With Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Psycho having become the stuff of legend, how does Robert Bloch’s source novel compare?
As the story goes, once Alfred Hitchcock secured the film rights for Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Pyscho, he bought up all the remaining copies of the book, too – so that when the movie landed in cinemas in 1960, audiences wouldn’t guess what was coming.
There are few surprises left for contemporary viewers. Not only is Pyscho considered one of the greatest films ever made, even viewers who aren’t familiar with it directly are likely to recognise the shower scene [link contains spoiler], the psychotic music – and the final twist, of course.
Naturally, the book can’t offer many other secrets. It is, after all, almost entirely the same story, with the same characters, plot and stomach-churning violence.
Bookish Norman Bates lives with his mother – a manipulative, cruel woman who appears to both traumatise and titillate her son. Together they manage an out-of-the-way motel, the kind of place where no one stops anymore; not since they moved the highway.
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, running away puts Mary in line for a far worse punishment at the Bates Motel.
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.
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.
While there is violence to Bloch’s story, it’s far more muted than “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.
- More Hitchcock: Is the cop the real killer in Vertigo?
- How to catch a killer without leaving the house
- Podcast Inside Pyscho.
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, and cinematic – in the B-Movie style – with or without Hitchcock’s influence to help it along. Part noir detective story, part National Enquirer breathless tabloidism, yet it remains seductive in its own way.
Robert Bloch, Pyscho (1959)
Other books like Psycho:
- Jaws, by Peter Benchley (thriller, ‘catching a killer’)
- The Talented Mr Ripley (1950s, serial killers, sexual hang-ups)
- Don’t Look Now, by Daphne du Maurier (unease)
- Drive, by James Sallis (short novels, noir)
Picture credit: Sean Mungur