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The Unofficial Robert Bloch Website

Essays

A Bloch Off The Old Chip

Steve Vertlieb

When most people think of Robert Bloch they understandably shudder. When I think of Robert Bloch I smile. I smile because I knew Robert for twenty-five years as a dear and treasured friend. My relationship with Bob actually began around 1961 unbeknownst to him. I had purchased a copy of a paperback anthology titled NIGHTMARES. Being a timid, unadventurous soul I immediately responded to the lurid promise inherent in the title. I sat up half the night in bed reading what would prove to be some of the most terrifying tales I'd ever imagined. I was hooked. Then came MORE NIGHTMARES, PLEASANT DREAMS, and YOURS TRULY, JACK THE RIPPER. I began scouring the bookstores for anything in print written by Robert Bloch.

Somewhere in that time frame a little opus called THRILLER appeared on NBC Television hosted by Boris Karloff. I was delighted when I realized that many of the most frightening episodes of the series had been written by none other than Robert Bloch. THE HUNGRY GLASS with William Shatner, some five years before he became everyone's favorite intergalactic Romeo, remains perhaps the finest hour of horror in the history of television. Adapted by Bloch for the series from his own short story THE HUNGRY HOUSE, there has seldom been as terrifying a story, either on the printed page or the motion picture screen.

I don't recall how I'd come by his home address in Los Angeles but early in 1970 I put fear aside, took typewriter key in hand and wrote the great man a letter. A short time later, to my shock and utter delight, I received a hand written letter back from the one and only Robert Bloch. Robert, it seemed, was a chronic letter writer. It was a sickness, really, but a sickness that I shared. What began as a "fannish" relationship, I suppose, slowly evolved into a mature and genuine friendship. The letters and post cards arrived and returned rapidly. No sooner would a letter from Bob arrive at my door then another would be posted back to him. So, it seemed, did his return as soon as mine arrived...in reverse order, of course.

Bob was very generous with his time. He often encouraged me to continue writing and share my work with him. As a writer of "weird poetry" at the time he was consistently generous in both his praise and encouragement of my work. He saw something in me that no one up to that time had ever seen or bothered to see. My heart raced with glee. Bob suggested I call him whenever the mood struck me and share my dreams, hopes and ambitions. I promised him that I would never abuse the privilege, and I never did. Whenever my telephone calls were received at the Bloch house Ellie Bloch would excitedly announce to Bob that I was on the phone. I often chuckled when I heard her say "Bob...Bob...it's Steve Vertlieb on the phone from Philadelphia. Then a pause...followed by a warm, friendly voice that always began "Weeelllll, Steve, how good to hear from you."

A few years later I made the first of several trips to Los Angeles. Bob insisted that he pick me up at my motel and be my guide through the landmarks and sights of Hollywood. On one occasion we drove proudly through the legendary gates of Paramount Pictures and visited George Pal at his office. Pal had been developing a teleplay for CBS Television based upon H.G. Wells' IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET and Bob was in the process of writing it for him. I couldn't have been happier that day standing inside the Paramount Studio lot with two of my heroes...George Pal and Robert Bloch. That moment still stands today among my happiest memories, as does the photograph of Pal, Bloch and I that hangs on my wall. Sadly, George Pal died suddenly of an apparent heart attack not long after that and the film project was never completed.

Later that evening my brother and I were invited to Bob's home in the Hollywood Hills for dinner. Bob showed me around the house and invited me into his office. There, on his desk, sat the old typewriter he used to write. Behind his desk were his bookshelves. As I looked over his collection I was astonished to see several books and magazines featuring my own literary efforts that he'd managed to save and display. To say that I was touched wouldn't begin to express the emotions I felt. Ellie prepared a lovely dinner for us and we sat by the fireplace into the evening, talking and drinking wine. I asked Ellie, I recall, what she felt about Bob's work and she said that she had never read any of his stories. After I recovered from my shock she explained that the husband she knew was a kind, sweet and gentle soul and that she preferred not to see that other side of him. Bob was indeed a kind, gentle soul but he also had a wicked and mildly depraved sense of humor, which he shared willingly with anyone in earshot. We laughed most of the evening.

Those are my memories of Bob Bloch. When he succumbed to cancerI spoke briefly with Ellie on the telephone. Her loss, she said, was too staggering to bear. "As much as you loved him, Steve, you didn't spend each and every moment of your life by his side," I remember her saying. "Just try to imagine what I feel," she cried. Soon after that she sold the house in the Hollywood Hills and moved back with her family somewhere in the mid-west, I believe. I tried on numerous occasions to track her down but to no avail. Still, my memories live on intact...memories of a brilliant writer, a caring correspondent, and a kind and gentle soul I was honored to call my friend.

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A published, award-winning writer, film historian, critic, archivist, and poet, Steve Vertlieb has been writing about motion pictures and symphonic film music in a variety of books, magazines, journals, and tabloids since 1969.

He penned the lead chapter in Avon Books' 1976 anthology on the original 1933 production of King Kong, The Girl in The Hairy Paw; co-authored My Memories of Mario Lanza, an affectionate remembrance of the famed tenor's boyhood on the streets of South Philadelphia; authored a lengthy study of Britain's gothic vampire films of the 1970's in Dracula: The First Hundred Years; and offered a major study of the relationship between director Alfred Hitchcock and his principal composer, Bernard Herrmann, for a special issue of Midnight Marquee Magazine. He wrote a provocative essay on the production of David O. Selznick's classic Portrait of Jennie for Cinematic Hauntings and contributed a touching, personal tribute to British composer, James Bernard, for the anthology Memories of Hammer.

He has also written columns, articles, and reviews for such publications as L'Incroyable Cinema in England, The Late Show, Black Oracle, Midnight Marquee, Home Viewer, and Cinemacabre, for which he contributed a celebrated column on the art of motion picture music. He served as Associate Editor and frequent contributor to New York's ground-breaking film tabloid, The Monster Times, and has enjoyed success as a poet in the pages of such magazines as Outer Darkness and Songs of Innocence.

Steve worked in Philadelphia television and radio for fourteen years as a film editor, cameraman, floor director, and announcer and lent his voice to an independent motion picture filmed in Maryland. He has appeared as a guest critic and lecturer on numerous television and radio programs, including the nationally syndicated series "Fresh Air," hosted by Terry Gross, and has lectured at Philadelphia's prestigious Museum of Art.

He has hosted a richly received personal appearance by Oscar-winning special effects genius, Ray Harryhausen; authored and presented a posthumous lifetime achievement award to legendary composer/conductor Bernard Herrmann; and served as announcer at a memorable film conference, introducing such luminaries as Janet Leigh, Patricia Hitchcock, and Roger Corman to a star-studded audience.

In 1981, he was awarded the M.A.F.C. trophy for Best Writer of the Year. Soon after, he was inducted into the Legion of Honor by The Chapel of Four Chaplains for his volunteer work, recording programming for the blind community. He currently contributes monthly film criticism to a popular Internet Web site. Among his many accolades are two letters of artistic admiration, received in 2002 and 2003, from former President William Jefferson Clinton.

This essay was written in March 2003, and appears here for the first time. It is copyright 2003 by Steve Vertlieb, and is printed here with his permission.