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BHS: The majority of your writing has been concerning the darker side of human nature. Why is this? RB: Curiosity. I've never been able to understand the fascination and delight that some people take in inflicting pain, be it real or emotional, injuring or killing other people or animals. That's why a lot of my stories are written from the point of view of the psychopaths; it helps me understand them better. BHS: What do you think goes into making up a good horror story? RB: Fear is the main thing. Only it has to be a fear that is close to reality, something that people can recognize as part of the world around them. The more familiar, the stronger it is.
If you use something that is different, it has to fit into the inner story-logic and rationale that you've established. The closer you can get to reality, the better off you are.
Lovecraft was a prime example. He took the discovery of Pluto, of a new planet in mankind's universe, and built a part of his mythos from it. That's what he used as a basis to build fear on.
It's instinctive for people to be afraid of the dark, pain, or the possibility of death or injury. In today's society that can include the violence on the streets.
After that it is all a matter of the writer's technique and style.
BHS: Do you have any particular writing techniques you use when you're working? RB: I generally try to have an ending in mind. Then I try to do some sort of a short synopsis. I like to know where it is that I'm going when I tell a story and how I'm going to get there. I certainly wouldn't think of taking a trip without a map or a destination in mind. If it's a novel rather than short fiction that just means that there are more byways and interchanges to explore. BHS: One of your novels is called Lori, isn't it? RB: Right. BHS: How would you describe it? RB: Lori started out as a charming little story about a young girl and her teddy bear. Somewhere along the line we lost the teddy bear, the girl grew up, and people started trying to kill her. BHS: I understand that the publisher is marketing it as horror. RB: That's what I've been told. I'd call it a mystery suspense story with elements of both science fiction and fantasy. BHS: As I understand it, H.P. Lovecraft was the one who got you started as a writer. RB: It certainly was. There wouldn't have been a first story if it hadn't been for Lovecraft.
In excerpts from my recently written autobiography I've detailed how teenage correspondence with Lovecraft encouraged me to attempt writing fantasy and supernatural stories for Weird Tales.
BHS: What about science fiction? RB: That came later. So did the humorous efforts – at least those I consciously intended to be humorous. Some of the serious stories were pretty funny, but I didn't know it at the time. BHS: When did you become an advertising copywriter? RB: Shortly after I discovered that a wife and child require daily supplies of food on a year-round basis. BHS: But you continued to write fiction on the side? RB: And on the job. During my years of incarceration at the advertising agency I wrote well over a hundred stories and a radio series, Stay Tuned For Terror. Many of the thirty-nine shows I scripted were adapted from the yarns I'd written for Weird Tales. The magazine generously advertised and promoted this program, which was terminated abruptly at the end of the first season when the producer died in a tragic crash of his private plane. BHS: So you went back to writing for print? RB: I'd never had sense enough to stop. Before leaving advertising in 1953 to resume a full time career of starvation, I'd sold my first two mystery-suspense novels, The Scarf and Spiderweb. Over the next five years I wrote articles, columns, another hundred or so short stories and novelettes, plus three more novels. Way back in 1948 I'd been guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto, and a decade later, won a Hugo Award for a short story. Now, as 1959 loomed, I'd already logged a quarter century as an active professional writer. But about the only effort I was usually identified with was a little opus entitled "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," which had first appeared in Weird Tales for July 1943. BHS: Then came Psycho. RB: And still keeps coming even today, I'm afraid. BHS: Do you ever get tired of having people ask about Psycho rather than your other work? RB: Not tired, just used to it. After a certain point you have to develop a certain amount of scar tissue, otherwise you're going to bleed to death. Actually, if you've got some questions about Psycho, go right ahead and ask them. I don't mind. BHS: Okay. The popular belief is that you based Psycho on an actual killer. Is this true? RB: No, it isn't. The case they're taking about is the Ed Gein case in Wisconsin. I based Psycho on that situation rather than on Gein. I read accounts of the case in the newspaper and the whole idea fascinated me; that someone living in a small town could indulge in what we've come to call serial killings without any of his neighbors being any the wiser.
I sat down and tried to figure out how this could happen. The result was a novel that I called Psycho Years later I discovered that my completely imaginary Norman Bates and the accused killer actually had a lot in common. But I didn't use Gein as a model.
BHS: When you sold the movie rights on Psycho you didn't have any idea that it was Hitchcock who was buying them? RB: That's right. It was what was called a blind buy. I think if they'd had their eyes open they would have passed. MCA refused to tell either my agent or me who it was. I think it was to keep us from raising the price. BHS: Did you ever actually meet with Hitchcock? RB: Yes, but not until after the filming was completed. By that time I was living on the West Coast. Hitchcock knew and invited me to a screening of the rough-cut. He sat behind me, along with Janet Leigh and Bernard Herrman, the composer.
After it was over, he introduced himself and asked "What do you think?" I told him, "Sir, it will either be your greatest success or the biggest bomb you have ever made!"
BHS: What did you think of the sequels? RB: Haven't seen either one of them, although I did see copies of the scripts. Most of what I hear about any sequels is strictly hearsay. Like the reports of a Psycho IV being made. The only thing that I know about it is that someone had seen a mention of it in the newspaper. BHS: Any particular reason that you didn't see them? RB: Because I'm rather squeamish by nature, when it comes to excessive violence. Since I don't commit it myself on paper I don't particularly care to see it done by others on the screen. BHS: You wrote your own sequel to your original novel, fittingly called Psycho II, which had nothing at all to do with the movies. Has there been any sort of film interest in the novel? RB: Not that I know of. But it wouldn't do any good. When my agent sold the theatrical rights to the first book, it included all rights to the Psycho concept in perpetuity. So I get nothing from any of the sequels, be it Psycho II, III, IV, XVIII, LVI, or whatever. I also get nothing from any t-shirts, postcards, shower curtains, or any of the other merchandising, BHS: They tried to spin a television series off from the movies, didn't they? RB: That's what I understand. I think it was called The Bates Motel. I didn't see that one either. When I heard about the idea I thought it was foredoomed and it was. BHS: Did your initial move to the West Coast to write for television and feature films have anything to do with the movie version of Psycho? RB: No, my move had nothing to do with the film. It was still being shot when I first came out to California in October, 1959. A writer friend of mine had gotten me an invitation to write an episode of a syndicated show called Lock Up.
The whole idea was presented to me as a no-lose proposition. My friend told the show's producer that if they didn't like the script I turned in, he would write one in its place.
The worst that I would get out of the deal was what amounted to a three-week paid vacation. I'd done radio scripts for years but I didn't know if I could really write for television; this seemed like a good way to find out.
BHS: You'd already worked extensively in radio. Did you do anything special for your first venture into television scripting? RB: I didn't look at any of my friend's scripts, or at anyone else's for that matter. I had an idea of the sort of story I wanted to write. So I got one script from the show itself, mainly to act as a guideline. The producers liked what they saw and asked for another and another. I ended up doing six in all. BHS: You mentioned that something odd had recently happened to you as a result of your earlier television writing. RB: [Laughs.] Yes, indeed. Back in 1959 one of the first scripts I wrote for the Lock Up series starred a young actor by the name of Macdonald Carey. He also ended up starring in one of the first Thriller scripts that I did. We never met at the time and in the ensuing years our paths never crossed.
Then a week ago (July 1989), I was at an autographing for Lori over in Brentwood. Here I am minding my own business and this man walks up and sits down next to me and says, "Hello, my name is Macdonald Carey."
He had heard that I was going to be there and wanted to meet me. I was really quite flattered that he had taken the trouble. Since I don't watch the daytime soaps I really had no idea what he'd been doing all these years. [Carey has starred for over twenty years on the daily soap opera Days of Our Lives]. He's a poet as well and gave me a copy of his third book of published poetry.
BHS: If I recall correctly you did three scripts for the original Star Trek television series: "What Are Little Girls Made Of," "Catspaw," and "A Wolf in the Fold." RB: That's correct. BHS: Did the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation approach you about writing for the series? RB: They certainly did. So far as I know I was the only writer who had worked on the original series that they invited back. I would have really liked to have done something for them, if just for sentimental reasons.
Unfortunately, I had to turn them down,. I was behind on finishing some novels that I was committed to doing and just didn't have the necessary time.
BHS: In the years since you broke in, how has writing for television changed? RB: It's a lot more difficult now. There was a time when you went in to see a producer or a story editor. They either liked what you suggested, offered you a story that they wanted adapted, or suggested one of your own that might fit.
Today you don't have anything like that situation. The surface may look the same, but there have been some major changes. With conglomerates and mergers, quite often the outfit you're writing for isn't owned by who you think it is. So instead of writing for one person you are writing for this vast committee, the majority of which are in New York while you're out in California. A judge and jury decide the fate of your work and you never see them no they you.
BHS: About the movies you've scripted: have you liked what finally reached the screen? RB: A little bit. There was around 20 minutes in Straightjacket that I was pleased with. Along with the first segment of Asylum. They shot them exactly the way I wrote them, which doesn't happen often. BHS: What projects are you working on? RB: I'm editing a two volume anthology of horror stories, with the help of Martin H. Greenberg. The working title is Psycho Paths.
I have also collaborated on a fantasy novel with Andre Norton. It's title is The Jeckyll Legacy, and it's a sequel to Stevenson's famous work. Tor is the publisher. That project came about after I contributed a short story to one of her Witch World collections.
Tor also publishes my next novel, Psycho House. I'll leave it to you to guess what that one's about.
BHS: Thank you for your time, Mr. Bloch. RB: You're quite welcome.
This interview originally appeared in Weird Tales 300 (Spring 1991), and was reprinted with the kind permission of Bradley H. Sinor. The webmaster also wishes to thank Warren Lapine and Angela Kessler of DNA Publications, current publishers of Weird Tales.
Webmaster's Note: Weird Tales 300 is an excellent issue which every Bloch fan should own. In addition to the above interview by Bradley H. Sinor, the issue features a second interview with Robert Bloch by Bob Morrish, an appreciation of Bloch by Hugh B. Cave, reprints of Bloch's short story and teleplay "Beetles," a reprint of Bloch and Henry Kuttner's short story "The Grab Bag," and an excerpt from Bloch's (then-forthcoming) autobiography.