BEHIND THE BATES MOTEL: Robert Bloch
"PSYCHO all came from Robert Bloch's book." -- Alfred Hitchcock
With the current centennial of Alfred Hitchcock's birth being noted with various events and symposia, I can't help but observe that PSYCHO -- the most notorious and perhaps best known of all of Hitchcock's films -- was adapted from a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. As Douglas E. Winter put it in his 1985 FACES OF FEAR, "Two masters of horror have been immortalized by the motion picture PSYCHO...One, of course, is its director, Alfred Hitchcock; the other is the man who wrote the novel on which it is based. And no one ever said it better than Hitchcock himself: 'PSYCHO all came from Robert Bloch's book.'"
Before his death in 1994 at age 77, Bloch often joked that his obituary would begin with PSYCHO, a novel that was just a tiny part of his flood of work. Of course, he was right. And, although Mr. Bloch might disagree, perhaps that's the way it should be. PSYCHO, both the film and the book, had a resounding effect on both literary and cinematic horror. Quoting Winter again, "From the Depression heyday of WEIRD TALES and the evocative Universal film adaptations of FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, the tale of terror had suffered until the mid-1950s, as if the real horrors of World War Two had snuffed out the human need for fictional confrontation with death. Not until the Eisenhower era did the monsters reemerge in force: first in the innocuous science-fictional context of the "big bug" films, then in the exuberant American International youth films like I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957), and finally in the serious context of films and books like PSYCHO."
PSYCHO, however, was not Bloch's first or last exploration of psychopathology or the only way in which he influenced modern horror fiction.
An early devotee of and correspondent with H. P. Lovecraft, Bloch's earliest stories were influenced by and derivative of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. But from the beginning -- his first story was published in 1935 when he was only 17 and fresh out of high school -- Bloch's fiction tended to be character-driven and based on his understanding of human nature. Unlike Lovecraft and many other pulp writers of the day, he did not depend on stock characters and supernatural phenomena to impel his stories.
Not that Bloch thought of his work as deathless prose -- it was written for a penny a word and, once published in magazines like WEIRD TALES, was thought to have no more than a 30-day lifespan. There were no reviews of the pulps, no serious consideration of such stories as literature. Stories of the era -- including many of Bloch's -- were pounded out with more of an eye on total word count than art.
Bloch's stories of the late 30s and 40s were often distinctly modern in tone and intentionally humorous. He employed Damon Runyonesque characters and black comedy with punchline-perfect timing and O. Henry twists at the end. He also started exploring human psychopathology, often fusing the supernatural to the psychological. One story, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," (1943) employed a sociopathic serial killer whose victims were sacrifices to dark gods. Its adaptation for radio led to Bloch writing 39 scripts for the series STAY TUNED FOR TERROR that aired 1944-45.
"By the mid-1940s, I had pretty well mined the vein of ordinary supernatural themes until it had become varicose," Bloch explained to Winter in an interview. "I realized, as a result of what went on during World War Two and of reading the more widely disseminated work in psychology, that the real horror is not in the shadows, but in that twisted little world inside our own skulls."
Bloch's first novel, THE SCARF (1947) was narrated by a young serial strangler whose murderous instincts resulted from childhood trauma. A trio of novels published in 1954 --THE KIDNAPPER, THE WILL TO KILL, and THE SPIDERWEB -- all dealt with the psychopathological.
Bloch was living in Weyauwega, Wisconson in the winter of 1957 when police discovered the grisly mass murders of Ed Gein in nearby Plainfield. Along with his most recent victim -- whose headless nude body was found hanging by its heels in Gein's shed, her heart was in a coffee can on the stove -- investigators found crimes so ghastly that journalists of the day could not report it. Although Gein's murders and cannibalism were mentioned, reports of his grave-robbing, tranvestism involving human remains, possible maternal incest, and other monstrous activities were not mentioned in the media at the time.
Bloch based PSYCHO, published in 1959, on the circumstances of the Gein case, not the murderer himself -- pivoting on "the notion that the man next door may be a monster unsuspected even in the gossip-ridden microcosm of small-town life" -- or any specifics of the case. Knowing relatively little about Gein, Bloch was somewhat surprised some years later when he "discovered how closely the imaginary character I'd created resembled the real Ed Gein both in overt act and app
Although genre fiction was generally disregarded by the literary cognoscenti, PSYCHO received positive reviews -- including mentions in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and THE TIMES HERALD. Bloch's agent, Harry Altshuler, received a "blind bid" -- the buyer's name wasn't mentioned -- of $7,500 for screen rights to the book. The bid eventually went to $9,500 which Bloch accepted. Bloch had never sold a book to Hollywood before. His contract with Simon and Schuster included no bonus for a film sale. The publisher took fifteen per cent according to contract, the agent took his 10% -- Bloch wound up with about $6,750 before taxes. Despite the enormous profits generated by PSYCHO, Robert Bloch never received further direct compensation.
Although more novels and stories followed, Bloch himself devoted most of his post-PSYCHO time to writing films [including STRAIT-JACKET (1964) and THE NIGHT WALKER (1964)] and teleplays. When he did write horror fiction -- including NIGHT-WORLD (1972), AMERICAN GOTHIC (1974), STRANGE EONS (1978), THERE IS A SERPENT IN EDEN(1979) PSYCHO II (1982, and which has no relation to the movie of the same name) and PSYCHO HOUSE (1990) -- it was usually with a focus on the corrupted values of a society he saw as increasingly desensitized to the horror and violence of real life.
Bloch is fondly remembered by members of the horror writing community for his kindness, gentleness, humor, and warmth -- a man who had nothing in common with the maniacal sociopaths he explored in his fiction. The interview David J. Schow includes at the end of the recently published THE LOST BLOCH: VOLUME ONE gives a suggestion of Bloch's personality. Peter Straub has remarked that the interview "brought Bob back to life; he was right there in the room again." And, although Bloch has been recognized within that community with numerous awards and paeans, he is little known outside it.
Hugh B. Cave wrote (in HORROR: THE BEST 100 BOOKS, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman): "What Bloch had to say in PSYCHO influenced the whole art of horror writing. Back onto dusty shelves went most of the...beasties of the Victorian novelists. To front and center came a probing of men's minds and an awareness of the frightening things to be found lurking there...Robert Bloch took us from then to now in one big, scary leap, raising the hair of his readers while they eagerly turned the page of what was scaring them, and showing writers how to handle a new kind of horror story."
Celebrate Hitchcock's 100th? Certainly and deservedly. But don't forget Robert Bloch. He would have been 82 last April.