Kolchak: The Nightstalker is a much better than average TV show from the seventies about a reporter who works for a newswire service. The episodes typically follow a standard format: Karl Kolchak is driving around in his yellow Stanger when a report of a murder or robbery comes over his bootleg police band radio. He then cuts the wheel, heads to the scene of the crime, and shows up, either brandishing his recording device or snapping photos.
A surly detective or harness cop at the crime scene tells Kolchak to take a hike. But Karl’s doggedness allows him to either snatch up some clues or secure the interview that gives him an angle on the crime, usually one overlooked by the cops. As the investigation deepens, Karl begins to suspect that more than foul play is at work. Something supernatural is afoot. His boss at INS (which stands for International News Service here, not Immigration and Naturalization Services) asks him how that article’s coming along. Karl rushes headlong into a description of how he thinks a mummy or vampire or killer robot or Aztec god has been unleashed on Greater Chicago. Karl’s boss, Tony Vincenzo, at this point will grab his stomach or chest, looking as if his ulcers are leaking acid. Of course, he doesn’t go along with Karl’s theory, and asks Kolchak if he maybe needs to take a vacation or spend a couple months in the bughouse. After doing his Italian version of the old Fred Sanford chest clutch, Tony tells Karl to scrap the mummy/killer robot angle and get down to some real legwork.
But Karl remains persistent, and at this point in the episode he goes to an expert in whatever esoteric lore relates to the murderer. He usually interviews a prim man with a tight suit and aquiline nose, who scoffs at the idea that the monsters of antiquity are real. But said-person still supplies Kolchak (for a nominal fee) with some info about what tradition tells us about the chink in said-monster’s armor.
Kolchak starts cogitating, usually in his office, seated at his desk across from a couple of other INS staff. One’s a blue rinse biddy who plans the paper’s crossword, and usually provides comic relief as well as a bit of info. The other’s a waspy, priggish foil with a sandy-brown mustache, and a simpering manner that, in previous times, served as shorthand for possible homosexuality. After reading and maybe gathering a totem or two, Kolchak goes to face the monster in its lair. This involves pulling aside some rotted boards over the window of a condemned house or lifting a manhole cover and literally descending into the underworld (or at least the Windy City’s sewer system).
He has a confrontation with said-beast, and sometimes even snags a photo or two of the monster before vanquishing it. After dispatching the monster, he clutches his camera proudly, believing the evidence will prove he’s not in fact certifiable, but was right all along. Alas, either the pictures come out blurry, or the monster, in its confrontation with Kolchak, slaps the camera away and destroys the film. If that doesn’t happen, the detectives or harness cops who previously hindered Kolchak show up at the last minute and wreck or confiscate his evidence.
The episode usually ends with Kolchak seated at his desk at the INS office. He breaks the fourth wall and stares out at the audience as he records some final notes and musings on the now-closed case. In essence, he says, “You can believe it or not, but it happened.”
It might seem like I’m being a little dismissive of Kolchak, treating it as a paint-by-numbers affair. But the truth is that it’s an enjoyable and intelligent show, with some fine performances and some genuinely frightening moments. That has more to do with the details, though, than the broader picture and the premise which really can’t work for long (more on that later).
Everything good about the show starts with character actor Darren McGavin. He was immortalized in the classic film A Christmas Story, in which he plays a quintessential fifties dad who’s gruff but genuinely loves his wife and kids. Contra Christmas Story, in Kolchak McGavin is not a gruff paterfamilias, but rather a squirrely, single, somewhat undersized reporter whose main asset is his determination. His greatest liability is his mouth. He can come close to charming or buffaloing someone, but just when he’s on the verge of getting over, he makes a cutting remark or ill-timed joke. He’s loveable, irascible, and immediately recognizable in his seersucker suit, straw porkpie hat, and white sneakers (wearing tennis shoes during workhours was considered eccentric in the Seventies).
All of the supporting cast members are also more than up to the task. Old TV acting warhorse Simon Oakland is especially sympathetic as the burly, longsuffering news chief. He happily trades barbs with Kolchak, muting his affection for the reporter beneath a gruff exterior, but it’s plain he ultimately respects and trusts Karl.
As is the case with a lot of old great shows (like Miami Vice) soon-to-be-famous actors pop up in supporting roles, usually as villains. Eric Estrada, of Chips fame, plays a playboy in possession of a magical Aztec flute. It’s one of the more preposterous episodes, but he brings sufficient menace to the role to overcome the script’s defects. Tom Skerritt stands out as a Satan-worshipping senator who has traded his soul for political power. Unlike most actors guesting on the show, Skerritt undergirds his performance with a subdued gravitas that works better than the hammier displays that usually get turned in. He plays the evil Senator as a man who regrets his terrible decision, yet knows he cannot unseal the bargain he signed in blood with Old Scratch. And when he offers a similar bargain to Kolchak—maybe a Pulitzer instead of a corner desk beneath a clattering El train?— we see Kolchak’s face go through the whole range of emotions. The scene shows not only McGavin’s range, but how unplumbed the depths of this character remained. One has to wonder, that if Kolchak’s conscience and his past—his life, for God’s sake!—had been better mined by the writers, if the show might not have lasted longer.
David Chase, who would later go on to great acclaim writing The Sopranos, supplied a bunch of story ideas and teleplays for Kolchak. Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump fame, also did some work on an episode about a headless motorcyclist from a defunct biker gang.
The City of Chicago in the mid-seventies is also character in its own right.
Some of Kolchak was shot on-location, other bits on Universal backlots. But the sweeping shots of Chicago’s Gold Coast and Magic Mile usually feature in the episodes, if only during credits sequences. Lake Michigan slapping against the coast’s white sands is majestic, looking strangely exotic for a Midwestern locale. From certain angles, and in a certain light, it could be confused with South Beach (if you cropped out the hideous Hancock Building and a couple other skyscrapers).
Kolchak was popular with audiences and critics, but actor Darren McGavin grew restless near the first season’s end, and asked to be released from his contract. Why?
Well, Kolchak had some problems, despite being a very good show, made even better by the nostalgia factor of these intervening decades (time sprinkles its fairy dust liberally upon our misremembered past).
Horror maestro Stephen King pointed out what he considered the show’s fatal flaw in his magisterial book-length treatise on horror, Danse Macabre. His gripe is that the show’s serial format strains the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It’s unfair to ask them to believe that Karl could encounter a new monster every week.
One encounter in a lifetime with a werewolf, a vampire, a killer robot, or a witch might be believable. How, though, in a mundane world, can we believe that a seasoned reporter for a small news service could keep encountering supernatural beings?
King’s beef was ultimately McGavin’s beef. The actor quit the show at the height of its success, initially citing restlessness and exhaustion with his workload on uncredited production duties. But when he put in his two weeks’ notice, he was more specific: he thought the show was devolving into a “monster of the week” thing.
The problem for me, though, isn’t so much the straining of audience credulity. It’s that none of these supernatural events seem to have a lasting effect on Kolchak or any of the people around him.
Karl, at the beginning of the series, is your typical grizzled beat reporter. We know little about his personal life (and learn little throughout the course of the series). But it’s safe to say that he does not believe in ghosts and goblins. He doesn’t even seem like the kind of guy inclined to admit their possible existence after having a brush with one. He’d be more likely to assume a Scooby-Doo-esque plot afoot, some guy with a grudge or an agenda wearing a rubber mask and trying to scare people.
But in the first episode, Karl has a confrontation with what is undeniably a monster, and he is subsequently forced to believe.
And in the next episode, he has another confrontation with another ghoul.
To give the makers of the Kolchakverse the benefit of the doubt, let’s say there are certain stories Kolchak reports on that don’t have a supernatural element. Between monster cases, Karl writes up pieces about tax-dodging businessmen, lovers whose simmering quarrels boiled over into murder-suicides, jewel heists, etc., only these stories don’t appear on The Nightstalker.
Fine, but even granting this, Karl is still encountering supernatural beings every other week instead of every week. At what point does Karl—busy and practical as he is—stop and ask himself what all this supernaturality means? When does he stop, however briefly, to ask how the impossible has not only become possible but routine?
He might start to question his sanity, or perhaps some alteration in the laws that govern the universe. He might consider that there had been some kind of leak in the membrane heretofore separating fantasyland from reality.
It’s not just Karl, though, who should eventually start asking these questions and being changed by these events.
His boss, Tony Vincenzo, despite all his grimacing and ulcerated grumbles, sometimes makes minor concessions to Kolchak’s pet theories, crazy as they might seem. He wavers enough, in fact, that even he should eventually start to either question his perception or alter it to fit this new reality.
Kolchak, ultimately, would have had to become a magical realist show to survive. The mounting case files on vampires and werewolves would eventually have had some spillover into Greater Chicago, and then to the rest of the world. Even with the cops gainsaying Karl’s word and smashing his cameras on a biweekly basis, someone would eventually see what Kolchak saw. And be unable to dismiss it.
Well, then the seam torn in our reality by monsters would get ripped into a gaping hole. And we would be faced with a Chicago that would require some hard worldbuilding. David Chase would have to take a turn toward the Tolkienian.
Everyone would come to not only accept werewolves or vampires, but view them with the same exasperated disdain and contempt they had for muggers or rapists.
The episode would start with Kolchak in his yellow Mustang, as per usual. Only now, the police band would feature banter like: “We got two vamps trying to rob a blood bank on the South Side. Tell SWAT we need ‘em here pronto. And bring plenty of stakes and garlic.”
Karl would cover the case, then head back to INS to file his report. He’d sit down at his desk, and, with the El clattering on the tracks outside his window, crack his knuckles before attacking the Underwood. All of a sudden, Tony would burst through the pebbled glass door and start barking: “Karl, did you read that report yet about the hair samples on that open mauling case? And are you aware that they are lycanthropic in nature? Then why did you let the Tribune scoop us on that one!”
Would it work? It might.
On the other hand...
Some people would argue that this change to magical realism isn’t necessary. They’d also argue vehemently that Kolchak never should have been cancelled. They might even have the temerity to suggest that McGavin should have gotten over himself and sucked it up in service to the fans. Kolchak, they would say, worked just fine in its originally-premised form, notwithstanding what King wrote and what McGavin said.
Years ago I read this book about creating characters, which explained the difference between flat characters and round characters. In brief: flat characters exist mainly to propel the action. They react, especially to dangers, but they don’t reflect. They can’t. The nature of the format won’t allow it.
Indy in the Indiana Jones films is a flat character. He literally has an encounter with the Ark of the Covenant in the first film. Granted, he averts his eyes, but he can still feel the ghosts susurrating around him, and hear their forlorn and bedamned howls. And he sees the effects of the carnage after the Nazi esoterics get their faces melted off.
But rather than finding his hair turned white and seeking solace in a hermitage, Indy goes on being a badass and brandishing his whip. In a sequel he finds the Holy Grail, having another transcendent experience which somehow fails to allow him to transcend anything.
There’s an argument to be made in favor of the flat character, especially in adventure stories. And there’s also an argument to be made that some real people are, in essence, flat characters.
This isn’t an insult. Someone, in answering criticism lobbed at Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, pointed out there was a perfectly good reason the astronauts didn’t seem like deep people. Candidate selection for such jobs filters out those who don’t have a hardnosed, unflappable disposition. A poet sent into space on a tough mission might be tempted to stare out the ship’s window and wax about the Earth’s beauty, rather than focusing on the task at hand. A reflective Indy wouldn’t be able to run fast enough to escape the boulder hurtling toward him.
A Kolchak who pored over books for any reason except to find the monster’s weakness would, once he started reading, never cease. He’d end up cloistered away in some wainscoted library, a bibliophile or maybe even bibliomaniac, stroking the covers of vellum tomes like a lover’s cheek.
I know nothing about acting, but think that most actors find flat characters unsatisfying to play for any length of time. Once every few years in a feature film sounds doable. Every week for years on-end might become a slog through the mire that no amount of money could make easier to navigate.
Kolchak becoming “round” might have been interesting, and it might have solved the problem posed by the show’s internal contradictions. It definitely would have allowed McGavin to take his character in a fresh direction. The idea might have even been enough to tempt him into returning for a second season.
But ratings would have tanked. And people’s fond memories of the show would have been soured by what they perceived as pretentious attempts to elevated Karl to more than a monster hunter.
Maybe it was best left with its internal contradictions unresolved. As the sages of the ages say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Last year I read a little less than two-hundred books. That’s a lot, I think, even for me. And because the year’s over, now’s as good a time as any to list the ten best books I read in 2021, in order from the good to the great.
Both nonfiction and fiction are eligible. The only limiting criteria is that the works be in the English language. That caveat is hardly necessary, as I didn’t read enough German-language books last year for it to make much of a difference one way or the other. And my Spanish is nowhere good enough yet for me to have read anything besides primers, and Juan va al Supermercado is not cracking my top-ten.
And now, without further Apu:
10. The Glamour Factory: Inside’s Hollywood’s Big Studio System by Ronald L. David. “Exhaustive” and “entertaining” aren’t two adjectives I’m usually inclined to pair with each other, and yet this time the pairing’s warranted. This guy does such a good, thorough job of showing how the various Hollywood backlots in the Golden Age were their own ecosystems. These worlds-within-worlds had their own strange rhythms, warrened with screenwriter sweatshops and prop departments. Yes, there were cynical calculations constantly being made by the money men with the green eyeshades and the schmattas-turned-producers, but the magic was real, too. It wasn’t uncommon to see elephants convoying beneath a plaster Tower of Babel, or to see cowboys and Egyptian pharaohs in the cantina eating ham sandwiches together. There’s some dishing and scandal, but the proceedings aren’t as sleazy or schadenfreude-laden as those of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Still, did you know Humphrey Bogart was bald, and only a very skilled wig craftsman with a very expensive hairpiece kept us all none-the-wiser?
9. The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Dr. Katie Mack. How the hell do you write a book about the end of our universe, the obliteration of everything we’ve ever known, and not have it be a bummer? Dr. Mack has done it here. She explains cool-but-terrifying concepts like the Big Crunch, an unpleasant corollary to the Big Bang that got us all here (according to the background radiation signature, anyway). It’s not all grim and apocalyptic though, as Dr. Mack posits an astrophysicist’s version of the Katechon using calculations I can’t begin to understand. In a nutshell, she says that a “leak” in gravity means that there could be many adjacent universes for us to escape to when things go to shit here. It’s a fascinating, engaging book that’s as wondrous as it is terrifying. And most important for the knuckleheaded layman, it’s accessible without being patronizing, which can sometimes be a problem when the oversimplifications become too simple or burdened with dad jokes.
8. Weird Tales: The Unique Magazine, Spring 1988 George Wolfe, Gene Barr, Others. Did I say I couldn’t include anthologies? Regardless, this one deserves to be on the list. The quality of these stories is uniformly strong, and their content and style’s diverse enough so that it doesn’t feel like slogging through another book of Lovecraft pastiches. A standout tale is what for me is the definitive F. Paul Wilson story. The piece deals with an ancient, chairbound lady who uses a young maid’s body as a vessel so she can have sex with a confused, then mortified handyman; imagine Avatar with a pervy geriatric broad with a headful of blue rinse Youth Dew and you’re in the ballpark. The black and white illustrations are sumptuous, lurid, and the thing is a true pulptastic objet d’art in its own right. I wish I were better at hanging onto things, as this would have been a cool addition to my nonexistent collection. Alas, perhaps it’s better to lend and lose than to horde and let said-collection molder and gather dust, untouched.
7. Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta. I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, though I tend to enjoy straightforward genre forays more than the intentionally literary. I’ll read John Cheever or Raymond Carver and can even admire it. But I’d rather forget the style and focus on getting lost in the content, preferably supernatural or otherwise-speculative. That said, I’ve always had a soft spot for Tom Perrotta, and his gimlet-eyed view of seemingly normal people in the suburbs. He can be both scathing and compassionate, sometimes within the space of a single sentence. His stories about youths struggling with their sexuality in high school evoke that strange, pained romantic ache that still occasionally stirs when I think about my own past. The world of normal people, struggling with mortgages and driving their SUVs, is as alien to me as it is familiar to him. I see these people at the grocery store exchanging pleasantries, or queuing up dutifully at Starbucks, but I don’t know what that world looks like from the inside. Perrotta lets us not just peek but gaze into this seemingly well-ordered universe, where people are experiencing just as many crises as the most desperate, albeit more quietly. “Hanging on in quiet desperation,” is the English way, and Americans prefer the meteoric ascent of Horatio Alger (or even Tony Montana) rather than dealing with the nuances of class. As Paul Fussell noted, we’re even required to pretend class doesn’t exist in most contexts, unless you want to look like a real sorehead. That makes Perrotta, with his keen eye for social hierarchies and no shyness about peeling back the layers, a massive outlier in modern American letters. No, he’s not the only one writing about class but he’s the only modern scribe I’ve found who writes about it without making the experience excruciating. And when you consider that what should be tedious closet dramas are painfully funny tableaux in his hands, that makes him a genre of one. Which is the highest compliment you can pay a writer.
Perrotta also describes action much better than most literary writers. See Exhibit A: a story about an Asian overachieving softballer with a “Tiger Dad,” who hops out of the grandstands when his daughter gets beaned with a fastball. Like Mike Judge, Perrotta comes off more like an ex-athlete than an artiste and something about his roughness is refreshing where we expect the stultifying.
6. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem by Carol Delaney. Here’s another reminder that those chapters of history about which we think we know the most are still occluded with mysteries, unexplored truths, and as-yet unchallenged lies. For some, Columbus is the embodiment of the adventuresome spirit that has animated Western exploration for centuries. For others, he’s a genocidal sociopath whose complete disregard for the Natives already inhabiting the Americas makes him a wrecker of all that was beautiful in this precolonial continent. In progressive theology, he functions a bit like Lucifer in the Bible, the original angel cast down for his great hubris who has damned all associated with him. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. The book is filled with fascinating details, like how Columbus barely avoided being killed in mutiny, or how his dead reckoning navigational skills rival our most sophisticated instruments today. Most crucial of all, the fulcrum upon which this revisionist thesis turns, is that his brother was actually the one who started the brutal killings of the indigenous people. Columbus, sadly, was unaware of this, rotting in prison for failing in the task for which he would later be lauded, and then again condemned, finally subjected to iconoclasm. Madame Delaney circumnavigates the centuries with a brave and intrepid sort of aplomb, without malice or agenda, a kind-hearted conquistador, if such a contradictory thing can exist.
5. Writing your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save our Lives by James M. Brown. “Art isn’t a support system for life,” Stephen King once observed. “It’s the other way around.” No one struggles fundamentally with survival, the question of “To live or die,” quite like the addict. And yet, if this book had only been a tool, a workbook to be completed as part of a therapy regimen, it wouldn’t be on this list. It’s here because the balance between aesthetic considerations and spiritual advice is so perfect. Ultimately its greatness lies in the book’s focus on developing and honing craft as much as on breaking free of the hold of drugs. Brown has the clearest voice and most enviably clean style of any writer currently working. It always pisses me off, because I’m one of those magician’s understudies always trying to find out how the trick is done. But, like Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson, his seemingly simple style can’t really be broken down into its constituent parts by examining it word for word. Take it from me; I’ve tried. It almost drives a man to do drugs.
4. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. I somehow managed to get through not just my undergrad years, but through a master’s program. And yet I spent most of my college days seated in a classroom feeling my time being wasted in excruciating, brain-numbing, and pointless ways. Occasionally I found a brilliant professor who was passionate about their subject. And then, for that short time, the classroom became everything we associate with college in our hazy, ivy-clad, tweed and patched corduroy fantasies of what it should be. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain isn’t so much a book as a master course with a brilliant, shatterpated professor whose enthusiasm for Russian literature is contagious. He makes you care about his obsessions, and does it so ably that by the end of the book, you find yourself sharing his love. This is even more remarkable when one considers that none of my favorite Russian writers (Ivan Bunin, Dostoyevsky, etc.) have pieces in this collection. A lot of lesser-known and seemingly uneventful slice-of-life stories by Turgenev or Tolstoy appear here, tales I would have found interminable slogs without this genius exegesis. Hell, about the only story I dug on its own terms, without Saunders’ scholarly gloss, was Gogol’s old surreal yarn about the sentient, walking, talking nose. Someone (I forgot who) once said that the only sin an artist could commit was to be boring. Perhaps the greatest act a teacher can perform is to take what we might otherwise regard as boring and make it not just tolerable, but actually exciting. I’ve never had this much fun reading about peasants musing about birds while strolling through the woods, or seeing kulaks suffering silently at small train stations in remote villages.
And aside from the stories, Saunders’ observations about aesthetics and musings on his own life are also worth their weight in gold, or at least worth quoting and remembering.
3. Writer of the Purple Rage by Joe R. Lansdale. There’s a big difference between humorous writing and funny writing. “Humorous” involves an intellectual reaction, the mind responding to something and categorizing it. Funny is what we call something when it elicits laughter, an involuntary reaction that’s hard to get even from a movie or standup comedian. And in the theater or at the club, the performers have the advantage of plentiful audio and visual cues. It’s much, much harder to write something that’s funny enough to make you laugh. This collection—with its stories about rednecks lighting themselves on fire, battling alligators, and accidentally chopping up groundhogs—is simultaneously funny and horrifying. I may have read one or two better books this year, but nothing else gave me this kind of pleasure. How many books can you classify as painkillers, works that really make life with all of its myriad boredoms, disappointments, and agonies somehow more bearable? Also, like his forebear in short mass market tales of terror, Richard Matheson, Lansdale is ten parts talent to zero parts pretension. He’s so entertaining (and occasionally gross) that you forget he’s brilliant, and has a serious soul to go with the wicked sense of humor.
2. About the Author by John Colapinto. There’s an interview with Mr. Colapinto in the back of my copy of this book in which he says, somewhat shamefacedly, this book took him fourteen years to write. I don’t know why he’s embarrassed. If it had taken him forty years to write something this good, this scandalous and suspenseful, it would have been a life well-spent. This is an uncomfortably honest book about jealousy, insecurity, and the horrible things humans are willing to do in order to be respected, and even loved. Every horrible act committed by this book’s protagonist makes us love him more, and root him on that much more vehemently. What kind of genius does it take to make us cheer on a plagiarist who steals his dead roommate’s manuscript and claims it as his own work? He doesn’t even alienate our sympathies when he goes on to woo said-dead roomie’s girlfriend.
About the Author is sick, beautiful, and ingenious. That rare, perfect book, without a wasted word. You can race through it in twenty-four hours but would do well to slowly savor it. Regardless, you’ll probably want to read it again at some point. I know I already do.
1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. My buddy had been nagging me for a long time to read this, but I’d held off for a while. It’s over a thousand pages, and, like much of the American public, my interest in Westerns waxes and wanes in cycles I don’t quite understand. I was deep in the “wax” phase when I finally capitulated to my buddy’s demand. I started reading, expecting a sappy, romantic book about the closing down of the frontier, something like the literary equivalent of a Hallmark movie on the sunkissed range. Instead I got probably the most epic and compelling tale of human endurance I’ve read since James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. McMurtry’s ability to put the reader in the heads and souls of all of these men and women is remarkable. He goes from poignant, minutiae-laden tiny moments in bedrooms or saloons—showing us a prostitute’s thoughts or a pianist’s desires— out onto the wild expanse of the plains. It really gives the reader the sense that this is what people mean when they talk about a “God’s Eye View” of things: these sweeping, breathtaking vistas, cattle drives, and battles on the one hand, and the rare tender moments where people lay their souls bare, if only silently to the stars. Every twenty or thirty pages or so, following these characters about who I came to care and in whom I came to believe, I would just shake my head. Then I would curse myself for a fool for putting off reading the book so long. My buddy was right. This thing is a fucking miracle, and it restored my waning faith in what literature can do when the writer really gives a damn and tries to their utmost. An epic that earns the oft-used but nigh-never warranted mantle.
Lonesome Dove is not just in my top ten for the year. It’s in my Top Ten for All Time.
And that’s all she wrote. See you jamokes in 2023, if we’re both still here, and the world’s still here with us.