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Essays

Robert Bloch: The Creator of Psycho

James P. Roberts


Since 1939 Wisconsin has held a special place in the hearts of readers of science fiction, fantasy, and other types of imaginative literature. It was in 1939 that noted Wisconsin regionalist writer August W. Derleth (1909-1971) founded the publishing firm of Arkham House, at first to publish in hardcover books the stories of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) whom Derleth shared a friendship via correspondence for over ten years until Lovecraft's death. Later, Derleth would expand Arkham House to include books by other writers of predominately macabre and fantasy fiction.

While it was August Derleth who became associated with the realm of imaginative literature in Wisconsin, there were others within the state who were also writing and publishing in these various genres. Derleth's partner in Arkham House, Donald Wandrei, was also a gifted writer, as was Donald's brother, Howard. Another was a young teenager who had just moved to Milwaukee from the Chicago area and was already corresponding with Derleth and Lovecraft. His name was Robert Bloch.

Robert Bloch was born in Chicago on April 5, 1917, the son of Stella Loeb and Raphael (Ray) Bloch. He had a younger sister named Genevieve. Bloch spent a rather idyllic childhood in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. One early childhood memory involved the death of a chicken to which Bloch later wryly observed, "I wonder why so many of my stories involve decapitation..."

By the time he was eight, Bloch was reading Twain, Poe, Hawthorne, O. Henry, Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving and others. Life was good in those days and involved trips to the Chicago zoo, the theatre and, naturally, the movies. "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) inspired a lifelong love for Lon Chaney's great films.

In 1927, Bloch was introduced to the magazine that would help shape his writing career. He bought a copy of Weird Tales and read a story, "Pickman's Model," written by H.P. Lovecraft. Impressed, Bloch sought out other Lovecraft stories but, when he discovered that the bulk of Lovecraft's work was found only in Weird Tales, he wrote a letter to HPL, and thus began a friendship that lasted for nearly a decade, existing only in letters. The two never met: Lovecraft lived in Providence, Rhode Island and was habitually too poor to do much travelling.

Ray Bloch was a banker and, when the Depression struck in October of 1929, he lost his job and the family moved to Milwaukee, eventually residing at 620 East Knapp Street.

Lovecraft's influence continued: "Quite early in our correspondence HPL suggested that I might be interested in trying my own hand at writing with an eye to publication. A quick inventory of physical assets confirmed that I did indeed possess a hand and an eye, plus backups. And since Lovecraft's suggestions generously included his willingness to inspect my efforts, what more did I need?" Bloch was then sixteen years old.

His writing soon paid off, thanks to HPL's discerning eye which always offered suggestions toward revision of the stories Bloch would send him before submitting to the magazines. In 1934, Bloch had his first short story published, "Lilies," by Marvel Tales. Graduating from high school in Milwaukee, Bloch could see that the Depression was taking its toll; jobs were scarce, so he decided to try writing full-time.

Both of Bloch's parents supported the idea and so he went to work. He targeted Weird Tales and in less than a month had an acceptance letter for "The Secret in the Tomb" and a check for twenty dollars. Bloch quickly turned out another tale which was somewhat better and so the editor switched the tales around. "The Feast in the Abbey" became Bloch's first appearance in Weird Tales.

In 1935, Bloch became involved with a writing club, which he recalls with his usual sense of humor: "As far as I know, all the members of the Milwaukee Fictioneers were vampires," he later said. "They only came out at night."

Along with Raymond Palmer, Al Nelson, Roger Sherman Hoar (who wrote as Ralph Milne Farley) and Stanley Weinbaum, Bloch soon learned to shape his craft. Another member was Jim Kjelgaard.

Through Lovecraft, Bloch was introduced to another Weird Tales writer, one who lived just 120 miles away August Derleth. Derleth originally had dim hopes for Bloch's literary career, but there eventually flowered a friendship between the two that would result in Derleth publishing Bloch's first hardcover collection of stories via Arkham House. Bloch visited Derleth in Sauk City in 1935, returning there in 1938 with Henry Kuttner and Harold Gauer.

By 1942, however, Bloch's writing wasn't paying the bills. He went to work for the Gustav Marx advertising agency. Bloch would spend his days writing advertising copy and his nights writing macabre stories. He had met Marian Holcombe earlier and they married and in 1943 their daughter, Sally, was born.

In 1945, Bloch's first book was published. The Opener of the Way contained some thirty stories previously printed in the pulp magazines. Bloch received a total of $600 in royalties. One of Bloch's best known stories from the 1940s was "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper." The story was then dramatized on the radio on, of all places, the "Kate Smith Radio Hour."

Bloch's first novel, The Scarf, came out in 1947, but it was apparent that for, Robert Bloch, the success of Ernest Hemingway was a long way off. To Robert Bloch, one of the benefits to being a "genre" writer was the opportunity to attend the "sci-fi conventions" that had sprung up across the country beginning in 1939. Bloch's first "con" was in Los Angeles in 1946. Other attendees were A.E. Van Vogt, Leigh Brackett, Wilson (Bob) Tucker, and, Bloch later said, "a youthful fan-turned-pro Ray Bradbury. I often wonder what became of him."

By 1953, Bloch had struggled through his wife's tuberculosis, the death of his parents, and the decline of the Gustav Marx Agency. The Blochs moved to Weyauwega and Bloch commuted to Milwaukee to work. In 1959, Bloch appeared in Detroit to hand out the Hugo Awards, science fiction's top prize. To his surprise, "That Hell-bound Train" by Robert Bloch was voted Best Short Story.

Soon afterward, another Bloch story appeared on the TV show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," which leads us to a fateful shower scene...

Robert Bloch wrote Psycho toward the end of 1959. Bloch writes: "Elsewhere... I have recounted the story of the grim case which shocked Wisconsin in 1957 and led me, the following year, to write a novel in which a seemingly normal and ordinary rural resident led a dual life as a psychotic murderer, unsuspected by his neighbors. I based my story on the situation rather than on any person, living or dead, involved in the Gein affair; indeed, I knew very little of the details concerning that case and virtually nothing about Gein himself at the time."

Bloch's account of Hitchcock's purchase of Psycho is quite revealing. Bloch received $6,250, Hitchcock got Psycho, and the rest is history. Bloch writes: "From time to time people come to me and volunteer the information that after seeing the film they were unable to take a shower. I can only tell them that they're lucky I didn't kill off my victim on a toilet seat."

In 1960, the state of Marian's deteriorating health was a factor in Bloch's moving the family to Los Angeles. There he would remain for the rest of his life. More books came out, Bloch began writing scripts for TV and movies, but it certain terms, Psycho represented the pinnacle of Robert Bloch's literary career.

Life in Los Angeles put a strain on Bloch's marriage and, in 1963, they were divorced. Soon after, Bloch met Eleanor Alexander, whom he subsequently married. During the 1960s, Bloch's stories could be seen on TV in "Thriller," more Hitchcock specials and "Star Trek."

At the 1975 World Fantasy Convention held in Providence, Rhode Island, Robert Bloch was given the first Life Achievement Award. "It came in the form of a bust of HPL, done in Easter Island style... All I could come up with by way of an acceptance was, 'I haven't had so much fun since the day the rats ate my baby sister.'" Other awards followed, but Bloch realized that they were minor achievements.

He continued to write almost up to the day of his death of cancer on September 25, 1994. His final book was an autobiography, Once Around the Bloch.

This essay originally appeared in Badger Books Quarterly (Fall 1998), as part of that magazine's Wisconsin Historic Author series. This essay will be published in book form in the forthcoming Famous Wisconsin Authors to be published by Badger Books in early 2002. Famous Wisconsin Authors will contain essays about a number of Wisconsin authors, including Clifford D. Simak, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Peter Straub. Mr. Roberts is the editor and publisher of White Hawk Press. In addition to writing his own poetry and fiction, Mr. Roberts is the editor of a two volume collection of essays regarding the works of August Derleth, entitled Return to Derleth: Selected Essays. This essay is copyright © 1998 by James P. Roberts, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of James P. Roberts and Marv Balousek.