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The Unofficial Robert Bloch Website

Biography

The Shambler From Wisconsin

The son of a bank cashier and a social worker, Robert Bloch was born on April 5, 1917, in Chicago. While his interest in the fantastic was certainly influenced by his childhood love of the films of Lon Chaney, the watershed event of his early life was undoubtedly his purchase in 1927 of an issue of Weird Tales, a pulp magazine which specialised in macabre and supernatural fiction. It was by reading Weird Tales that Bloch first discovered the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the creator of a series of stories which would become known as the Cthulhu Mythos. With the onset of the Great Depression, the Bloch family moved to Milwaukee, where, in 1933, Bloch began a correspondance with Lovecraft that would continue until the latter's death in 1937. It was at Lovecraft's suggestion that Bloch tried his hand at writing short stories. Bloch's first professional sale ("Lilies" for Marvel Tales) came in 1934, and his first sale to Weird Tales ("The Secret in the Tomb") came a few months later. He was seventeen.

Radio Show During his young adult life, Bloch continued to publish his short fiction in the pulps, as well as working at a variety of other endeavors. He wrote for vaudeville, was one of two campaign strategists for a successful Milwaukee mayoral candidate, and worked as a copywriter for the Gustav Marx ad agency. He married Marion Holcombe, with whom he raised a daughter. Bloch also created a horror/suspense radio show called "Stay Tuned for Terror." Unfortunately, no recordings of the thirty nine episodes that Bloch penned have survived.

In 1945, Bloch published his first two collections of short stories: "Sea Kissed," a slim collection of tales with Henry Kuttner saw print only in Great Britain, and "The Opener of the Way," published by Arkham House in the U.S. 1947 saw the publication of Bloch's first novel, "The Scarf," an examination of the mind of a psychopath with a penchant for murdering women. While Bloch had been down the serial killer path before (his short story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" had been published in 1943, and had been adapted for radio twice by this time), "The Scarf," with its first person narrative, forces the reader into the mind of the psychopathic main character so effectively that it is at once both familiar and repellant; we know this man (or others like him), but we are horrified at his actions. Over time, the lone psychotic would become a Bloch trademark, and would be revisted in numerous novels and screenplays.

In 1953, Marion's health worsened. Bloch left the Marx agency, and moved his family to Weyauwega, Wisconsin, where he wrote a number of short stories and four novels ("Spiderweb," "The Kidnapper," and "The Will to Kill," in 1954, and "Shooting Star" in 1958). He also picked up a job as writer and guest panelist on the weekly Milwaukee quiz show "It's a Draw."

By this time, at forty-one, Bloch had enjoyed a small amount of critical and commercial success, but he was unsatisfied with the present state of his career. As he wrote in his autobiography:

Twenty-four years a professional writer, and what to show for it? A few published books, only two of which appeared in hardcovers a dozen years before. Lots of short stories, most of them sold for one cent a word. A few in men's markets, some reprinted in anthologies; a bit of critical recognition, but this was sporadic enough and hardly a food substitute in case the money ran out....
....
What would happen when my markets dried up? Or worse, when my writing dried up? What would happen if my wife got sick again? What would happen if nothing happened and I just got older?

R. Bloch, "Once Around the Bloch" 226-27.

The next two years would change Bloch's life forever. In 1959, he published a novel that proved the old adage that a boy's best friend was his mother. The title of that novel would be forever appended to his name in every interview with, or article about, him. Bloch would become "The Man Who Wrote 'Psycho.'"

Vacancy at the Bates Motel!"Psycho" is the story of a loner (Norman Bates), his relationship with his mother, and the murders committed at the family motel. The novel was inspired by the early reports of the exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. The idea of someone leading a double life -- that of killer and unremarkable introvert -- became the theme of Bloch's novel. After settling on the basic story, Bloch completed his first draft of the novel in six weeks. After some fine tuning, the novel was sold to Simon & Schuster, which issued it in hardback.

The novel is a taut thriller well served by Bloch's ability to send shudders through his audience with a judicious use of words. Although the manner in which Bloch's character Mary Crane (in the novel) meets her fate in a motel shower is somewhat different from the manner in which Marion Crane (in the film) meets her fate, the death of both characters, once experienced by the reader (or viewer) is unforgettable.

With the novel having received a number of good reviews by the mainstream press, Bloch's agent received a blind bid for the film rights from a Hollywood production company. After some haggling, the rights were sold for the sum of $9500. It was only after this that Bloch learned the name behind the production company was that of Alfred Hitchcock.

While the studio behind Hitchcock's version of "Psycho" had serious misgivings about Hitchcock's choice of source material, Hitchcock's contract gave him great latitude in that regard. Bloch was never approached about the possibility of writing a screenplay for the film; when Hitchcock inquired if Bloch was available, an MCA agent (anxious to promote MCA talent) replied that he was not. After rejecting a draft script by another writer, Hitchcock turned to Joseph Stefano. Stefano, who would later produce the terrific SF series "The Outer Limits," while interested in working with Hitchcock, was disappointed in the nature of the project. While Stefano (or Hitchcock/Stefano) certainly altered the source material to fit the film that Hitchcock wanted (Bloch's booze-addled pudgy forty-something Norman became the infinitely more sympathetic and handsome Anthony Perkins Norman), much of Bloch's novel made it into the final film. While in interviews Stefano has been openly dismissive of Bloch's work, Bloch simply pointed to statements made by Alfred Hitchcock that Stefano contributed mostly dialogue, and no ideas, to the final product. "Psycho," said Hitchcock, all came from Robert Bloch's novel.

In the fall of 1959, much to his surprise, Bloch won science fiction's prestigious Hugo award for his short story horror fantasy "That Hell-Bound Train." Almost immediately thereafter, a colleague asked him to come to Hollywood to provide a script for the television private-eye drama "Lock-Up." Bloch went, and other scriptwriting assignments followed. He retained the services of an agent, who introduced him to the staff of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

In his autobiography, Bloch explained:

For the record, this event took place in the late fall of 1959. Contrary to published accounts by no-accounts who didn't do their homework, I had no previous personal contacts whatsoever with either Mr. Hitchcock or his television show. They ahd nothing to do with my coming to Hollywood; nor did the success of the film version of Psycho. As a matter of fact, the picture was still being shot when I arrived at the studio for the first time. And I later learned that Joan Harrison, the producer of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," shared the grave reservations of many associates regarding this film venture. So much for the notion that Psycho launched me on a television and film career. At this stage of the game my identification with the novel was more handicap than help.

R. Bloch, "Once Around the Bloch" 238-39.

Bloch wrote a couple of scripts for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" during the last few months on 1959. A six month strike (beginning January 1, 1960) by the Writer's Guild caused Bloch to return to writing short stories and articles on a full time basis; by the time the strike ended, however, Bloch was able to relocate his family to California and resume his scriptwriting efforts.

TerrorThe Dead BeatThe year 1960 saw the release of both a novel ("The Dead Beat") and a collection of short stories ("Pleasant Dreams") by Bloch. 1960 was also the year in which Alfred Hitchcock's production of "Psycho" was released. Rightly hailed as a masterpiece, the film would eventually become indeliably imprinted upon the American imagination.

During the next few years, Bloch continued his teleplay work for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." He also began to branch out to screenwriting for features. The first of his efforts to be produced, "The Couch" dealt with the interaction of a psychiatrist with his delusional (and homicidal) patient. The second, entitled "The Cabinet of Caligari," was a re-working of the themes contained in the German expressionistic (and silent) film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Neither film was particularly successful, the former being eviscerated by the studio for budgetary concerns, and the latter muddled by the replacement of Bloch's carefully scripted dialogue with florid ramblings.

During this period, Bloch also penned several short stories and articles, three collections ("Blood Runs Cold," "Atoms and Evil," and "The Eighth Stage of Fandom"), and two novels ("Terror" and his screenplay adaption of "The Couch.")

An examination of the paperback editions of his novels from this period, as shown above, reveals the marketing of Bloch as the author of "Psycho."

Bloch also began his association with the Boris Karloff-hosted television series "Thriller." A show with a schizoid personality, "Thriller" had been conceived as an hour-long suspense anthology program, without a clear idea as to what "suspense" entailed. Many of the earlier shows were straightforward crime dramas, with a supernatural or horror themed tale tossed in every few weeks. Eventually, the show would turn more to themes of terror and horror. While a few of Bloch's original stories were adapted by others, Bloch was able to secure jobs adapting both his own work and that of others for the show. The ten episodes of "Thriller" that Bloch was involved in are among his most fully realized adaptations.

In general, TV never quite comes off -- there are too many fingers in that particular pie -- but Thriller was in a different category entirely. Almost invariably my first draft was shot exactly as I wrote it. The director didn't try to change the story.
R. Bloch, as quoted in A. Warren, "This is a Thriller" 16.

Bloch's best stories for "Thriller" included "The Weird Tailor" (a man, wanting to bring his son back from the dead, turns to the black arts); "The Cheaters" (a person who wears a certain pair of glasses is able to hear the thoughts of those nearby); and "Waxworks" (a mysterious traveling wax museum is connected with a series of murders). Unfortunately, "Thriller" was unable to hold onto its audience, and in 1962 ended its two year run.

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