When James Reilly visited his grandfather's TV-free home in Ireland as a boy, every evening Granddad would ad-lib a two-hour story--always ending with a cliffhanger. "All the next day you'd be talking about it; you couldn't wait to sit in the chair and see how it ended," the grandson recalls. The tradition continues: today Reilly, 55, is America's hottest soap-opera writer. Last summer, after two decades on various shows, he rejoined NBC's "Days of Our Lives" as head writer. To reverse its falling ratings, Reilly created a serial killer who's set siege to the veteran cast. Already a half-dozen characters have been killed (the latest victim: Roman Brady), creating a mutiny among loyal viewers. "My love for soaps died when they killed off Jack--that was the final straw," says New York viewer Kira Lerner. Some fans have decried Reilly's bloodthirsty, gimmicky plotlines (one character died in a pinata accident); there are even cries of age discrimination, since most of the victims are older actors. But ratings are up sharply since Reilly's return, and his bosses are thrilled. Executive producer Ken Corday says: "[Some fans] are angry, they want to throw their lunches at the TV, but they're still watching."

Soaps have lost viewers in recent years, but they remain a powerful draw: among young women, "Days" attracts more viewers than "60 Minutes." NBC execs, who signed "Days" to a new five-year contract last summer, are counting on Reilly to keep the numbers rising. Though he relies on a team of writers to turn his ideas into scripts, Reilly conceives all the major plot twists for both "Days" and NBC's other daily soap, "Passions," a total of 500 hours of TV a year. He laughs at "Friends" producers who bellyache about doing a half hour a week.

The job creates strange demons. Reilly says he's unable to drive an automobile because "I get so involved in looking at the next car and imagining what those people's stories are--are they married, are they having a fight?" He's already figured out the major "Days" plotlines through the end of 2004, and waves off worries that viewers will tune out once the killer is unmasked. "By the time that story winds down, the hook is in their mouth," he says. Until then, he'll keep setting fresh bait.