Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959): You Don't Go in the Bathroom...

Then the horror wasn't in the house... it was in his head.

Modern horror entertainment would not be what it is today were it not for the seminal work Psycho, the sixth novel by the vastly prolific Robert Bloch. The book's main character, Norman Bates, has become an immortal symbol of the madness hiding behind the banal, the prosaic, the mundane. It is horror rooted in the everyday; it does not haunt a crumbling Gothic castle, nor does it reside outside space and time. It's here and it's now and it's coming through the bathroom door...

Famously inspired by the Ed Gein case, Bloch pieced together the vague details he'd heard about his fellow Wisconsinite and created Bates, a fellow with, shall we say, mother issues. In the novel, Bates is balding, overweight, a voracious reader and somewhat of a drunk - one of the few changes Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano made when they adapted Psycho for film. Another is - probably a major disappointment for readers hungry for violence; I know I was when I first read Psycho as a teenager - the infamous shower murder. Bloch dispatches the character in a single lurid, pulpy sentence; there is nothing that even hints of what Hitchcock would put on the screen.

And I must admit I found it difficult to keep from picturing Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam, etc., in my head. Suspense and mystery are mostly muted when reading Psycho because of that classic movie. That's why I appreciated seeing how Bloch concealed the fact that Mother Bates is dead; I think those who read it before the movie would never have suspected she's an exhumed corpse. Bloch takes us right inside Bates's head, understanding the origins of his homicidal rage and impotent fury. The conversations between mother and son are ultimately one-sided, her vicious beratements taking on a pathetic poignancy, knowing as we do that they're Norman's own thoughts:

"I'm the one who has the strength. I've always had it. Enough for both of us. That's why you'll never rid of me, even if you really wanted to. Of course, deep down, you don't want to. You need me, boy. That's the truth, isn't it?"

Young Bloch in undated photo, from www.wisconsinhistory.org

One of my favorite parts was when Lila Crane is sneaking through the Bates home, looking for clues to her sister's disappearance, and finds Norman's library:

Here Lila found herself pausing, puzzling, then peering in perplexity at the incongruous contents of Norman Bates's library. A New Model of the Universe, The Extension of Consciousness, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Dimension and Being. These were not the books of a small boy, and there were equally out of place in the home of a rural motel proprietor. She scanned the shelves rapidly. Abnormal psychology, occultism, theosophy. Translations of La Bas, Justine. And here, on the bottom shelf, a nondescript assortment of untitled volumes, poorly bound. Lila pulled one out at random and opened it. The illustration that leaped out at her was almost pathologically pornographic.

Warner Books reprint (with stepback), 1982

We get some of Bloch's famous word play in that first line, as well as the "forbidden books" trope so popular in weird pulp fiction. Bloch wrote an unassuming little thriller that shows touches of real-life horror in places, and one that's as singularly important to the horror genre - pre-King of course - as anything by Lovecraft or Matheson or Levin. That it's overshadowed by its unparalleled film adaptation is no inherent fault, and Psycho should still be read and savored today. See more paperback editions here.

12 comments:

Doug said...


Weird, but even though I read th sequel when it cam out back around 84 or so, I've never read this even though I have half a shelf of his stuff. I also love the photog from the historical society.
And to steal a cooment from you, this is one of the few Bloch titles that doesn't carry the blurb "from the author of PSYCHO!",

take care.
Doug

Bob Milne said...

I read this a long time ago. While I liked it, I had the same trouble you mentioned with the visual casting, especially with Norman. His portrayal alone makes for a very different experience, compared to the movie.

Jonny Metro said...

Aside from a few changes in characterizations (Norman's appearance, for instance), I felt that Hitchcock was extremely faithful to the source material. So much so that the uninitiated may be unable to tell if the film was an adaptation of the book or vice versa. As good of a book as it is, it's impossible for it to NOT be overshadowed by the film version, I think. Which is something of a shame.

My review (if you're interested)
--J/Metro

Mauro Vargas said...

The novel is excellent. I could read it imagining the characters created by Bloch, especially Norman Bates, that is very different than Anthony Perkins. The problem was that I couldn't feel some twists in the story. The surprise is lost when you've seen the movie so many times.

Jeff Lester said...

Oh, man. Always enjoy your reviews, but that picture of Bloch killed me. That may end up as my desktop background. Thank you.

Will Errickson said...

That pic of Bloch became my favorite horror writer photo ever within, oh, 5 seconds of first seeing it.

Doug Brunell said...

I actually find the novel scarier than the film, which is fine in its own right.

Brian Schwartz said...

I was able to "reimagine" Norman Bates while reading this superb novel. Stefano and Hitchcock did it justice by staying very close to Bloch's story.

Robert Bloch was a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft although Bloch was much more prone to venturing into science fiction. Psycho was transformative for Bloch in that he almost completely eschewed sci-fi and horror for suspense after its publication.

Kevin F said...

The photo of Bloch at the typewriter is now one of my favorites ever. I have never seen a picture of him when he was younger.

What really struck me about the novel vs. the movie is how unsympathetic I found Norman to be in the book. He is a very well drawn character, but he came across to me as a much more creepy person than Anthony Perkins portrayal.

Joshua Perdue said...

LOL at the post title!

Jonny Metro said...

I searched to see if you had a post on PSYCHO HOUSE, but couldn't find one. I recently purchased a Tor paperback edition of PSYCHO HOUSE at a used book store to complete my trilogy. I opened it up today, and found that it was autographed by Robert Bloch on the title page! I googled his signature and it certainly looks authentic. Not a bad buy for $2.48.

At the same book store, I once purchased a copy of Cemetery Dance's PORKPIE HAT by Peter Straub, only to find that it was autographed too!

At another store, I came home with a book called .357 Vigilante by some nobody called Ian Ludlow...again, autographed. Came to find out years later that Ian Ludlow is actually an early pen name of Lee Goldberg.

Three books unknowingly autographed, and I probably paid less than ten bucks for the whole lot. You collect a lot of books, Will. Has this happened to you before? And does it fill you with as much absurd glee as it does me? Lol

--J/Metro

Will Errickson said...

Yep, I bought a few Iain M Banks SF novels off eBay a few years back and found he'd signed them! Seller didn't note that, so it was a nice little surprise.