Grave Secrets - Synopsis and Review

Author: Mark Dawidziak
Foreword by Jeff Rice
Publisher: Cinemaker Press
ISBN #: 0-9627508-7-5
Price: $9.95/$12.95 Can.

Plot: Well, Carl Kolchak's back. After the events of the last aired episode, The Sentry, he's been fired once more. However, Vincenzo has quit the INS as well and moved to LA to take over as editor of a "rag" paper, the L.A. Dispatch. He hires on Kolchak (and Ron Updyke, and Janie Carlton from the novels and The Night Strangler movie, and has Miss Emily working part-time since she moved to LA to take care of her ailing sister).

A rich businessman, Glen Gilmore, is mysteriously killed: savagely torn apart while in a locked room. The LAPD are keeping things quiet, which isn't enough for Carl. His undiplomatic approach forces Vincenzo to send him to Ohio (rather than fire him) to do some background stuff. There Carl discovers another mysterious death of a lawyer connected to the same land deal that Gilmore was involved in, involving a cemetary in Goodlands, OH. Two more deaths follow, and Carl comes to the inescapable conclusion that some supernatural being is at the heart of these deaths.

With the aid of a history professor, Kolchak determines that the killer is the ghost of Louis Henson, an escaped slave of the 1800's who was unwillingly transformed into an "ankou," a guardian spirit of the Goodlands cemetary, by the townsfolk burying him alive with a black dog. Now, Henson must protect the cemetary from any who would descecrate it. To do so, he and the black dog travel to wherever they need to, killing those who plan on destroying the cemetary grounds. To save the last individual involved in the business deal, lawyer Kate Tobin, Kolchak must gain the assistance of a psychic and put Louis to rest once and for all.

Author's Comments: Mark Dawidziak takes over writing the Kolchak saga from Jeff Rice. As someone who has read both of Rice's original novels (well, okay, the adapted screenplays of the novels), I can say that Dawidziak is a bit...wordier than Rice was. Carl goes off on a lot of narrative sideroads, commenting on the state of the media, management, background on L.A. and Ohio, etc.

As Dawidiziak notes in the NS Companion, he makes no real effort to reconcile any time issues. Thus, although the events of GS take place pretty shortly (within a year or two tops) of 75's The Sentry, it is set in the year 1992 (we find out Carl's birth is October 31st, appropriately enough). None of the characters have aged.

Speaking of characters...Dawidziak relies a bit heavily on established characters. As noted above, Ron Updyke and Miss Emily are all present. Okay, this kinda makes sense, even though they don't really contribute much to the story. However, Gordy the Ghoul has also moved to L.A., and the implication is that he's been there for some time (being well-established in the coroner's office there). Abe Marmelstein is mentioned but Monique isn't. Kirsten Helms (Carl's scholarly resource from the novels) also pops in (she's basically Crabwell from The Night Strangler - Dawidziak even indulges in a bit of an in-joke by saying she looks like Margaret Hamilton). There are maybe three new characters that get some decent development.

The TV series is also glossed over. The Sentry is simply referred to as "The Merrymount incident" and while Carl has repeated dreams of, and comments on the activities of, Malcolm and Skorzeny from the movies, there's no mention whatsoever of anything else from the TV series. And yet Dawidziak draws heavily on the TV show's supporting cast. Odd. Okay, maybe no one wants to remember or be forced to remember The Sentry. But if Carl is going to be haunted by the spirits of Janos Skorzeny and Dr. Richard Malcolm, why not toss in Sen. Robert Palmer or Madelaine?

Steve's Note (9/14/99) Mark Dawidziak provides an explanation for this omission. See Dawidziak Speaks!

The established characters are well-drawn. Dawidziak dances the thin line between Rice's original characterization, the movies, and the TV show. Carl and Vincenzo are pretty much spot-on, and I guess avoid becoming the caricatures that Rice was so concerned about. Carl seems to mature a bit. Although some of this maturation comes at the cost of a huge amount of narration that precludes one of Carl's dream sequence as he doses off to sleep. Vincenzo alternates between being sympathetic (relocating Carl to Ohio rather than firing him) and kinda dumb (falling for Carl's reverse-psychology pretty readily after Carl figures out the story is in Ohio).

Dawidziak also takes the chance to further expand Carl's background, and tosses in several in-jokes. As well as the aforementioned Helms-as-Hamilton bit, at one point Miss Emily sends Carl a copy of Interview with the Vampire, commenting on the fact it was also written by an author named "Rice." I suspect there are a few others floating around. For instance, Carl's father's name is "Mike," probably a reference to Darren McGavin's Mike Hammer role.

There's a lot of emphasis on Ohio, and presumably Dawidziak is from there. "Write what you know," I guess, but it's a bit disconcerting. After a promising start of Kolchak jousting at the LAPD's cloak of silence over the bizarre case, the Ohio setting leaves him with no real conflict and confines him to the role of background investigation.

The story itself is mildly interesting. The "monster," Louis Henson, is probably the most sympathetic of the movies or series. There's a lot of reliance on dreams and psychic activities as well as the ghostly activities of the monster (an "ankou") itself. I felt I was reading A Nightmare on Elm Street sometimes, and no real justification for the dream bit. Okay, the victims get a dream warning. But why is Carl getting Louis' dream-sendings, and even before he gets to Ohio to investigate the case? Some of the plot revelations actually come from Carl's dreams, which lets Dawidziak skip some Kolchak investigation and having to write the same.

The ending also seems a bit weak, since Carl really doesn't do anything. In fact, the back half of the story in general is kinda...well, different. It takes Carl out of his big-city, reporter/investigator mileau and leaves him in a small Ohio town where other characters (Helms, Historian Professor Franklin, and psychic Diana Loring) basically have to explain stuff to him, disgorging huge amounts of narrative in the process. Carl is more the catalyst to a solution brought about by these three characters, rather than the solution himself. Okay, the TV series had to feature him as lone hero, since Kolchak was the Guy of the Week. But even the movies had more of Carl's direct involvement. Kolchak ain't "Ghostbusters." He ain't even "Mulder & Scully, with the Lone Gunmen and Skinner helping out." He's a loner, not a team player, and those who do get mixed up with him (say, Bernie in The Night Stalker) usually pay the price for helping him. Other than the mildly inexplicable fact that the ghostly Louis takes a liking to him and sends him a few dreams, there seems no reason for Carl's active presence.

Overall, I would recommend the book to Kolchak fans, if for completeness' sake if anything else. Still...the book is merely adequate, when it could have been better. Dawidziak seems torn between the various "versions" of Kolchak: Rice's original intent, the movies, the TV series, his own ideas. His varying between these, and his shifting of Kolchak to the background, really hurt the story. Bringing back a popular character after 20 years, and then making him a secondary character as far as the plot is concerned, is a choice that didn't work for me. The book starts promisingly enough, with Kolchak in his plcae, but when it moves him to Ohio it goes kinda downhill.

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