Stephen King articles
A Brief Tribute To 'the Author Of Psycho'
by Leigh Blackmore © 1994
Appeared in Tabula Rasa#5, 1995
Robert Bloch once dedicated a book to close friend and fellow writer Fritz Leiber with the words "When he writes of graves, they always yawn -- but his readers never do". The same could be said of Bloch himself.
I never had the good fortune to meet Robert Bloch in person. Much to my regret, I missed Cinecon, the Australian convention at which he was Guest of Honour in 1981. When I visited the US in 1990 for the Lovecraft Centennial Conference, I had hoped Bloch would be present, but on writing to him he advised he had just attended a Lovecraft-related convention elsewhere and would not be going to Providence. Plans to meet up with him in his home-town of Los Angeles on the return leg of my trip also didn't work out, due to other commitments which took him out of town at the only time I could be there. While I couldn't meet him in person, at the John Hay Library in Providence I was delighted to see for the first time a display of some of Bloch's original art, executed when he was about 16 in homage to the stories and characters of H.P Lovecraft. Bloch began by wanting to be an artist, only turning to fiction when Lovecraft encouraged him to do so.
Some four years later, at age 77, Robert Bloch has died, on Sept 23, 1994 at his LA home after a long battle with cancer. His recent 'unauthorised autobiography' Once Around The Bloch (Tor Books, 1993) gives no hint of his illness, and is an immensely enjoyable and thoroughly entertaining read throughout, containing some classic Bloch punchlines; but in retrospect, it's clear from the timing of his memoirs that Bloch must have realised he didn't have long to live. Pamela Klacar, an Australian who worked with Bloch in London in the sixties and corresponded with him during the rest of his life, has told me Bloch wrote to her as late as August still in good spirits though he evidently knew his life and career were both drawing to a close.
Throughout his life Bloch had continued to contribute to the small press, indicating he never forgot how he got his own start. He never distanced himself from enthusiasts of his work as famous writers sometimes do. In my own experience he was never too busy to drop a line back, though his own schedule was invariably hectic with writing commitments. (I exchanged several letters with him over the years, mainly about bibliographic matters connected with his work. His letters were pleasant and chatty, inevitably aerograms written in a sprawling hand in thick felt pen.) Robert Bloch was always courteous to his fans; it seems he never forgot the encouragement given to him by the older and maturer Lovecraft, when Bloch was a youthful, budding writer, and always extended similar courtesy to his own admirers. Bloch -- modest about his achievements, by all accounts charming and self-effacing in person -- was a gentleman, one of the old school, despite his gruesome imagination and wicked sense of humour.
He was ever-generous in his praise of others in the field he made his own, and one of my biggest personal thrills was receiving his comments on my own horror anthology Terror Australis, which he praised highly as 'a monument to the advancement of the genre'. What a highlight! This was from the writer who, legendarily, killed Lovecraft off in his early tale "The Shambler from the Stars" and whom Lovecraft, returning the 'favour', made into Robert Blake, the doomed protagonist of his classic tale "The Haunter of the Dark". This was from the writer who virtually invented the psychological terror story, with a string of classic shock tales that have been endlessly adapted into every medium -- comic books, radio, TV and film. This was from the writer whose name has (for 35 years) been synonymous with his novel Psycho (loosely based on the true-life exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein), due in no small part to the massive commercial success of Hitchcock's movie adaptation of it. Bloch saw little of that commercial success in terms of cash -- the rights to the novel were sold by his agent for a pittance -- but in Psycho, Robert Bloch anticipated and foreshadowed the serial killer boom of the late 80's and early 90's. The movie (like the book) has become iconic in the horror genre, inspiring countless inferior imitations and Bloch's creation Norman Bates, the schizoid transvestite slasher, has become a horror archetype who has passed into pop culture.
Bloch's love of a good (or bad, depending on your view of such humour) pun is of course legendary. He famously claimed, for instance, that he had the heart of a young boy. He kept it, he said, in a jar on his desk. A renowned raconteur, he was always in demand as a speaker at SF and horror conventions and film festivals.
Let's backtrack and quickly run over his remarkable career. Robert Bloch was born April 5, 1917 in Chicago, and moved to Milwaukee around the age of ten. At age 9 he had become hooked on horror by a first-release screening of the 1925 silent classic Phantom Of The Opera starring Lon Chaney. In 1933, Bloch wrote a fan letter to H.P Lovecraft, who replied kindly. Bloch began to write. His first publication was in 1934, as a mere 17-year-old high-school graduate, with the story "Lilies" in the semi-pro magazine Marvel Tales. In July of that year his first professional sale was made, with "The Secret in the Tomb" to Weird Tales. It was beaten into print by "The Feast in the Abbey" which he had sold on the heels of "Secret"; "Feast" appeared in the Jan 1935 issue of Weird Tales.
In the next decade he produced hundreds of short stories for the pulps, writing SF, crime, humorous fantasy, westerns and some mainstream fiction as well as horror. Poe's influence, as well as Lovecraft's, was a major one on Bloch's early writing, and can also be seen in later work such as "The Man Who Collected Poe" and Bloch's completion of a Poe short story "The Lighthouse”. His career includes a 12-year stint as an advertising copywriter and a spell as a stand-up comic. In 1944 he scripted 39 episodes of the radio horror show Stay Tuned For Terror, based on his own stories. The next year Arkham House published his first official short story collection, The Opener Of The Way. 1947 saw the publication of his first novel, The Scarf.
In late 1959, by which time the film of Psycho had been released, Bloch (now a seasoned and workmanlike writer) moved to Hollywood and began a second career writing for the movies and television. His numerous TV scripts include writing for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Star Trek, Night Gallery, Lock Up, Journey To The Unknown and Dark Room.
It wasn't until the 1970's in my own adolescence that I encountered his writing; like so many other writers whose work was similarly introduced to a mass public, it was through the medium of paperback anthologies edited by August Derleth -- volumes such as The Night Side and Sleep No More. Then I was lent by a friend, and devoured, some of his short story collections -- Tales In A Jugular Vein (a typical punning Bloch title), Atoms And Evil, The Living Demons, The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade and others. Bloch's prose style was straightforward, almost unremarkable; it was his plots, cannily constructed to deliver maximum suspense and chills, often with a twist ending, that hooked me in. And there was his judicious use of graveyard black humour, a form that he made his own. Perhaps no modern writer more than Bloch has understood how close in effect humour and horror can be, nor more memorably exploited that connection.
I tracked down The Opener Of The Way; the darksome flavour of those tales was a rare pleasure indeed. Reading them was like rolling a rich, dark wine across the literary palate. I revelled in them, especially the Egyptian-inspired tales like "The Secret of Sebek" and "The Eyes of the Mummy", and his further tales contributing to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. There were many one-off tales of Bloch's own invention that must be counted as landmark classics in the genre -- "Enoch", "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper", "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" -- far too many to mention individually. Soon I sought and devoured his novels too -- Firebug, Terror, Sneak Preview, Night-World, Psycho itself.
The decade of my teens also coincided with the heyday of Bloch's screen adaptations, in particular the great sequence of omnibus films from Amicus. Unlike some of the movies scripted by Bloch, which didn't do his work full justice -- The Psychopath, The Deadly Bees -- due to restrictively low budgets, most of the Amicus movies were produced with taste and intelligence. The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum were seminal influences for me in satisfying my own growing hunger for horror. I still watch my video of Asylum periodically, and its deliciously-realised chills have hardly diminished in the intervening 20 years since it was made.
Lovecraft's influence on Bloch, which had begun when Bloch was 15, continued through Bloch's career. He delighted fans in 1978 with Strange Eons, his excellent novel of the Cthulhu Mythos which is both an entertaining tale in itself, and a loving (if at times tongue-in-cheek) tribute to the master. Mysteries Of The Worm, a 1981 paperback, is a near-complete collection of Bloch's Mythos tales, and damnably hard to find. I am ever-grateful to Graeme Flanagan (himself the producer of a bibliographic volume on Bloch) not only for locating me a copy on one of his US trips, but for having Bloch inscribe it to me! Bloch wrote many fine essays in tribute to Lovecraft the man and writer, and constantly acknowledged his role in Bloch's own literary development. But of course he early developed his own unique style, founded in an aesthetic far different from the Providence Gent's, that was the real basis of his success over the years.
A number of collections and omnibus editions published towards the end of his life are well worth obtaining. The massive three-volume Selected Stories is an excellent compendium of the whole range Bloch's fiction, though Early Fears will also be useful to those wanting the contents of his first two out-of-print short story collections. While the limited editions Screams and Unholy Trinity are already hard to find, they are worth tracking down as the novels they contain are even more difficult to locate in first editions. Lost In Time And Space With Lefty Feep provides a permanent home in hardcover for most of the zany comedy-fantasies featuring this Damon Runyonesque character.
While Bloch's name didn't appear on the best-seller lists in the eighties, his career did undergo a publishing expansion. Many of his earlier novels were reissued by Tor Books. His name was in a sense kept in the public mind through the resurrection of Norman Bates on-screen in Psycho II and Psycho III, neither of which however had any connection with Bloch's written sequels to his original novel.
Bloch's distinguished writing career spanned sixty years, with a prolific output of over 400 short stories, yet no great academic or critical recognition has been accorded him. Revealingly however, he was greatly respected by his peers in the genre, with film greats Buster Keaton and Fritz Lang as his personal friends, and Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison and other greats of fantasy and horror having praised his work. He won many major awards including: Hugo for Best Science Fiction Story for "That Hell-Bound Train" (1959); Life Achievement Award (inaugural World Fantasy Convention 1975); Lifetime Career Award (World SF Convention); Bram Stoker Life Achievement Award; World Horror Convention Grand Master Award.
Even so, he was to some extent an under-rated giant of the field. In the latter days of horror movements like splatterpunk, Bloch seemed a conservative, advocating quiet horror and often speaking out against explicit violence in print and film. This was somewhat ironic given the frequent explicitness of his own work; for instance, he had his heroine's head chopped off in the novel Psycho, a scene that was toned down to a mere stabbing in the film version.
Bloch also believed in simple, effective writing, and had little time for writers (and critics) interested in in-depth analysis. It is true too that many of his tales were written out of sheer economic necessity His aim was threefold -- to entertain, to edify and to enlighten. His admirable simplicity in this regard did not endear him to critics more interested in writers whose work offered more apparent textual complexity. Nevertheless, his work shaped and influenced the careers and early aspirations of many other writers, and left an indelible mark on the field. His death is a sad loss. To quote a line from Asylum that I've always felt typified Bloch's unique macabre humour -- "May he rest in pieces".
Robert Bloch BibliographyCompiled by Leigh Blackmore
Book-Length Secondary Sources
Movies1: Original script by Bloch or scripted by him from his own work
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