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Friday, February 5, 2010

Psycho Semi-Centennial: The Man Behind the Madman

Were it not for H.P. Lovecraft, Psycho might never have come into existence. Yes, despite Lovecraft's brand of horror being the complete opposite of what Psycho represents, the godfather of the weird and supernatural can take some credit for it's existence. This is due to his mentoring of the man who wrote the novel on which the film was based: Robert Bloch.

In the early 1930s, the teenaged Robert Bloch was an avid reader of the venerable horror pulp Weird Tales, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft was his favorite contributor by far. The youngster began a letter correspondence with the legendary author, who would later encourage his own burgeoning writing efforts. HPL even featured his enthusiastic fan as a character ("Robert Blake") in his short story "The Haunter of the Dark" (he killed him off in it.) And when Bloch made his first fiction sales at the age of 17 ("The Feast in the Abbey" and "The Secret in the Tomb"), they were to Weird Tales, where his work could appear alongside that of his idol.

By the time Lovecraft passed away in 1937, his young protege was well on the way to succeeding him as America's most gifted horror storyteller. At first, his stuff was heavily Lovecraftian in tone. Yet much later, his most famous work would be nothing like anything Lovecraft would've ever put to paper.

Robert Albert Bloch was born April 5, 1917 in Chicago, Illinois, the son of bank cashier Ray Bloch and his wife Stella Loeb, a social worker. He took to reading tales of the bizarre and fantastic from a young age, and soon began writing some on his own. Genre fiction would always be his great love, and his immense body of work would eventually come to include sci-fi, horror, mystery and crime.

Following Lovecraft's death, Bloch continued writing for Weird Tales, and also started contributing to lots of other pulps, including Amazing Stories. He wrote several tales within Lovecraft's own Cthulhu Mythos. Yet by the 1940s, he had begun experimenting with a different kind of horror from that of his mentor, weaving in elements of crime fiction to create a series of stories based on the cases of Jack the Ripper, the Marquis de Sade, Lizzie Borden and others.

As his career blossomed in the 1950s, Bloch became a major force in the world of genre fandom as it then existed. He was a prolific writer, authoring 29 novels (beginning with 1946's The Scarf) and countless short stories that appeared in magazines and anthologies. He would eventually capture the Hugo award, the Bram Stoker award and the World Fantasy award for his writing, and serve as president of the Mystery Writers of America.

Bloch also branched out into the world of filmed entertainment, crafting screenplays and contributing stories that would be used on TV and in the movies. He wrote scripts for the Boris Karloff-hosted horror TV anthology Thriller, and penned the scripts for the classic Star Trek episodes "Catspaw", "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" and "Wolf in the Fold" (which dealt with Jack the Ripper). His stories also inspired movies like William Castle's The Night Walker (1964), Strait-Jacket (1964), The House That Dripped Blood (1970) and Asylum (1972).

Yet it would be Bloch's first adapted story that would become by far his most famous, and forever enshrine him in the pantheon of iconic horror wordsmiths. It began as a kernel of an idea in his 1957 short story "The Really Bad Friend", which appeared in the pages of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. Then, in 1959 he wrote the novel Psycho, based loosely on the real-life case of another famous murderer, Ed Gein.

Psycho was the ultimate development of the approach Bloch had been developing for over a decade. It was a different kind of horror story, taking place in modern urban and suburban settings, with contemporary characters, and dealing with situations based in reality, instead of the supernatural. Yet this was no crime or detective story, as previous tales of this type had been--Psycho was a horror novel, of a very different kind.

And just as it was a landmark in horror fiction, it would be adapted in 1960 by screenwriter Joseph Stefano into something that would have just as groundbreaking an effect on horror film, if not even more so. As directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Bloch's novel became one of the most well-known horror stories of all time, and his character Norman Bates--though very different from the character as presented by Bloch--would be immortalized as horror's first thoroughly modern movie "monster", and the prototype of the movie slasher.

Bloch enjoyed great notoriety from the success of Psycho, and his profile in the world of horror fandom was certainly raised to dizzying heights. He would take part in the founding of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) of America. He continued writing prolifically, evening penning two sequel novels to Psycho (unrelated to the movie sequels) in 1982 and 1990.

In 1994, the 35th anniversary edition of the novel Psycho was published--a run of merely 500 copies, all autographed by Bloch. Mere months later, on September 23, 1994 Robert Bloch passed away in Los Angeles, California at the age of 77.

Just as his mentor had done some 30 years earlier with his stories in Weird Tales, so did Bloch revolutionize the horror genre with Psycho. For all his vast body of work, Robert Bloch will forever be identified by far with his 1959 novel, and rightfully so. It stands with the likes of The Maltese Falcon, Lord of the Rings and 1984 as one of the 20th century's most important genre novels.


Greg said...

Very fantastic write up. I enjoyed reading this. I absolutely LOVE Psycho, it's one of my all time favorite horror movies and very inspiring to me as a film-maker and a lover of horror.

I need to give the original book a look-see. I've myself just started getting into Lovecrafts stuff and been looking for some other great horror lit. This seems to be pointing to a nice direction. Thanks for this entry!

B-Sol said...

My pleasure, Greg--Bloch was a fascinating guy!

Diandra said...

fascinating. Thanks for writing this!

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