RogerBW's Blog

Psycho, Robert Bloch 15 January 2017

1959 horror. Mary Crane has stolen $40,000 from her employer and is running away to get married. Unfortunately she's chosen to stay at the wrong motel.

Horror writers of the 1940s and 1950s seem to have been at a bit of a loss as to what to do next; Jamesian ghost stories and "a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill" may have seemed like weak tea to men who'd been to or read about Burma or Auschwitz. At least that seems to me a good reason for the wholesale shift from supernatural horror to things one might actually meet, horror generated from people. In Bloch's own case, "By the mid-1940s, I had pretty well mined the vein of ordinary supernatural themes until it had become varicose [...] I realized, as a result of what went on during World War II 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."

The Ed Gein case came along at just the right time; although Bloch (living 35 miles away from where it happened) claimed only to have heard about it late in the writing of this book, giving it a brief mention in the closing chapters, it was certainly an influence on Hitchcock's film, and on quite a few more thereafter. The ghost often acts from vengeance, the vampire from desire and hunger, the gods of cosmic horror have their own inscrutable purposes; but the psycho killer's reasons make sense only inside his own head, and you, yes you, could become his next victim just for having crossed his line of sight.

But the first victim is set up with remarkable care: yes, she's a pretty woman, but she has fallen: with a fiancé who's working hard to get his hardware store out of debt and who can't afford to marry her until he has, while she keenly feels the approach of thirty, she's told by her boss to drop off forty thousand dollars in cash at the local bank before she goes home for the weekend. It's a massive temptation even to someone who has always been good, and she fails to resist: she'll disappear, change cars a few times, go to her fiancé and get married pronto before anyone's looking for her under her own name. (It's not a particularly great plan, but it's not meant to be; she's not a particularly competent criminal.) Sure, it's a wrong thing to do, but I think the reader is meant to think: yes, the temptation is extreme, at least for her in this particular situation, and so Mary manages to remain slightly sympathetic in spite of her errors, even before her dinner with Norman Bates encourages her to think that "perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times" and she can change her mind, go back home, deposit the money when the banks open on Monday morning, and go back to her honest life.

But of course she can't.

Mary is killed for reasons diegetically unrelated to her sin (and when her corpse is finally recovered from the swamp, with the car it was sunk in, the money is still there and "didn't even have a speck of mud on it"). This isn't the "have sex and die" of later psycho-killer films; even so, had she not stolen the money, she wouldn't have been on the road that night, she wouldn't have encountered the killer, and I don't think it's reaching too far to see a certain amount of the morality-play that often permeates successful horror.

This isn't at all a mystery: large chunks of the book cover Norman's inner monologue, and there's never any doubt that he and his mother are the menace here. Meanwhile, Sam the fiancé and Lila the sister, assisted inadvertantly by Arbogast the insurance investigator, try to work out where Mary went and what happened to her. Neither of them is perfect: Sam's a small-town man who falls back on his friend the Sheriff, and doesn't really know what to do when the Sheriff doesn't have enough to take things further; Lila has the will to keep driving at the investigation on her own, but she's impulsive, too ready to rush into things without waiting for what assistance might be found.

If not for the film, the book would probably be forgotten, and to be fair where Hitchcock had butchered The Thirty-Nine Steps (granted, to do things like removing coincidence and introducing female characters) he managed by this time to make a close adaptation of the source material. He gets credit for memorable images, though a paragraph like:

She raised her face defiantly, and the sharp shadow line slashed across her neck. For a moment, it looked as though somebody had just cut off Lila's head....

certainly causes me to think that Bloch had an eye to possible adaptations even while he was writing. On the other hand, Hitchcock removes everything we get here of Norman's viewpoint, in an attempt to confuse the audience further about what's going on.

In the end, this works best if you can forget all the imitations and derivatives while you're reading it; it's a short book, not reaching 50,000 words, and the spare writing style is one that many flabbier modern authors could do with imitating.

"She's not crazy," he repeated. "No matter what you think, or anybody thinks. No matter what the books say, or what those doctors would say out at the asylum. I know all about that. They'd certify her in a hurry and lock her away if they could–all I'd have to do is give them the word. But I wouldn't, because I know. Don't you understand that? I know, and they don't know. They don't know how she took care of me all those years, when there was nobody else who cared, how she worked for me and suffered because of me, the sacrifices she made. If she's a little odd now, it's my fault, I'm responsible. When she came to me that time, told me she wanted to get married again, I'm the one who stopped her. Yes, I stopped her, I was to blame for that! You don't have to tell me about jealousy, possessiveness–I was worse than she could ever be. Ten times crazier, if that's the word you want to use. They'd have locked me up in a minute if they knew the things I said and did, the way I carried on. Well, I got over it, finally. And she didn't. But who are you to say a person should be put away? I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times."

Read for Past Offences' 1959 month.

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