Aaron Dries

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Pay No Attention to That Man Behind The Curtain - On Forgetting Robert Bloch

Posted on March 26, 2012 at 7:30 PM


We’re not emerging into the digital age anymore — it’s very much here. With that in mind, I think it’s important to remember the value of good-old-fashioned books, and more importantly, the paper bound between their covers. The words on those pages only last a reading for some; for others, the words last for as long as the novel remains in print … But then there’s that other shelf life. The kind of shelf life that extends to the almost cult-like raiding of book market bins (usually the ones with $1 each or 3 for $5 scrawled across the cardboard in permanent ink) and eBay raids (though dammit, they take the fun out of searching). Shelf life as inspiration, resulting in borderline obsession.


But paper breaks down. It fades. The words slip into oblivion. Dust to dust.


And what then of the author? You know, the bespectacled, chain-smoking guy banging away at the typewriter? What of guys like Robert Bloch? The answer to this may be a question for many.


That question being: Who?


Even the devil gets his due … so why not Robert Bloch, the great-grandfather of the horror slasher?




1959 saw the release of his novel Psycho, a nasty little story with a nasty little reputation that caught the eye of a not-so-little man with a not-so-little reputation … It was a match made in Heaven turned Hell. Welcome to the auspicious world of Bloch and Alfred Hitchcock, a place where the knives are always sharp, where motels are open even if the light isn’t on … a place where showers are best taken cold—if taken at all.


Bloch’s influence on modern horror stretches back many years, succeeding prior to Psycho and lasting long after its publication. You need only flip through the pages of any respectable horror anthology encompassing the past hundred years of genre fiction to chip away at Bloch's legacy. His short stories dealt with crummy deadbeats and scheming husbands planning to do away with their wives; dealings with the devil in bayous and bars; they dealt with pins and knives and fate. His stories were indebted to the business of fear, and in true pulp-style, he somehow made a living out of it. Just.


It started with the fondly remembered magazine Weird Tales, to which Bloch contributed in a voice not dissimilar to his mentor and correspondent H.P Lovecraft. But what developed was an author with a voice of his own, a voice that knew when to rise to scream-high pitches and when to drop to the depths of disparity. Bloch knew what he was doing, how to do it and when. This was a guy who could make you sweat. And laugh.


He won the Hugo Award in 1959 for his classic short story, That Hellbound Train (which was recently adapted into an excellent comic book by Joe R. Landsdale and artist Dave Wachter) in which one of those crummy Joe-nobodys referred to earlier, makes a pact with the devil himself. The story still works. You can still smell the steam of that haunted locomotive today.


Awards aside, the winnings continued. Take for instance stories like The Pin (1953) in which an overworked and depressed grim reaper spends his days and nights stabbing at an endless list of names with the titular weapon (and a what a weapon it is). Or A Toy For Juliette (1967), which puts the iconic Jack the Ripper (with whom Bloch had a long, literary relationship) in outer space. Or even better yet, The Animal Fair (1971), a story that reveals the fate and history of a maligned, deformed circus ape (trust me—it’s pretty fucked up … and sublime).



It’s fair to say that even without his novels, Bloch’s deft touch left claw marks down the back of genre fiction.


But let’s not forget those novels.


As much as I adore his short-stories, it was his full length books that I really responded to. They were littered with auspicious puns (a definite trademark; Bloch was the author who taught me the brittle relationship between horror and humour), twisted noir-ish plots, surprise endings and (un)appealing characters who always did the most (un)appealing of deeds. And they were longer—awesome.


His career as a novelist began with The Scarf (1947), which kicks-off with the haunting lines:



“Fetish? You name it. All I know is that I had to have it with me.”



Suffice to say, Bloch had me at hello. And I’m not alone on that one.


The bones of his cadaver-career grew, snapped and malformed to encompass more short stories and other twisted novels. The Scarf was followed by Spiderweb (1954) and the wickedly plotted The Kidnapper (1954), about the unravelling of the seemingly perfect crime.  The same year saw the publication of The Will To Kill, which had me terrified of jesters. I ask you: have you ever wondered what’s inside their canes?


Why knives, of course. Knives


One year after getting Shooting Star (1958 ) onto shelves, Bloch released the book that would inevitably become his middle name, Psycho.


Cue violin screeching.


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Yeah, we know all about the film. It’s a masterpiece, there’s no disputing it. Everyone has seen it at least once, and everyone knows that Hitchcock directed it from a screenplay by Josef Stefano (who also went on to write the under-appreciated Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) directed by genre veteran in the making, Mick–Masters of Horror–Garris). Yet so many people don’t know that Psycho was based on a novel (of the same name, no less) by Robert Bloch? I’ve taken film lectures that don’t acknowledge it because the speakers weren’t even aware. If you listen to the audio commentary between Gus Van Sant, Vince Vaugn and Anne Hench on the Psycho (1998 ) remake DVD, you will hear Van Sant mention the book in passing and Hench proclaiming that she had no idea it wasn't an original screenplay.


It’s saddening. Hitchcock himself loudly proclaimed his admiration for the book, (to paraphrase), “it all came from the novel” and, “Stefano was hired to write dialogue, not plot.”


Bloch’s name is even gone from the remake's opening credits (in yet another distracting departure from Van Sant’s mission to reproduce the original film frame-by-frame). It also gets an anaemic rendering in Robert V. Galluzzo’s otherwise great 2010 documentary, The Psycho Legacy (although Bloch’s writing does get it’s due in a twelve minute segment on the DVD’s special-features disk).


People like William Peter Blatty and Stephen King (who devoted much of his inspiration to Bloch and other writers of his generation, including Richard Matheson) acknowledge the importance and significance of Bloch’s erudite plotting and craft—so why is it continuing to go on un-credited?


Let’s dig deeper.


Consider one of Psycho ( the film’s) greatest achievements: its mechanics. It was Bloch who cheated expectation by establishing a female character who, for all intensive purposes, would be the heroine of the story, only to surprisingly kill early on in the book. The result: utter disorientation of the reader. Added to this, is the Second Act flip of alliance from murdered Mary to secondary characters Sam and Lila, and topped off by the shrill Final Act twist heard around the world:


Norma Bates is Norman Bates.




The book is identical to the film almost note-for-note, with two primary deviations: dialogue (Bloch had immaculate, clean and clever prose, but this description does not necessarily extend to his dialogue, which is fashionable, if no-frills) and a First Act deletion.


That deletion, to Stefano’s credit, made complete sense. The novel depicts scenes between Norman and his mother as though she is still alive. Instead of going down this path, Stefano and Hitchcock decided to have the mother appear off-screen until the very end (with the exception of the cleverly shot murder sequences). As a result of this change there was a huge gap in the plot, and now our quarter-length surprise murder in the shower is now —by default— the opening scene! To accommodate this, Stefano expanded Marion’s (Mary in the book) back-story and the theft details. But if you listen to Stefano speak in interviews he credits himself with this plot device. And that’s a shame. In no way am I intending to belittle Stefano’s talent, but comments like these cheapen his reputation as a wonderful writer of dialogue. It disrespects Bloch (and don’t get me started on the delirious snobbery of François Truffaut in his awkward and infamous Hitchcock interview).


But the disrespect would not end there. We’ll get to that.


Psycho the novel is almost impossible to read without imagining Anthony Perkins in the Bates role, much like reading King’s The Shining without picturing Jack Nicholson (although credit where it’s due, Steven Webber did a great job as Jack Torrance in the 1998 (also) Mick Garris directed The Shining mini-series). And here comes the trouble: Bloch’s Bates is a very different man than the one portrayed in the film, both physically and mentally. He’s overweight, biting and bitter, with the veneer of cordiality. Perkins, on the other hand, is 'the boy-next-door,' handsome and trustworthy—it’s a wonderful deceit. And I’m not the first to say it: Perkins turned in a fantastic performance (one of the best in film history).


So, should you be inspired to pick up Bloch’s book after trawling through this speil, it’s imperative that you literally re-cast it in your mind. Trust me on this, it reads so much easier if you’re not making the constant comparisons to the film (and characterizations). Although it’s difficult to do, it’s best to erase Hitchcock from your mind completely. Take a different approach—think gritty and real (Bloch’s inspiration for the book was the Ed Gein case, which also served as the basis for Tobe Hooper’s classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)), simply because that’s how the book is written. It has a grim, nasty feel to it. Mischievous. The book has secrets and it’s deceiving you. You get the impression that it’s cleverer than you are. It holds its cards close to its chest, teasing you with glimpses—but never quite enough (for example: in his wonderful “Unauthorized Autobiography”, Bloch explains that Norman Bates—the name—is the novel’s biggest clue. Norman can be broken into two parts Nor and Man, as in nor man or woman, and Bates echoes the words baits as in “to bait”. Bloch did the same thing with the title for his 1982 sequel Psycho 2, which again provides the ultimate clue in the books most-unexpected revelation).  


But back to re-casting … Think Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Norman Bates.



I know you’re probably going … really? But it works as Bloch wrote him. Another thing to remember is that in the book, Norman is not two personalities as he is depicted in the film, but three. He is Norman, his mother and Norman as a child.


The other necessary deviation concerns the infamous shower scene.


Readers expecting a blow-by-blow recreation of Hitchcock’s spellbinding sequence will be disappointed. Hitchcock’s murder runs forty-five seconds, required seven days of shots and seventy camera set-ups. Bloch did it in one sentence.


And a pun, no less.



    “Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream.


    And her head.”



Although the two experiences are vastly different, the ultimate effect remains the same: the utter, excruciating shock. Both showers rain facts upon Mary/Marion. You are going to die. It’s going to be a knife that ends you. You are going to bleed … Goodbye.


Now that you’ve put the required wedges between the book in your hand and the film in your memory (Norman, the tone and the shower), sit back, turn off the television and hope for a rainy night—with nary a trusty umbrella to be seen—and read.


Once you have finished reading, dash out and find copies of Bloch’s Psycho 2 (1982) and Psycho House (1991), completing the trilogy. Most people who read the first sequel expect something akin to the content of the (admittedly well-crafted) film Psycho II (directed by the ‘Aussie Hitchcock’ himself, Richard Franklin, and written by Tom—Child’s Play—Holland in 1982). Again, you will be disappointed.



Psycho 2 (the book) has no resemblance to Psycho II (the film) because it’s not an adaptation at all. Bloch had nothing do with the movie and reputably, did not ever see it. The rights to the novel were snapped up by Universal with every intention of filming it until they sat down and actually read the content.


“Uh-oh,” said Universal. Followed by a swift, “oh well. Who needs this Bloch guy anyway!”


Some people have said that the novel is un-filmable—and I strongly disagree—but it would take a considerable talent to bring it to the screen. I think Franklin could have done it. But the reason the book was never realized was because the film executives at Universal objected to Bloch’s unflattering representation of the film industry.



Bloch himself was an industry insider. He was a Hollywood writer when he wasn’t a pulp novelist, penning screenplays for William Castle (Strait-jacket in 1962 and The Night Walker in 1964), Alfred Hitchcock himself on his television programs, Freddie Francis (The Skull in 1965 and The Psychopath in 1966), among others. Psycho 2 was not his first exploration into the what would become the ‘Lynchian underbelly’ of the film industry. His novel The Star Stalker takes that billing, being the first in a sadly un-finished trilogy about the silent-film era (a character from that book actually has a minor role in Psycho 2).


The plot of Psycho 2 has Norman escaping from his mental institution in the guise of one of the two nuns he has just murdered (one of which—it's later implied—he raped), after being seemingly cured by his psychiatrist, Doctor Claiborne. He grabs their van and makes a run for it, kills a hitchhiker along the way, and high-tails it for Hollywood to put a stop to the production of “Crazy Lady”, a filmic adaptation of the now infamous “Bates case” (maybe Kevin Williamson read this book before sitting down to write 1998’s Scream 2).  But not before stopping off at Fairvale one last time to visit Sam Loomis and his now-wife Lila … Doctor Claiborne is hot on Norman’s tail, especially now that a sizeable body count is piling up in Tinsel-town.


It is in this setting that the true intention of the novel becomes apparent: Psycho 2 is an often-biting mediation on slasher films and the Hollywood machine in general. Bloch depicts the industry as being full of drug addicts, misogynists and perverts, interspersed with innocent actresses and bat-shit crazy directors. It’s all great, surreal stuff.


In order to discuss further, I have to reveal the books' secrets. You have been warned. If I’ve piqued your interest enough for you to seek it out, then turn back now. Winged monkeys and apple-tossing trees lurk beyond, dare you tread further … Bevareee!!! (note the three exclamation marks—that’s how serious I am.)


The great surprise of Psycho 2 is that there is a surprise at all. You breeze through the pages thinking you are being treated to a psychological slasher with some nasty satirical undertones, brimming with red-herrings and enough muggufins to keep even Hitchcock himself set for life. But it turns out you are reading a who-done-it. Or more aptly, a who-didn’t-do it. And folks, it wasn’t all Norman, or young Norman, or Mother-Norman—which explains the pun in the title. Remember how Norman killed that Nun after escaping from the institution, grabbed their van and picked up that hitchhiker? Well, it turns out that it was not the hitchhiker’s blackened remains in the burned out van on the side of the road … it was Norman’s. The hitchhiker fought poor Norman off and got away. Then, in a delirious rift on some very Hitchcockian themes, the murders from that moment on were committed by Norman’s psychiatrist, Doctor Claiborne. His motive: a well-executed example of transferral of guilt/personality. It turns out Claiborne took too many return dips to the Bates well, and somewhere along the line adopted the personality he spent so many years trying to understand and subsequently, destroy.


I assure you, it’s an ending no-one saw coming. Especially Universal.


So the internationally praised novel (Peter Straub and Stephen King were chief advocates) was deemed irrelevant and subsequently scrapped. A new screenwriter hired to create a film with no relation to the source material at all. And so began the fork in the road, which would send two Norman’s down two very different paths.



Psycho II the film, as I mentioned before, is a well-crafted experience. Franklin directs with incredible economy and the cast is exceptional (Meg Tilly is especially good). And truth be told, I’d always thought Holland’s script to be among one of the best plotted thrillers I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. I still think that … but I never knew how derivative it was until I saw that old 1964 William Castle film Strait-jacket.


Written by Robert Bloch.



Here is the synopsis for that film:  Lucy (Joan Crawford) has spent the last twenty years in a mental asylum for the criminally insane because she got a wee bit axe-happy on her cheating husband—with her young daughter, Carol (Diane Baker) in the room no less. But time has passed and Lucy is now sane enough to be released back into society, under the care of her daughter and her new fiancé. They greet her with open arms and treat Lucy with respect—almost as if nothing had ever happened. But …


And you knew that but was coming, right?  


BUT… Lucy is beginning to see and hear things that are triggering unhappy memories and feelings in her. They type of feelings that make even the most certified of sane people feel a little ... unhinged. Enter her former psychiatrist (Mitchell Cox) who as soon as arrived is as soon dead. Decapitated. Kaput. And who is the main suspect? Lucy, of course.


Cue a flashing SPOILER declaration, flickering in the night like a VACANCY sign on an old highway motel.


It wasn’t Lucy committing these murders. It was her daughter. The plan had been to create emotional triggers to set her mother “off” to the extent that she would attract the suspicions of those around her. Carol then went on to kill, dressed up as her mother, in an act of revenge for the murder of her long-dead father.


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That’s the nuts-and-bolts of Strait-jacket and I’m sure this stripped-down recital sounds familiar enough to the seasoned Psycho fan. I'm not saying Holland is guilty of plagiarism, but (there’s that damn BUT again) the echo still rings. Strip away the extra characters and the superfluous last-minute Mrs. Spool revelation in Psycho II and you’ve got Strait-jacket.


It’s not saddening, but it’s worth a sigh. Hollywood didn’t have the balls to show its underbelly in ’82 (or perhaps they simply wanted a franchise) and instead, made an uncredited remake of a film penned by the same hand they had rejected.


Let’s move on.


Psycho House was originally to be titled Psycho 13. My interpretation of this: where is the thirteenth room of The Bates Motel? That question serves as the helix upon which the entire novel operates, and I’ve come too far to not give you my two cents about it (flick on the SPOLER sign again). Bloch holds this metaphorical revelation to the very end, in fact, to the very last sentence.


“Let me make a suggestion,” Steiner said. “When you’re finished, maybe you can write another book, about life in the asylum.”


“Here?”


“No.” Steiner gestured towards the window. “Out there.”


Psycho House concludes Bloch’s almost melancholy reflection on the monster he created and how the public clung to Bates cum pop-icon for so many years. The book dealt with the notions of serial killers as celebrities and the general public’s hunger for bloodshed. Psycho House isn’t as good a read as its two predecessors; it serves rather as a fitting epilogue to the series, written by a man more concerned with impact than shock.


The plot: Amy Haines is in Fairvale researching a book she plans to write about Norman Bates and his ongoing popularity. Meanwhile, a local entrepreneur has recreated the infamous Bates Motel and adjoining house as a soon-to-be-opened tourist trap (even down to an animatronic Norman, “Mother” recreation and the murdered Mary in the shower). However, the weekend before the opening a young girl is murdered in the house, giving Amy a perfect angle for her book. All of a sudden, her subject is “hot” again, and her snooping may just pay off—financially, as well as artistically. She enlists the help of a demonologist, Fairvale’s local newspaper publisher and Dr. Steiner (who is in charge of the still-unstable Doctor Claiborne). Their combined sleuthing is unfavourably looked upon by Fairvale locals, who in turn, look upon the Bates case as a blemish upon their reputation. But people are being murdered; the “Mother” dummy is missing; who is the killer?


It’s an old fashioned who-done-it where the plot almost takes the back seat to Bloch’s pitch-perfect prose and wicked sense of humour. On the downside it lacks the great revelations the series had become renowned for (it’s a case of the “twist” discourse that plagues the horror/thriller genre unlike any other, in which the expectation of a twist is determined by the effectiveness of the twist which preceded it— think Shyamalan films post The Sixth Sense etc), and honestly, it isn’t as genre-pushing as either Psycho or Psycho 2. But it does, well and truly, close the door on the Bates mythology. The book’s perspective is no longer mediation, rather a judgment we all as horror fans and members of news watching society, are guilty of.


Between these three novels there was The Dead Beat (1960), Firebug (1961—another important Bloch novel which forms an unofficial triptych of narration that began with The Scarf and continued with Psycho) and The Couch (1962—an adaptation of Bloch’s own screenplay, but a finely structured novel on its own). The Todd Dossier (1969) was a second novelization, this time for a film that was never filmed, which left behind a novel that Bloch legally couldn’t have published under his own name. It was released under the name Collier A. Young, a character in the book. Bloch did one further adaptation: The Twilight Zone (1983). The Twilight Zone poses as a great example of Bloch’s commitment to his trade. He was given the screenplay six weeks before his manuscript needed to be submitted to the publisher, only two of the sequences were screened for him, and he had to change the ending of the first segment after a fatal accident that occurred during filming. Add to this there, is no “wrap-around”, with the stories instead presented as un-related throwaways, based on an existing screenplays, from prior teleplays, from originally published short stories. If it’s exhausting to read just imagine what it was like to write!


1962 saw the publication of The Terror, which was a fine, economical murder-mystery about Kali Thugee cults in (then) modern day society. It’s almost impossible to find, but if you do find a copy snap it up quick—you’re guaranteed a delightful mystery.  


It’s important to remember that as well as being a staple in the psychological horror genre, Bloch was just as involved and cherished within the science-fiction community. Ladies Day/This Crowded Earth (1968 ) and Sneak Preview (1971 ), carry on this tradition. These three novellas are indebted to Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, but are full of Bloch’s wit and bitter violence, giving these stories a tartness its influences lack.


The seventies rolled by and Bloch released It’s All in Your Mind (1971), Night World (1972—which came very close to being adapted for film a number of times with Bloch as screenwriter) and American Gothic (1972).


American Gothic is another horror novel about a psychopathic mass-murderer with roots in reality. Set in the late 18th Century Chicago, pharmacist and real-estate industrialist, G. Gordon Greg, invites people to come and stay in his urban mansion during the Chicago State Fair. But those who enter never come out again. It’s a fantastic, sick read, based on the story of H.H. Holmes, “America’s first serial killer”.



The novel shares similar themes and atmosphere to Night of the Ripper (1984), a moody, suspenseful retelling of the Ripper legend, based in fact, full of pre- From Hell  (Alan Moore, 1991) appearances from The Elephant Man, Oscar Wilde and others. Night of the Ripper concludes a multi-decade fascination Bloch had with the elusive murderer, that began in 1943 with Your’s truly, Jack the Ripper. This classic tale combined fact with supernatural fiction, with the Ripper cast as an eternal being who must make human sacrifices to stay alive. It was adapted for radio (Stay Tuned For Terror) and television (for the amazing Boris Karloff hosted anthology series, Thriller (1960-1962), which also featured many Bloch adaptations and teleplays). The Ripper fixation continued with the aforementioned A Toy For Juliette, A Most Unusual Murder (yet another reason to fear old antique stores) and an episode of the original Star Trek series, titled A Wolf In The Fold.


In the suspense/thriller vein Bloch revealed the chaos in the seemingly serene with There Is a Serpent in Eden (1979), which is a delightful who’ll-do-it set in an aged-care home. It’s a novel I’ve always loved, with an ending that’s on the predictable side, but lovingly predictable. Its resolution is delightfully pulpish. 1991 saw the publication of Bloch’s last novel, The Jekyll Legacy (co-authored by Andre Norton), a disappointing sequel to R.L Stevenson’s classic, that despite its charms, fails to thrill due to Bloch and Norton’s jarring clash of styles.


On the supernatural front, Bloch wrote two final novels: Strange Eons (1978 ) and Lori (1989). Eons is an unexpected treat, especially for H.P Lovecraft fans. It is a meta-fictional divulgence into the Cthulhu Mythos that is as fast-paced as it is structurally surprising. Lori to this day cries for a cinematic rendering, a sentiment shared by The Psyhco Legacy director Robert V. Galluzzo. With its mixture of dreamlike imagery, serpentine storyline and subtle sexuality, it seems the perfect match for a director like Mick Garris, who handles that mix well.



On 23 September 1994, seventy-seven year old Robert Bloch died from a battle with cancer he didn’t even acknowledge in his autobiography, which was only written one year earlier. Reading that final work is a bittersweet experience. It's full of his best punch lines and observations, but between the sentences  seethes the unspoken knowledge that he does not have long to live. And still it's wonderfully entertaining. Bloch once said of Fritz Leiber: “When he writes of graves, they always yawn—but his readers never do.” It is an astute observation, and one that he could have easily directed at himself.


The humor and the fear survive in pages that are quickly breaking down, on shelves that are emptying out. Books are dying, but the words won’t disappear so quietly. Not if we pass them on. That’s why I wrote this article. Bloch was born in 1917; I was born in 1984. He is as much a part of my writing as he is a part of horror history. The cycle of influence continues to spin and it’s our duty to credit the plot of our inspiration even if others don't. There are those among us who checked into the Bates Motel and never checked out.  


So say it.


No man or woman lives forever. Even if they, like Robert Bloch’s Jack the Ripper, murder to extend their immortality.

 

 

-- Aaron Dries is the author of the award-winning novel, House of Sighs (2012). Available now through Samhain Publishing. 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

Reply Stargirl
10:17 PM on March 26, 2012 
This is a fantastic article! I'm a huge Robert Bloch fan! I totally know what you mean about looking everywhere for his books. I've been to a lot of car boot sales and struck gold. It's a shame he is going out of print. But articles like this keep him alive. Good work!
Reply Nick Montelongo
8:48 PM on March 25, 2013 
To me, Robert is a saint. I love his fiction both humorous and somber. I hate how he has been ignored and so Hitchcock's film has been both a blessing and a curse to his career. There was a time when critics didn't believe that Bloch wrote the original novel, but I think that has been all but dispelled by now. People still don't know who he is, so I'm glad to see this article. Good work, Aaron.
Reply
12:45 AM on March 27, 2013 
Hi Nick,

Firstly, thank you for the kind words. It's certainly time Bloch received his dues, which for some reason continuously seem to evade him... I'm trying my best to rectify that. Not only am I massive fan but he's a massive influence on my writing. I wouldn't be writing the twisted tales that I do without Bloch, hell, "The Fallen Boys" is really a 300 page tribute to him.

I'm very glad you enjoyed the article. Cheers, Aaron