08 February 2012

Robert Bloch’s Psycho

Psycho (1959)
By Robert Bloch

“We’re all not quite as sane as we pretend to be.”

Spoilers. Lots of them lay ahead. To write about the novel Psycho in any depth requires writing about the legendary Hitchcock 1960 film adaptation and its various twists. Which are also the novel’s twists. So if for some reason you either haven’t seen Psycho or have managed to avoid finding out the basics of its story—and I don’t understand how either situation might come about—you might wish to read no further. And you might also wish to go see Psycho, and I envy the shocks you are about to receive. (Also, in what hermetic order have you been living?)

Psycho the novel is an excellent thriller, shocker, and examination of a diseased mind. It’s pulpy, but so is the movie. Five decades have given the movie the patina of a classic, but in the 1960s critics considered it shock schlock that cheaply exploited the audience. It surprised me how much I enjoyed Psycho, because even though I should know better, I can fall into the trap of believing that Hitchcock adapted all his cinematic masterpieces from poor source material that he magically improved. There is some truth to this. But the exceptions are impressive: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and “The Birds” are great works. So is Cornell Woolrich’s short story “Rear Window.” So why shouldn’t Psycho, from the typewriter of one of the great horror and crime authors of the century, be impressive as well?

The movie does not diverge much from the novel; compared to other Hitchcock’s adaptations, it feels almost beat-for-beat. Here’s my summary of Bloch’s novel:
Mary Crane steals $40,000 from her employer one Friday and drives off to meet her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, so she can pay off his debts and they can get married. Mary gets caught in a storm and pulls over at a small motel. The motel proprietor, Norman Bates, is a lonely man with only his mentally ill mother for company, and she stays up in a mansion on the hill over the motel. After an evening speaking with Norman, Mary regrets her criminal actions and decides to drive back to fix everything. But while Mary is taking a shower, Norman’s insane mother kills her brutally with a butcher’s knife. Norman dutifully cleans up the murder scene to hide his mother’s crime, and sinks Mary’s body into the nearby swamp in the trunk of her car.

When a private investigator, Arbogast, comes to the hotel a week later on Mary’s trail, Mrs. Bates murders him as well when he enters the house, causing Norman to have to cover up for her again. Finally, Sam Loomis and Mary’s younger sister Lila come to the motel to find out what is going on, and discover that Mrs. Bates is actually dead—Norman killed her many years ago—and the true murderer is Norman, who snapped after committing matricide and developed a split persona. Sam overcomes the crazy killer when he tries to murder Lila in the fruit cellar, and Norman gets packed off to an asylum. Mother’s personality now dominates his mind, and she plans to show everyone that she wouldn’t even harm a fly. . . .
Aside from the name “Mary” instead of “Marion,” this is the same plot as the movie.

There are many differences in the details, and the novel and the film both rely on tricks that the other medium can’t use, but I’ll address the two major elements in Bloch’s book that the movie changed.

First, the novel opens with Norman Bates. Mary Crane appears at the end of the first chapter when she drives up to the motel, and the second chapter uses a quick memory flashback to explain how Mary got into her desperate situation. She winds up dead (decapitated!) one-fifth of the way into the book. For the film, screenwriter Joseph Stefano suggested to Hitchcock that the action begin with Marion Crane at her job and follow her from the decision to steal the money. Hitchcock loved the idea, since it gave him a chance to completely mess with audience expectations: the main character—or who the audience believes is the main character—gets horribly killed halfway through the movie! And then the villain becomes the main character! Bloch used Ms. Crane’s death as the inciting incident; Hitchcock made it the mid-movie twist.

Second, Norman Bates in the book is forty, fat, balding, and alcoholic. Hitchcock hired tall, lean, and boyishly handsome Anthony Perkins for the part, which on the surface seems like an idiotic casting decision. But Hitchcock wanted to mess with audiences even more, and Bloch’s Norman Bates would seem too much of a standard creepy pervert. That character works fine on paper, since readers fill in a more sympathetic Norman as they read and Bloch explores his mind in a way film cannot, but on screen Hitch pulled a great fake-out and Perkins delivered a performance for the ages.

The novel spends a lot of time in Norman’s head, and that makes him seem crazy from Chapter 1. Although Psycho isn’t as subtle in its portrayal of a criminally diseased mind as The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (and Lou Ford is psychopathic, not psychotic like Norman Bates), it is nevertheless feverishly interesting to read. Bloch doesn’t seem to hide Norman’s disease from the reader, and for all the feints he creates with the figure of “Mother,” writing like this should set off alarm bells in any reader’s mind:
It was like being two people, really—the child and the adult. Whenever he thought about Mother, he became a child again, with a child’s vocabulary, frames of reference, and emotional reactions. But when he was by himself—not actually by himself, but off in a book—he was a mature individual. Mature enough to understand that he might even be the victim of a mild form of schizophrenia, most likely some form of borderline neurosis.

Granted, it wasn’t the healthiest situation in the world. Being Mother’s little boy had its drawbacks. On the other hand, as long as he recognized the dangers he could cope with them, and with Mother. It was lucky for her that he knew when to be a man; that he did know a few things about psychology and parapsychology too.
That’s a huge tip-off as to who the actual psychotic is. The movie, through its more objective format, can block off the audience from knowing much about what’s happening inside Norman’s skull and make the shock of the ending even greater.

But the book can do something the movie can’t: stage extended scenes between Norman and “Mother.” Because they occur inside Norman’s twisted mind while seeming real to him, the writing can treat Mrs. Bates as a full-fledged character who walks around the house and comes into rooms to berate her son. A textbook case of an unreliable narrator. The movie has to use overheard conversations (Norman talking to himself) to disguise that Mother is actually a desiccated corpse and can’t move anywhere unless Norman carts her around.

Bloch’s book goes into more details than a movie could fit into its running time: we learn more about Mary’s past, experience Norman as a bookworm (enjoying descriptions of natives using human skin for drums), and spend more time with Lila and Sam as they try to figure out what happened to Mary. Hitchcock had little interest in either Lila or Sam, and moved the film past them as fast as possible to get back to Norman or Arbogast. Sam is a far more interesting on the page than the way the script and actor John Gavin portray him in the movie. He wonders at many point how much he actually knew Mary, or if he really loved her. He shares his thoughts about small town life, and in one impressive passage thinks about the strange and horrible occurrences that hide beneath the veneer of respectability in the town of Fairvale.

The Arbogast scenes are among the best in the novel; they let Bloch’s hard-boiled writing style come to the front, and offer the most tension between characters in the book. Those same scenes work great in the movie as well, since Martin Balsam is an ideal fit for the character. Arbogast is more aggressive with Lila and Sam in the book, but the brevity of the same scene in the movie has more to do with Hitchcock’s boredom with Lila and Sam and wanting to hustle Arbogast over to meet Norman, one of the film’s best scenes. It’s also one of the tensest in the book, as Norman stumbles and fumbles sweatily under the detective’s clever pressing of him. It’s a scene that deserves the great treatment the movie gives it.

Norman Bates is an obsessive reader in the novel. He does some taxidermy, but the only stuffed animal mentioned is a squirrel. He doesn’t take to the hobby the way Perkins’s Norman does, cramming his parlor with birds of prey. It’s nonfiction reading that absorbs Norman in his free time, and he has some usual tastes in books: along with history and psychology, he also delves into paranormal and occult volumes. He mentions reading Aleister Crowley, and Lila discovers on his bookshelves The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and books by the Marquis de Sade.

Norman’s reading habits (which sound like the sort of books a horror writer would use for research and were probably on Robert Bloch’s shelf) lead to an intriguing concept that Bloch uses to temporarily deceive the reader. Norman recalls how he dug his mother up from her grave after poisoning her, and finding her alive and in a fugue state. Because of his “knowledge” gleaned from occult and paranormal books, he knew how to revive her. We find out later that he did no such thing; he pulled out the dead body and preserved it. But he believes he kept his mother alive, and for a short time it seems as if Bloch is trying to trick readers into thinking that there might be something supernatural occurring. Did Norman manage to turn his mother into a zombie?

The movie never mentions how Norman got his mother’s corpse; I always thought he switched the body with stones in the coffin before the burial. Bloch’s explanation is interesting because of how it dovetails with Norman’s occult fascination and hints at a way the story might have gone. But Bloch no longer wanted supernatural boogeymen. The mind was all the monster he needed.

The novel’s best section is Lila’s creep through the Bates mansion in her search for any clues about her sister’s disappearance. This is the most overt example of “American Gothic” in the book, and where Bloch moves closest to old-fashioned horror tropes—only to undermine them at the close. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I still read this section in a near palsy. Bloch’s descriptions of the freakishly time-frozen inside of the house, the grotesque details, and the sense that Mother’s room is somehow still “alive” despite looking as if it never budged from 1900, are visceral and enthralling.

Because the movie changed horror films forever, and changed the way people watched movies (“You must see the movie from the beginning!” was a novel concept in 1960), it is easy to overlook the change the novel made to horror as well. Bloch started out as a young member of H. P. Lovecraft’s circle of acolytes, and published Mythos-style stories in Weird Tales in the 1930s. But when he took on Psycho in 1959, he dropped the supernatural entirely—leaving only the brief, false hint that Mother was resurrected through occult means—to find terror in the apparently mundane . . . and you can’t get much more mundane than Norman Bates and his empty roadside motel. Bloch was at the vanguard of the new horror that used the elements of crime fiction instead of the supernatural shocker to create its ghouls. Psycho the movie laid the groundwork for the later slasher film explosion, but it would never have happened if Bloch hadn’t written a novel that delved into the mind of the middle-American madman.

Psycho the movie is better than Pyscho the novel; my preference is mostly because of Anthony Perkins’s version of Norman Bates, who resonates with me more than a dumpy mid-life alcoholic. Perkins mesmerizes with each viewing, long after the shocks have sublimated into our system. But the book is still a great read, and it’s no surprise Hitchcock snapped up the rights as soon as he saw the review in The New York Times. Bloch’s novel enhances the movie because it shows the different tricks that novels and films use.

I appreciate Hitchcock more for having read Psycho, and I appreciate Bloch more knowing what Hitchcock made of Psycho. I’ve got both the film and book and I’m happy.

Too bad Norman Bates isn’t happy. We all go a little mad sometimes.