I didn’t want to read Psycho. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the Hitchcock movie, which has thoroughly eclipsed the book, about a hundred times. Or maybe it’s because I’ve never been a fan of Robert Bloch’s writing. I recall reading a short story Bloch wrote when I was just a kid. A woman has an affair and runs away with another man. She makes a big deal about the fact that she’s never celebrated Christmas. At the story’s end her ex-husband comes out of the living room holding a big machete and says – “I have granted her dearest wish. She is decorating the Christmas tree.”
You know, over the years I’ve read and forgotten a lot of crap, but that line has stuck with me. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly instill a burning desire to leap out of my armchair and read all of Bloch’s material. In fact, it had the opposite effect.
And then I read Psycho. Did I like the book or not? That would be yes. Bloch mentions his source material – Eddie Gein – but makes it palatable to his audience. Instead of wearing his victim’s skin, Norman wears her clothes. Although Norman is an occultist kook, there is nothing supernatural about Psycho. The only possible supernatural element is when Norman reads The Realm of the Incas (available on Amazon for $888.63!) in the first chapter. We learn that the Incas used their enemies’ flayed skins as a drum, and this scene foreshadows the auditory element to Norman’s transformations. Whenever Mother takes over, there is the sound of drumming – the thrumming of the shower, Arbogast knocking at the front door and the thunderstorm. Nice writing, there!
Of course, Bloch writing style has its weaknesses. He is a lover of bad puns and his descriptions are sloppy (the two might be related). Bloch tells us – ‘it was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head’ – but later in the book, Mary’s head is still attached to her shoulders. His scene transitions are awful. Prime example: near the book’s end Sam and the sheriff are ascending the hill to Norman’s house when they hear Lila scream, and Sam has to use his heretofore unmentioned teleportation powers to teleport into the basement in time to stop Norman from killing his would-be beau.
The Hitchcock movie made a number of changes from the book, and most of those changes are for the better. Norman isn’t forty years old. When we learn of Norman’s taxidermy hobby we see a stuffed owl, not a squirrel, which makes sense since Mary’s last name is Crane. Mary herself is portrayed as a nice person who’s made a dumb mistake, and her dinner with Norman is actually kind of touching.
I will note that I didn’t like any of the characters in this book except for Lila. Norman is Psycho’s protagonist, but he’s too blatantly misogynistic to be sympathetic. Sam is – well, more on Sam later. Bloch gets away with this because Psycho is a short book that moves fast and presumably keeps the reader guessing. Well, it didn’t keep me guessing but that’s not Bloch’s fault. I can’t talk about the effectiveness of the book’s biggest plot twist because I’ve seen the movie too many times.
Speaking of predictable, let’s talk about Sam. Oh, Sam. Lila may seem headstrong, but remember she’s saddled with Sam. When Norman reveals that he’s batshit crazy and starts talking about how he dug up mother from the grave Sam just sits there nodding, and I was like DO SOMETHING JACKASS! One of my favorite parts of Psycho is when Lila turns Sam down cold. Gee, why wouldn’t she want to marry her dead sister’s fiancée, move into his basement apartment and share the joys of poverty?
I adored the psychological gobbledygook at the book’s end, where Sam explains to Lila why Norman is batshit crazy. Since Lila is the next-of-kin the authorities should have told her, but societal mores were different back then. Perhaps they were afraid Lila would swoon, although she is one of the two characters in Psycho who shows any grit. The second character is of course Norman’s mother, who singlehandedly runs a small business despite being saddled by an ungrateful failure of a son. She’s sadly missing from the pages of Bloch’s Psycho 2, which features Norman Bates dressed up as a nun. But that’s another blog post…