Psycho, by Robert Bloch

With Hitchcock’s Psycho now 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 in 1960.

There are few surprises left for contemporary viewers. Not only is Pyscho considered one of the greatest films ever made, even new viewers are likely to recognise the shower scene [link contains spoiler], the psychotic music – and the final twist.

The book can’t offer many secrets. It is, after all, almost entirely the same story as the film, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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, and cinematic – in the B-Movie style – 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

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Picture credit: Sean Mungur