Mon
Jul 21 2014 2:30pm

A Love Letter to Carl Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Darren McGavin Carl Kolchak the Night Stalker

Carl Kolchak: Anybody important here today?
Receptionist: No, just a bunch of reporters.

—from “The Energy Eater” episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker

A lot of things contributed to me ultimately being a writer, but one of the most crucial was a guy in a bad suit and straw hat, with a camera and tape recorder slung over his shoulder. Yep, I mean the night stalker himself, Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin.

More particularly, I mean the guy from the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The series was preceded by two TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, both written by Richard Matheson. In these movies, Carl was a more...rounded character, we’ll say. He still bucked the system, sought truth at all costs, and faced down the monster. But he also had a serious eye for the ladies (he dated a Vegas showgirl in the first one, and a Seattle belly dancer in the second) and a taste for alcohol (he called a glass of gin “the reporter’s natural habitat”).

Darren McGavin Carl Kolchak the Night Stalker

In the TV show, though, he was simplified. Not made simple, mind you. But the show never showed his home, or what he did when he was off duty, or that he had any interest in romance. His “home” was his office, he was never off duty, and women were a distraction (as in his reaction to Lt. Irene Lamont in the episode “The Sentry”; she charms all the other [male] reporters into simpering blobs, but not Kolchak). The only thing that mattered to Carl was The Truth, and yes, for him it had two capital T’s.

Like a lot of things that influence us, it hit me at the perfect age. In 1975 I was 12, hooked on Star Trek reruns, SF novels and Batman comic books. I already had vague notions of writing my own stories, but as a lonely geek in small-town Tennessee, being a writer seemed about as likely as getting a date.

But when I saw Kolchak, everything changed. So what if girls ignored me? I could ignore them just like Carl did. What did it matter if there was nothing in my small town to make me look forward to the future? The Truth, long before the X-Files, was out there somewhere, in a big city like Chicago where monsters could lurk with impunity. All I needed were a few pieces of gear, like a portable cassette recorder (these were cutting edge at the time), a 110 camera (utterly impractical for real news photography, but I didn’t know that until later), and that most glorious of inventions, the typewriter, featured in the show’s credits.

Kolchak the Night Stalker

There were other great things about the show as well: its pervasive humor, its consistently downbeat endings (Carl often discovered the truth, but was never allowed to share it), its insistence on monsters being monsters. And those elements are among the things that keep me coming back to the show even now, almost 40 years later.

So without Kolchak: The Night Stalker I would not have become a reporter, which taught me to write. I wouldn’t have embraced horror and monsters, two of the things I write about the most. I might never have gotten out of that dying little town without Carl showing me that the pursuit of truth is always worth it, even when the world never knows. And I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post for Tor.com.


Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, Wake of the Bloody Angel, and He Drank, and Saw the Spider), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing).

15 comments
w0rkw0rkw0rk
1. w0rkw0rkw0rk
I still have a great love for the original TV movie "The Night Stalker". Darren McGavin was one of the great character actors of our day, the soundtrack was perfect and, despite (or possibly because of) the low-rent effects, this was one of the scariest movies I'd seen.
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
In my young mind, I thought of Carl as the "Anti-Scooby Doo"

Monsters: Real!
Does he 'win": Hardly. He usually can't tell the tale, and gets chewed on for it
Does he get any respect: Um, nope.

I always wanted a Hulk/Kolchak crossover. That'd been fun.
Christopher Bennett
3. ChristopherLBennett
@2: You mean, like, Kolchak teaming up with Jack McGee in the search for the legendary Hulk? Might've been cool, if a bit redundant character-wise (they're both grizzled reporters never able to prove the existence of the things they hunt). Also, the TV Hulk universe was devoid of anything else sci-fi or supernatural beyond the Hulk himself and others like him, except for a touch of ESP in one episode. (Which was why it was such a bizarre mismatch when the first revival movie teamed him up with Thor as a backdoor pilot.)

Trivia: The theme music for Kolchak: The Night Stalker was repurposed from a motif Gil Melle composed for Gene Roddenberry's pilot movie The Questor Tapes earlier that year. It was not the movie's main title theme, but was the leitmotif for the "Project Questor" team/lab.
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
In 1975 I was was also 12, hooked on Star Trek reruns, SF novels and comics when I could find them. Kolchak was a cool entry into that other world.
rob mcCathy
5. roblewmac
3 there was a Hulk episode with a meteor that followed Huk to earth once, right?
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
@5: The meteorite in "Prometheus" didn't "follow" Banner/Hulk; he just happened to be nearby when it landed, and its gamma radiation trapped him in mid-transformation (represented by Bixby in half-Hulk makeup in closeups and Ferrigno in the same makeup in long shots, which is much more obvious on modern TVs). Since it fell into the same category as the one major SF element the show was built around -- the connection between gamma radiation and Hulk-like transformation in humans -- I don't count it as a separate SF/fantasy element. Aside from that specific area and the one psychic episode, the show stayed very much grounded in a realistic world.
w0rkw0rkw0rk
7. James High
I remember staying up to watch this with my Dad. I was 4 or 5 if I remember right. Years later while in college I saw a new show called X-Files, I called my dad and told him I had found a show just like Night Stalker. Very fond memories.
w0rkw0rkw0rk
8. Eugene R.
In a time in which we have really worked the "sympathetic" monster motif, I appreciate shows like Kolchak for "its insistence on monsters being monsters." And not without a sense of humor or irony, as in the episode "Horror in the Heights", where Carl defeats a shapeshifting Hindu demon, the Rakshasa, which preys on a victim's trust, leaving Carl to ponder if he should tell advice columnist Miss Emily that she is the person he trusts most ... or that he would shoot her with a crossbow if met unexpectedly at night.
w0rkw0rkw0rk
9. Naching
The actress who played Lieutenant Irene Lamont, was in actuality, Darren McGavin's real-life wife-Kathy Brown McGavin!
w0rkw0rkw0rk
10. Russell H
I was in high school in 1975 and this show really made an impact on my tastes changing from just SF to include horror. I really got into the way episodes would suddenly switch from the humorous to the terrifying. Also, the way the show's writers made a virtue of the necessity of low budgets and censorship to heighten suspense through only showing the monsters as little as possible (and then usually in shadows), and just glimpses of the victims being attacked.

Lots of great guest-actors, too: Hans Conreid, Jim Backus, and Phil Silvers come to mind.
w0rkw0rkw0rk
11. Max Gardner
I was so disappointed when Darren McGavin finally showed up on X-Files -- which Carter admitted was heavily inspired by Kolchak -- and didn't play an older Kolchak passing along his memoirs to Mulder and Scully to help them carry on his work. (Probably copyright issues and whatnot, but just think how cool that would have been.)
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
My wife introduced me to this show when it was appearing here and there in syndication, years after its original release. I loved the dry humor and Darren McGavin's approach to the character.
w0rkw0rkw0rk
13. Naching
I heard that Darren was very angry with the creators of "Kolchak" and said that he would never play Carl again. When it was suggested that he play a part in any sort of remake, he was quoted as saying, "I'll play Tony". That is probably why he did not take on the role in that episode of "The X-Files".
w0rkw0rkw0rk
14. Rich Zanradnik
Wrote the same thing for my blog, just a year and a half earlier.
http://www.richzahradnik.com/?p=429
w0rkw0rkw0rk
15. KLH
Such wonderful memories of this show! Wonder if there's a boxed set of the movies and the series...

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