With Hitchcock’s Psycho part of cinema legend, how does Robert Bloch’s original novel compare?
As the story goes, when Alfred Hitchcock secured the film rights for Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Pyscho, he bought up all the remaining copies of the book, too. He didn’t want audiences to guess the twist before the movie landed in cinemas the following year.
Now, however, there are few surprises left for contemporary readers. Even if they haven’t seen the film, much of it has passed into common knowledge and cinema lore.
Bookish Norman Bates lives with his mother, a manipulative, cruel woman who appears to both traumatise and titillate her son. Together they run an out-of-the-way motel, the kind of place where no one stops anymore.
Then, one day, someone does stop: Mary Crane, a 27-year-old secretary who has stolen $40,000 from her boss and is on the run with the cash. With terrible irony, however, fleeing puts Mary in far greater danger at the Bates Motel.
Bloch’s tale – based on the real-life murderer, Ed Gein – contains the seeds of what have since become horror film staples: a woman left to her own devices, an isolated location, the suggestions of sex – then the gore (see also Halloween).
“Then she did see it there – a face, peering through the curtains, hanging in midair like a mask. A head-scarf concealed the hair and the glassy eyes stared inhumanely, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be … It was the face of a crazy old woman.”Pyscho
While there’s violence to Bloch’s story, it’s no longer “one of the most disgusting murders in all screen history”, as one critic described the film in 1960 – even though Bloch is able to describe things that Hitchcock couldn’t have shown on screen at the time.
Ultimately, Psycho sets out to shock, though much of what may have seemed disturbing, devious or prurient in 1959 isn’t quite as scandalous now.
The book makes for a short read; it’s cinematic with or without Hitchcock’s influence. Part noir detective story, part breathless tabloidism, the novel remains seductive in its own way.
Psycho, by Robert Bloch
Quoted edition published by Bloomsbury Film Classics, 1997
What to read or watch next
- Jaws, by Peter Benchley (short thriller about ‘hunting’ a killer)
- The Talented Mr Ripley (1950s, serial killers, sexual hang-ups)
- A Kiss Before Dying (1950s, serial killers)
- Don’t Look Now, by Daphne du Maurier (unease)
- Drive, by James Sallis (short novels, noir)
Picture credit: Kevin Angelsø