oh, and Lambs to the Slaughter is amazing, too! I do love that one a lot, though I have to ask (and I'll try to keep this as spoiler-free as I can for the benefit of those who haven't read it), but that mention of Tony's son... will that ever be addressed again in a future story? It was a powerful scene that added so much incredible depth to Tony's character and it has me craving more in regards to his/their backstory.

    Working my way through the Compendium is also very fun (about 2/3 of the way through that doorstopper!). There are some definite gems in there, and your tribute to Darren is absolutely wonderful.

    --Crystal Rose

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    1. Thank you, Crystal, for the kind words regarding the stories and the Darren tribute. I'm not 100 percent certain, but I don't believe any of the Moonstone writers for the comic books or short stories revisited the idea of Tony's son. It's always there for a writer to explore, as are other choices made over the years for various stories. I also hear from "Dark Shadows" fans about how much they enjoy "Interview With a Vampire?" There are some very specific "Dark Shadows" references (like Kolchak riding the train on June 27, the day "Dark Shadows" premiered with an opening scene of a train heading for Collinsport). There also are some homage allusions to Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (the novel, not the Coppola film), but I mostly wanted to make sure the story stood on its own if you only were coming at it from either a Kolchak or "Dark Shadows" perspective.

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  3. Gotcha, Mark. Fortunately, the "iconic" Kolchak is that rumpled guy with the straw hat, seersucker jacket and sneakers, armed with a flashlight, so the facial likeness can be fudged (Columbo would be a tad tougher to fake, even with that raincoat and cigar). It's all a matter of interpretation, anyway. For decades Universal licensed images of Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney Jr., and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's Monster, claiming the heavy make-up rendered these performers unrecognizable. It was only the demand for more sophisticated products (designed for film geeks, not kids) that brought the relatives of these superstars into the merchandising mix, with licensors and licensees having to split the pie a little differently.

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    1. I know the Universal argument originally was based on claiming copyright to the Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf-Man makeup, and, therefore, the likeness rights -- and that this claim was constantly challenged by the families. It always seemed particularly hollow when applied to Dracula, since the face of Dracula clearly was that of Lugosi. And, of course, heavy Jack Pierce make-up or not, there are differences between the face of Karloff's monster and Glenn Strange's monster. I must say that there was a sense of delight when the families were awarded a slice of that pie.

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  4. Sniff... sniff... so is this then the last of Mark's posts? Maybe to ensure he's forced to keep corresponding with us and answering our pestering questions, Peter & John should now embark on the Columbo-a-Day blog ("Just One More Thing"). Better yet, make it a Dark Shadows-a-Day blog ("I'm Sorry - Did I Startle You?") - that way we have him for yeeeeears...

    ;-)

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    1. Hmmm, "Dark Shadows" . . . this would go on longer than the Dream Curse storyline: 1,225 original episodes, two movies with the original casts, 12 episodes of the 1991 revival, the failed 2004 pilot with Alec Newman, the new Johnny Depp movie, the 33 Dan (Marilyn) Ross novels, the new novels, the daily 1971-72 newspaper strip by Kenneth Bruce Bald, the Gold Key comic books, the Innovation comic books from the early '90s, Dynamite Entertainment's new comic books, two '60s series of Swell trading cards, several non-fiction histories by Kathryn Leigh Scott, Jim Pierson and others. Taking weekends off, this blog would run, oh, about five years. "Kolchak" certainly is a fairly limited universe by comparison. I'm still trying to figure out how everybody made it through the "Batman"-day blog.

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  5. Mark, this absorbing account is outstanding, as is to be expected from a chronicler of your caliber. I can think of no better send-off to ICHH from the man who has done so much for the literary legacies of one of my favorite writers (Matheson) and fictional characters (Kolchak).

    The one thing about which I'd have liked to know more is the publication of the original KOLCHAK TAPES/NIGHT STALKER novel. I've read that Rice revised the novel somewhat from his original draft when it was finally published, presumably to make it more in line with the movie. If true, this brings up the intriguing possibility that the book Matheson was working from when he wrote his teleplay is not the same as the one we readers have today. Can you shed any light on these possibly apocryphal accounts?

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    1. Matthew, glad to drive a stake through the apocryphal accounts. There really isn't much difference between "The Kolchak Papers" (Jeff's original title) and the revised work published as "The Night Stalker." There were revisions, to be sure, but it pretty much was the novel readers have today -- in structure, content and tone. The changes mostly were to allow for the overwhelming identification of Darren McGavin with Carl Kolchak and the sensitivities of Pocket Books. Even here, Jeff retained a good deal of his original Kolchak concept. His Kolchak, for instance, smokes cigars and drinks Scotch (McGavin swills Bourbon in the movie). And Jeff's Kolchak has more than seersucker in his closet, sometimes preferring the casual look of jeans. His description of Tony Vincenzo (a dried-up little man) hardly matched Simon Oakland. But Jeff kept all this in his novels (although giving Tony more of a paunch in his novelization of "The Night Strangler"), and kept any hint of romance out of the relationship with Sam (the prostitute replaced by the Gail Foster character in the movie). The changes Jeff made in revision were mostly cosmetic, since the movie incorporated all of the basic story steps, most of the major characters and much of the original dialogue. If anything, the movie was struggling to get as much of the original novel in as possible. So it wasn't a matter of making wholesale changes because of the movie's changes. The movie's biggest changes included: the addition of the Gail character, the combining of other characters, and the dropping of Kirsten Helms, the publisher character, the student hired to draw a likeness of the murderer and the attack on the drag queen. None of these changes made by the movie is used in the revision published as "The Night Stalker." Jeff went back to the original for all of this, also including the chapter on Kolchak's research. Kolchak did throw around an occasional profanity in Jeff's original, and Pocket Books insisted that be toned down. But, overall, the novel still has a tougher edge that Jeff also retained for the revision.

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  6. Speaking of sendoffs, I can't close the Kolchak file, as it were, without a word of profound gratitude to the "Two Apostles," Peter and John (not to mention Mark the Evangelist), for their hard work and their passionate and always entertaining dedication to this underdog series. KTNS was a cherished part of my youth, long before I became obsessed with the Mathesoniana that encompassed the two TV-movies, and it occupies a special place in my heart even today. Thanks for giving it its due.

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  7. Thanks so much for laying that one to rest! Sorry about the TAPES/PAPERS gaffe; I do that all the time.

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  8. Hi Mr. Dawidziak - is there any way to get a copy of Grave Secrets at a decent price? It's 50 bucks and beyond everywhere I look. Also - thanks for keeping the Night Stalker torch alive. - Marty

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    1. I just saw the bookstore, so disregard my last comment! THANKS!!

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  9. Thank you so much for keeping Kolchak alive and for the inside information. How can I write a fan letter to Jeff Rice?

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