Kolchak: Firefall

I’ve always been fond of this episode, in spite of its flaws. It shows a certain originality in merging the phenomena of spontaneous human combustion with the ages-old myths and legends of the double spirit, fetch, or doppelganger; the only similar supernatural story I’ve seen occurred in the Dark Shadows Phoenix plotline. I  mentioned this episode when I reviewed that and wondered if both might’ve been written by the same person (they weren’t).

Crossing the hearseIt’s a bad idea to cut off a hearse en route to a funeral. That’s the lesson famed Chicago Symphony conductor Ryder Bond (Fred Beir) will learn after he does precisely this to avoid being late for a rehearsal at the very beginning of the episode. The spirit of the deceased man, a convicted arsonist and cheap hood with thwarted musical ambitions by the name of Frankie Markoff, decides that the life Bond is living is much better than the one he recently departed from in a hail of mob bullets. He sets about taking over Bond’s life.

To do this, the spirit of Markoff takes on the appearance of Ryder Bond, then gets rid of Bond’s closest acquaintances–presumably because these are the people most likely to notice an abrupt change in Bond’s personality. These unfortunate victims go up in sudden, intense bursts of flame.

The first to go is Bond’s pianist best friend, George Mason. When the police investigate the death, they attribute it to George smoking in bed without an ashtray at hand. But Carl Kolchak, who is also on the scene, wonders why nothing but the body is burnt. The bedsheets are only charred where the dead man lay upon them. The police sergeant in charge has no answer for this, but throws Carl out of the apartment. Carl has a chat with the woman who lives next door with her cute little terrier, and who was just coming back from walkies when they discovered the body. He learns that she saw Ryder Bond outside the dead man’s apartment.

Carl gets to the concert hall before the police arrive to see Ryder Bond for himself and tactlessly bring the news of his friend’s death. Bond says that he’s been in his dressing room for the last two hours with his non-English-speaking girlfriend Felicia Porter. The stage manager says that he gave Bond a phone message about half an hour ago in the orchestra pit, in front of the entire assembled orchestra–Bond knows nothing about this note. Either way, he was nowhere near his George’s apartment.

The next to go is Felicia as she drowses in a lounge by her apartment building’s rooftop pool. Fwoom! Up she goes in an explosive puff of black smoke, leaving nothing but her charred remains to horrify other apartment-dwellers who have come up for a swim. Again, the lounge is only burnt where the body touches it and, again, the police try to attribute the death to a drug-addled smoker unable to put out a dropped cigarette. One of the neighbors vaguely says that she might’ve glimpsed someone near the pool just before Felicia’s death; when prompted by Carl with a description of Ryder Bond, she agrees that, yeah, it might’ve been someone who looked like that.  This, surprisingly, is enough for the police to bring Bond in to question him, and for Carl to write an article that implicates the conductor–an article his editor Tony Vincenzo refuses to accept.

Ryder Bond's doppelgangerThe thing is–and it’s one Flaw #1 in this episode for me–the apparition of Bond that shows up at these first two deaths is transparent and (being a badly superimposed image) doesn’t quite mesh with its surroundings. Any person seeing it would call it a ghost or a trick of the eyes. There’s no way they’d take it for the figure of a living man.

Fortunately, Bond’s double will take on more substance as the story progresses.

When he next goes to the concert hall to talk to Bond, Carl Kolchak sees what appears to be Ryder Bond, not transparent, getting into a car with the symphony’s business manager, Philip Roarke. He tries to follow them but gets stuck at a red light. By the time he does catch up, Roarke’s car is billowing black smoke and police are trying to rescue the man inside. Two men, says Carl, but only one body in the usual charred condition is brought out. The passenger seat is empty.

Baffled Carl returns to the concert hall to find the famous conductor, conducting, in view of at least 100 people.

Convinced that something more than an exotic form of murder is going on, Carl calls on Bond at his apartment. The solid-looking Ryder Bond who answers the door doesn’t speak and gestures for Carl to enter, then for Carl to have a seat on the couch. While Carl is jabbering away,  he turns his head for a moment–and the silent figure disappears. The apartment bursts into flames, but Carl escapes without getting burnt himself.

Flaw #2: We never hear another word about this fire at Bond’s apartment. You’d think he’d be upset about that, on top of the deaths of three people he cared about. You’d also think that, perhaps in light of these fiery deaths, the police might be interested.

Flaw #3:  If the doppelganger wanted to kill Carl Kolchak, why doesn’t Carl go up in a puff of smoke too? We will get an explanation for this, but it’s not a satisfactory one.

Via one of his voiceovers, Carl tells us that he’s consulted his parapsychology contacts, which is where he learns the term “doppelganger,” but doesn’t get much useful information otherwise.

So, where else can he go for help but to his tea-leaf-reading gypsy friend Maria?

Maria admits she’s no expert herself; her grandmother, who now lives in a retirement home outside Chicago, knew something about doppelgangers undeMariar another, presumably Romany name, and could tell her how to deal with one. But Maria will have to take a lengthy trip to visit Grandma to get this information, and that’s going to cost Carl $200.

Carl doesn’t have $200.

Maria: “It’s terrible to be broke and superstitious at the same time.”

She’ll extend Carl a little credit, but if she doesn’t get her cash by the following day, she’ll be sending her brother Vincent around to break Carl’s kneecaps.

Maria does tell Carl that the doppelganger can’t kill him until he falls asleep. That’s why he didn’t burn up in Bond’s apartment. The rest of the episode will hang upon this point, as Carl, who has already been up for more than 50 hours, struggles to stay awake to stay alive. The real Ryder Bond faces the same problem to avoid being replaced by his duplicate (kind of like the alien pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers). But…

Flaw #4: While this makes a kind of sense regarding the George Mason, who was in bed, and Felicia Porter perhaps drowsy on her poolside lounge, what about the third victim? Philip Roarke went up in flames while driving his car in the midst of Chicago street traffic. Did he fall asleep at the wheel?

Ryder Bond has been unable to sleep in the wake of all these disasters around him. When Carl finds him, he thinks he’s having a mental break down with some weird form of schizophrenia–he’s being haunted by a figure that looks just like himself.

Carl explains about the doppelganger. He also cites some instances of documented spontaneous human combustion, which seemed to happen every other day in the 1950s.

Flaw #5: Is the show suggesting that all cases of spontaneous human combustion are caused by pyromaniac dopplegangers? The fiery deaths are explicable in this particular story because Frankie Markoff was a pyromaniac; of course he’d kill people that way once he had the power to do so. But surely not all dopplegangers are the spirits of people who enjoy setting fires? If that’s so, then the otherworldy implications are deeply bizarre.

Bond doesn’t believe it at first, but Carl manages to convince him (a haunted piano helps;  Frankie’s spirit works against his own interests). The two men flee to the one place they believe the doppleganger can’t harm them: a church.

Camped out in the church pewsRyder Bond settles down for a nap in the pews, but there’s no rest yet for Carl Kolchak. He has some errands to attend to.

From Maria and her grandmother, he’s learned that he has to go and get the spirit’s original body, place it on the spot where he died, and force it to return to that body.

Based on what his new buddy Ryder’s told him about crossing a funeral procession, Carl finds out whose funeral it was, then does some research on the life and death of Frankie Markoff; he ventures into Ron Updike’s bizarre filing system at INS, visits the pinball arcade where Frankie was killed and gives his last five dollars to have the exact spot where it happened pointed out, and calls on Frankie’s widow.

The ditzy Mrs. Markoff is the one who tells Carl about her late husband’s musical ambitions. She once watched him playing classical music and waving a baton as if he were conducting an orchestra. (So it was lucky for Frankie that Ryder Bond crossed his path). Frankie’s little boy seems ready to carry on his father’s fire-starting ways.

In an amusing scene at the INS offices, sleep-deprived Carl breaks into the petty cash in Tony’s office to get the $200 he owes Maria. When he gives this money to Monique to take to Maria, Monique sadly assumes that it’s a gambling  debt and that Carl is drunk. Tony and Ron Updike likewise assume Carl has been drinking–surprisingly Ron “Uptight” has a thing or two to say about the effects of tequila–and they try to get him to lie down and get some sleep. But a phone call summons him back to the church.

While Carl’s been busy around town, the police and Bond’s psychiatrist have shown up at the church to try and get the conductor to check into a hospital for observation–and sedation. They can’t force him to come with them.

Taunting doppelgangerWhat they can’t see, but Carl and Ryder Bond can, is the doppelganger peeking in through the church windows. Ryder isn’t going anywhere.

Flaw #6: Why can’t the others see the doppelganger? He’s been visible to a number of people besides his victims before.

I’ve spent some time enumerating the flaws of this episode, but the doppelganger at the church is my favorite part. After the police and psychiatrist have been sent away, Bond goes back to sleep. Carl tries to sleep too, since he can’t go to the cemetery to fetch Frankie’s body until later in the night. But the doppelganger continues to taunt. It looks gleefully in at them, popping instantly from window to window around the church, waving, and making this weird pobble-bopping noise–which I think is the sound a doppelganger makes when it raps its knuckles against stained glass windows. I love the hint of flames rising behind it outside the church.

Frankie MarkoffAt last, Carl has had enough of this and is up and out on his final errand so he can send the annoying spirit of Frankie Markoff back where it belongs.

This involves placing a well-wrapped corpse at the foot a pinball machine and making an extravagant speech that reminds the doppley spirit of who it really is and banishes it to rest in peace “forevvverrr morrre”.

The ceremony is successful, but not without some final struggles from the reluctant Frankie. It also results in the burning down of the pinball arcade and Kolchak’s subsequent arrest. But, hey, omelets require broken eggs. Carl finally gets some sleep in the back of a police car.

About Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats. As well as being the author of numerous short stories, novellas, and essays, she is the author of “Maiden in Light,” “The Wizard’s Son,” and “Sonnedragon,” novels set on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period. All three are part of an intended series of fantasy novels that mostly take place in a dukedom called the Northlands, a part of the Norman Empire that roughly covers the north-eastern U.S.

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