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...
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.