Psycho by Robert Bloch, 1959

In November 1957, Ed Gein was arrested for the murders of two women.  Police found furniture, silverware, and clothing made of human skin and body parts.  According to neighbors, Gein was dominated by his mother, and the theory amongst medical professionals was that he was trying to build a “woman suit” so he could pretend to be his dead mother.

35 miles away, at the time of Gein’s arrest, Robert Bloch was unaware of this case as he put the finishing touches on his novel about the idea that a monster could live right next door.  Upon learning of the real story, Bloch inserted an allusion to Gein into one of the final chapters.

Psycho is a story everyone thinks they know, in large part due to Alfred Hitchcock turning it into a culture-defining film a year later.  Norman Bates is a middle-aged man dominated by his mother, the twist of whom is pretty much spoiled on the same level of Darth Vader’s identity.  The small motel “they” run struggles since the highway has been relocated.  A young woman, Mary Crane, arrives by accident as a customer, on the run after stealing $40,000 so her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, could pay his debts and marry her.  After overhearing Mother scream out a death threat, Mary suggests to Norman that perhaps his mother needs to be put into a mental institution.

Norman passes out drunk, discovers Mary’s dead body after the fact, and covers up the murder to protect Mother.  Meanwhile, Mary’s sister Lila tells Sam of Mary’s disappearance, joined in their search by Milton Arbogast, a private investigator hired to retrieve the money Mary stole.  The trail leads them back to the Bates Motel, where questions are answered and horrors are revealed.

This book has been on my “to read” list for the better part of 30 years.  Seriously.  I first learned the “twist ending” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as a kid when I was indoctrinated into a great many classic sci-fi and horror films on weekend television marathon.  I tuned in late one afternoon due to circumstances beyond my memory just now, just in time to see the big reveal.  Of course, I had no idea what it was that I was seeing, only that it was somehow important.  I saw the film in its entirety not long after that when it again re-aired, and in college I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen.  But all I’d known of the book was that it existed and that it was written by the same guy who wrote the classic Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold.”  I know, that’s just wrong somehow, but that’s how connections are made in my world.  Suffice it to say, Psycho is one of the books I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and Project: Monster gives me an excellent excuse to push such things forward.

It’s unfortunately easy to be somewhat unimpressed with the novel after growing up with Hitchcock, which is probably the case for most people who read the original.  Even so, it’s a short book, and to consider it on its own, it’s worth the read.  The old adage about how the book is always better doesn’t really apply in this case, but the book does offer quite a bit of background exposition that rounds out the story considerably.  Norman himself does not appear in the book to resemble anything like his screen counterpart.  Here he’s pudgy, forty years old, and wears glasses.  The other things that stand out for me are the contents of Norman’s personal library (because I’m geeky that way), a mixture of science, psychology, and the occult.  The character portrait that Block put into place holds up and makes the “monster next door” idea very real, with or without Gein’s influence.  It’s pretty easy to see why Hitchcock jumped on the novel as his next project, though how he discovered it isn’t yet known to me.  I assume happenstance, being promoted as a new book.  I’ll do the research and figure out such things when I get around to talking more about the film.  For now, curiosity is satisfied.  Time with this book was time well spent, even if Hitchcock stole its thunder.

3 stars


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