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Essays

PRECURSORS OF PSYCHO
The Early Crime Novels of Robert Bloch

The Scarf
Spiderweb
The Kidnaper
The Will To Kill
Shooting Star

Randall D. Larson


Over the course of nearly fifty years of professional writing, Robert Bloch dabbled in a great many types of fiction -- fantasy, suspense, science fiction, humor, and more; but it is apparent that his most successful forte is that of psychological horror fiction, and he has come to be recognized as a modern master of the genre.

The period of 1945-1960 may be regarded as Bloch's most profoundly interesting period. After starting out with dozens of Lovecraft-inspired horror stories for Weird Tales and related magazines in the 1930s, after 1945 and the publication of "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" Bloch finally developed his own literary voice, one that emphasized the horror of humankind over the dread of the cosmos. The true monsters were not the ancient lumbering creatures that answered the call of Cthulhu and of Nyarlathotep, nor the mysterious denizens of outre planets or the embodied curses of history. They were the everyday Joes and Jills we passed on our way to the corner grocery store, who shared the bar with at Lou's Diner over on 8th Street... who perhaps even lived in our neighborhood. The evils of humanity inspired Bloch to write his best work and create fiction that surpassed the fantastic entertainments of his Weird Tales days, that emphasized a point of view, an observation of humankind that unraveled the corruption of the contemporary evildoers among us and held their corruption up to the light of reason to see what made it tick.

While his short stories continued to dabble in every possible aspect of fantasy fiction, from weird terror to farcical humor, science fiction to straight mystery, Bloch's novels -- from his first in 1947, culminating with Psycho in 1959 and continuing through his modern work of the 1990's, Bloch has concentrated for the most part on nonfantastic crime and the inner workings of the criminal mind. In the five novels that preceded Psycho Bloch honed his skills at creating effective and realistic psychologies and painting a gruesome and pitiful portrait of the psychopath, the compulsive serial killer, the narcissistic stealer of lives.

"This is a thread that runs through all of my mystery/suspense fiction," Bloch has pointed out. "The terrible inability to understand the irrational behavior of certain human beings, what is it that impels that sometime senseless sadistic cruelty, and I tried to familiarize myself with it because I can recognize that, deep down within, there are certain of those aspects within myself which I probably manage to exorcise by way of the typewriter."

Bloch maintains that his primary purpose as a writer is to entertain, and that is the attribute that stands out most in his work. His varied and versatile stories have as their most obvious common denominator a compelling capacity to take the reader for a roller-coaster ride full of twists and turns, amusements and fascinations and the frequent grip of some bony fingered surprise; ultimately to be left with a good feeling of pleasant diversion. Bloch's early novels demonstrate this quality from the start. Avoiding a flamboyant writing style, their words run smoothly, often employing deft word-association to link divergent thoughts and sentences, frequently injecting a pun into the most apprehensive of moments.

But there's much more to Bloch's writing than simple entertainment. Beneath the surface, there's a very conscious awareness of the mechanics of fear and a perceptive proclivity for examining the violence inherent in all human beings. Bloch examines the qualities of good and evil found in all people -- especially the evil found in the seemingly normal people among us. And this is the true source of Bloch's brand of horror: the Devil doesn't have horns and red underwear, and he doesn't wave a pitchfork. He looks just like that guy sitting next to you.

"I'm primarily concerned with making a distinction between good and evil," Bloch told one interviewer, "and, in passing, making a personal statement, which I don't expect others to necessarily accept. As a writer, though, I think it's important to espouse a particular point of view. To depict something without expressing a personal opinion is mere reporting, and refusal to take a stand is an admission to irresponsibility for one's own acts."

The Scarf

The Scarf When Robert Bloch decided to write a novel in 1947, he chose to explore the psychological realm of the mass murderer. Bloch personal studies in the realm of practical psychology has given him a keen insight into the processes of the abnormal human mind, and with its use in "The Scarf," Robert Bloch found the literary niche he could comfortably call his own. The added length afforded by a novel gave Bloch the chance to explore the psychotic mind of a woman killer in an almost leisurely fashion. Not bound to the limitations of the short story, he could take the time to expose the workings of his murderer's mind slowly, delicately, while at the same time maintaining a fast-paced narrative climaxed frequently by the kind of hammer-blows of sudden shock Bloch accomplished so well in his short stories. He was able to delineate his characters with complete psychological histories, backgrounds, motivations, cause-and-effects. Where his short stories were frequently ending-driven (that is, the stories were geared and developed toward a certain predisposed punch-line ending) Bloch's novels are character-driven, build around the development of a flesh-and-blood personality.

"The Scarf" tells the disturbing story of Daniel Morley, a young writer who achieves success as a novelist and, eventually, a Hollywood screenwriter. Bloch maintains a first-person narrative throughout the novel which makes Daniel Morley quite real to the reader: his thoughts become our thoughts and, in effect, we step into the characterization.

He's not a very pleasant character to be. On the surface level, Morley is an average guy; it's what's deeper down that's abnormal. Bloch has done his psychiatric homework and has succeeded in creating an intricate and complex character. In this case, we have an intricate and complex character who happens to kill women. Frequently.

But Daniel Morley does not kill in the random, eagerly chaotic manner of the mindless knifers of today's splatter movies. Dan Morley is no killing machine. He's a disturbed human being whose abnormal way of looking at things chooses the outlet of murder as a solution to conflict. Dan Morley is no casual slayer. He is aware of his actions and reflects on them considerably throughout the course of the narrative as well as in a series of excerpts from "The Black Notebook," a diary he keeps and into which he tries to work out his problems. We realize early on that Dan Morley is an unhappy killer -- as with all of Bloch's villains, Dan Morley's actions do not fulfill him; instead they torment him, give him vivid nightmares. Bloch does not glamorize Morley's actions.

After going through a number of girlfriends -- their relationships ending abruptly upon the constricted knot of his scarf -- Morley becomes a writer. Unable to think up original stories, he writes about what he knows best: his women. Invariably, he vents his anger and frustration with them in his novels, until that vehemence becomes too much to contain with typewriter and paper and only the scarf is able to quench his violent rage. The process begins with the novel, when Morley vents his anxiety via the typewriter. Unable to write about people he hasn't experienced, Morley is force to write about the women he's known -- and, recently, killed. Women don't just become characters in his stories, they become characters in his mind as well. Morley has no problem killing something that, to him, is not real. Once the woman are characters in his book, they are likewise characters in his mind -- non-persons. Fodder for the murderous compulsions played out on the red scarf.

It's the scarf that, ironically, leads to Morley's downfall. He is captured in the act of a murder attempt to sent to prison, where he decides to occupy his time writing an autobiography which, like the novels that preceded the deaths of his various girlfriends, seems a prelude to his own ultimate suicide. When Bloch revised "The Scarf" for its 1966 paperback rerelease, he provided a stronger ending with a slight plot twist at the end and a stronger denouement. The rewritten version also tightens up the narrative by adding a few scenes deleted by the 1947 editor (including a dream sequence in which Morley fantasizes climbing a rooftop and shooting people at random, which the editor expunged as being "too wild") and eliminates outdated slang and jargon.

Spiderweb

Spiderweb Bloch's second novel, "Spiderweb," lacked the psychological profile of "The Scarf." Published early in 1954, it told the story of Eddie Haines, a down-and-out actor/announcer who becomes the tool of a fraudulent psychiatric consultation racket. Haines, like Dan Morley, comes from a background of aggression. Although where Morley is delineated with careful psychological structure, Eddie Haines is given a rather contrived "red haze" that comes over him when he gets too angry, bringing out a killer instinct.

Eddie Haines is not the compulsive psychopath of "The Scarf." Rather, he's the temperamental but honest drifter who falls victim to the malevolent schemes of the conniving Professor Hermann, who fashions him into a suave psychiatric consultant helping many of Hollywood's finest -- out of their money. Hermann is the typical criminal mastermind, almost comic-bookish, who plans everything with no margin for error, melodramatically dominating everyone with whom he comes in contact. Eddie Haines is the fly in Hermann's spiderweb, stuck fast, unable to escape due to a murder rap Hermann holds over him.

"Spiderweb" is noteworthy in at least one respect. Despite a somewhat lackluster storyline, the novel accomplishes some of Bloch's best shock moments, which will become characteristic if his style in later books -- words chosen carefully and lined up in short order, leading the reader leisurely along, unaware of the looming punch-line, as in this night scene:

The frogs croaked a triumphant chorus as I walked over to the iron cistern cover, bent down and reached for the ring in the center. It was heavy. I tugged and I had trouble. I couldn't seem to move my shoulder. That's because something was holding it back, gripping it tightly in restraint.

I glanced around at my shoulder and saw what rested there. It was a hand....

It's an effective shock, in a style Bloch will use frequently in other novels. Later, when a sympathetic secretary fails to show up for a pre-arranged meeting, Eddie returns to the house to find her, but finds instead another of Bloch's memorable shocks:

Humming. Humming from the corner. Something huge and white and gleaming, something that hummed and purred as it crouched next to the refrigerator. I walked over to the deep-freeze. tugged the handle, raised the lid of the freezer chest.

I saw the packages wrapped in heavy preserving paper -- six of them. I lifted out the top one, the round one. I unwrapped Miss Bauer's head.

It's a good jolt. Bloch accomplishes this sort of shock adroitly through the use of an unassuming, step-by-step narrative, giving no clue of anticipation. This is the kind of unexpected, horrific surprise that Bloch accomplishes, over and over again in his novels and stories, and it constantly works. It's Bloch's fist reaching through the typewriter and out the printed pages to grab the reader suddenly by the collar. Despite an otherwise humdrum storyline, "Spiderweb" develops these shocks effectively.

The Kidnaper

The Kidnaper "The Kidnaper," Bloch's third novel, was published in 1954 by Lion Pocketbooks. It met with little critical favor, and disappeared until a 1987. Like "The Scarf," this novel was told in the first person by a ruthless villain; in fact, all of Bloch's novels up until Psycho were written in the first person.

In "The Kidnaper," Steve Collins is the archetypal Bloch villain, similar to the many conniving, manipulating drifters and transients who frequent Bloch's stories and novels. Collins had a rotten childhood and possesses a rotten temper. All he's interested in doing is to make lots of money and settle down somewhere; though he occasionally realizes, deep inside, that's not what he really wants either but it's a good-enough cop-out for now. He doesn't care about anybody else; he's always a schemer, always looking out for Number One. He's a taker. He uses people to get what he wants, lying to them, deceiving them, manipulating them for his own ends. When Collins meets, and beds, naive Mary Adams, he is quick to dominate her verbally, taking advantage of her loneliness and meek submission, always scheming through their conversation on how he can use Mary's employment as a maid for the wealthy Warren family to his own advantage.

Mary Adams, on the other hand, is overly naive and trusting. She has a great desire to be loved, so great that it prohibits her from realizing the kind of person Collins really is. Because of her careless naivete, Mary never becomes a fully sympathetic character. She is not so much taken in by Steve as she allows herself to be taken in by him; indeed, she jumps headlong into his scheming and allows her unspecified ethics to be compromised in order not to lose him. Mary drowns her conscience in her desire for Steve.

Nor is she entirely guiltless outside of her naivete. She share's Steve perversion toward sadism. Even though she is introduced as a rather virginal woman, during their first lovemaking session, Steve realizes she shares his fervor for S&M (it's hardly coincidental that their initials -- Steve & Mary -- are identical to their sexual passion). Their relationship is quickly established and consummated. Steve dominates her, verbally and sexually; she submits unquestioningly and finds even a sick pleasure in his abuse.

The kidnapping is accomplished as planned until the little girl is accidentally killed. In a rare and ironic moment of sympathy, Collins loosens the ropes ties around the girl. When she opens the car door in an attempt to escape but, blindfolded, falls out of the car when the door swings open and strikes her head on the hard ground. The blow kills her.

It's a powerful moment written in Bloch's sledgehammer style, and it shocks us as much as it does Collins. It wasn't in the plan; hadn't been part of his scheme. But while to us it's an awful tragedy, to Collins it's only an unpleasant complication, an inconvenience.

Initially he keeps the child's death a secret from Mary and ditches the drum at a nearby city dump. Collins continues with the ransom demand, and is paid in cash for the girl's return. Collins seems unconcerned with the fact that Shirley Mae is in unlikely returnable condition, sealed up inside that oil drum. Nonetheless, Collins arranges a phony pick-up point for the girl's father.

Bloch creates a poignant moment here, the single moment in the novel in which the reader is allowed to step back, away from the cruel personality of Steve Collins, and look objectively at the circumstances. Bloch accomplishes this very effectively without intruding upon the narrative with verbose soliloquy, but with merely a statement from Mary, wondering what Mr. Warren will think when he shows up, expecting to find Shirley Mae. It lasts only a moment, but the image of Warren -- standing all by himself in the crossroads, waiting for his daughter to be returned from the kidnapers, glancing repeatedly at his wristwatch, staring up and down the lonely stretch of highway, waiting and wondering and waiting some more as the time grows later and later until that awful pang of realization that Shirley Mae isn't coming home -- it's a sympathetic image that lingers in our minds. Even though we never really meet Raymond E. Warren, except on the other end of Steve's phone calls, we feel his heartbreak in this momentary tableau, and that feeling is important to balance the cruelty of Steve Collins, in whose shoes we're walking the rest of the time.

In the end, when Collins turns the corner from kidnaper to murderer and is about to repeat the offense on Mary -- who finally wises up and splits the scene, returning soon with copious amounts of law enforcement, Collins is forced from the cabin at gunpoint. The sheriff calls him out: "That's right, Collins! Come on out -- we want to see what a mad beast looks like." Steve raises his hands and steps out onto the porch. "Take a good look," he grins.

And there the novel ends. But even here it gives us another lasting image, that of a mad beast, a ravening carnivore wreaking havoc on poor little girls. That's how the community has seen Steve Collins, and quite understandably, by virtue of his actions. But it's not really an apt picture. Certainly, Steve's attitude and actions were horrendous and animalistic; but after experiencing 128 pages in Steve Collin's shoes --and in his mind -- we realize it isn't so. He's only a human being. With a certain amount of deviant problems, that's true, but he's not some lycanthropic vampire fanging his way across the countryside. He's only a human being in need of help, closely related to you and I.

That's the true terror of "The Kidnaper." He could be right beside us.

The Will To Kill

The Will To Kill In telling the story of Tom Kendall, a likeable guy besieged by blackouts and temporary amnesia who wonders if he's a Jack-the-Ripper-like murderer, "The Will to Kill" (1954) is more than just an effective psychological thriller. It's also a very well-written and well-plotted whodunit; not without its share of sometimes-contrived red-herrings, but for the most part an engrossing and realistic story described by some of the best writing Bloch has done.

Concerned that he may be a serial killer whose deeds are masked from memory by his blackouts, Kendall tries to discover the truth about the murders... and himself. His trail eventually leads to the home of wealthy lawyer Anthony Mingo, whose unhealthy passion for private sadism makes him a likely suspect. In a very effective scene at Mingo's home, Bloch provides a visual thematic underscore for the confrontation between Kendall and Mingo. Kendall is shown two episodes of the silent film, WAXWORKS (Mingo is also an old movie buff), and during the atmospheric scenes of Ivan the Terrible, Tom accuses Mingo of hiring Joe Calgary to procure girls like Trixie to participate in his sadistic passions. As the Jack the Ripper episode of WAXWORKS flashes on the small screen, Tom accuses Mingo of murdering Calgary in order to avoid blackmail over his secret passion. The movie ends and the lights come up; so does Mingo, who holds a gun. Tom manages to acquire possession of it, and forces Mingo to show him Calgary's body, walled up in the cellar, Cask of Amontillado-style. Tom holds Mingo for the police; a sick man whose interests in famous murders have finally led to his imitating them; but he is not the ripper. Finally, in another blackout that ironically provides him with answers instead of questions, Tom finds all the pieces fallen together, and he confronts the ripper in a climactic denouement that explains all.

The episode with Anthony Mingo is almost like a story-within-a-story. Its's a little psychological thriller with its own beginning, middle and end. with its own plausible psychological explanation. It's also another indication of Bloch's growing fascination with Hollywood and nostalgia for silent movies. The method of Mingo's attempts to conceal the body reinforce Bloch's admiration of Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Will To Kill" remains a powerful novel even by contemporary standards. It doesn't suffer from outdated jargon, as the original version of "The Scarf" did; it remains more positive and up-beat than the first-person accounts of malignant villains in "The Scarf" and "The Kidnaper," and doesn't suffer from the muddled and cartoonish complexities of "Spiderweb." It's a thoroughly entertaining mystery, almost Hitchcockian in places. The narrative is crisp and clean, always moving, coasting, never static.

Shooting Star

Shooting Star "Shooting Star," published in 1958, was another whodunnit. about the murder of a number of Hollywood movie stars, and while it's an engrossing mystery, it remains fairly routine. Even Bloch's narrative style and word-associations lack the vigor of the previous novel. What is interesting is Bloch's handling of the Raymond Chandler type of detective mystery. Bloch's Mark Clayburn becomes the equivalent to Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade; a literary agent moonlighting as a private eye. Clayburn is hired by a movie producer to investigate the murder of a comedy star, which naturally submerges him in a dangerous world where witnesses and suspects disappear and Clayburn is threatened by the unknown killer himself. (One of the suspects, another movie producer, mentions among his competitors one Sam Hague, who was Dan Morley's producer in "The Scarf," an subtle in-joke on Bloch's part!).

When Clayburn finally confronts the killer, Bloch maintains the moral tone that has colored all of his treatments of villains: murder is not sweet and though some embrace it as an easy solution to conflict, it does not leave them fulfilled, as the killer tells Tom Kendall at the end of "The Will To Kill:" "I felt dirty inside. You don't know what it's like, do you? To feel dirty. To feel murder crawling around in your stomach, making you gag and throw up. I've felt that way ever since the beginning." [ch. 16].

"Shooting Star" further reinforces Bloch's literary love affair with Hollywood, although in this case it is more than a simple location or a milieu used as a backdrop; it takes on a character of its own. Bloch takes advantage of his chosen milieu to make observations about the personalities who people his locale. In "Shooting Star" it's Hollywood; in his other novels Bloch finds other areas in which to convey his observations about humankind. Above the murder mystery, above the brutal pessimism which occasionally laces his narrative, Bloch's psychological novels of the 50's are primarily interested in people. There are moments that stand out in the midst of the unpleasantness of crime and murder and psychopathy; real people exist and Bloch calls them to our attention. In spite of his preoccupation with villainy and human violence, Bloch still remembers the individual.

Robert Bloch has nourished -- and been nourished by-- the fantasy and horror genre for fifty years, and he has become one of its greatest entertainers. This is the attribute, more than any other, that Bloch feels the most secure with. "I want only to entertain," he said. "I've never had any notion of doing anything more than that. If I inject a personal message this is still a form of entertainment rather than an artistic endeavor."

In a notable juxtaposition to where he started, in the midst of H.P. Lovecraft's "horror of the unknown," Bloch has gone on to create a more potent "horror of the known:" exploring the fear of the normal, the everyday, the taken-for-granted. While on the surface level, Bloch may be primarily entertaining, it becomes apparent that, taken as a whole, Bloch's early crime thrillers (as with his other types of fiction) offer something beyond mere entertainment. They maintain the perceptive viewpoints of a writer who has something to say about the world we live in. Beneath the surface, beyond the often-frolicsome narration, the carefully-crafted psychological character portraits and the skillfully-launched punch-lines, Bloch is expressing his own personal sense of horror at the viciousness of mankind.

It's this private sense of horror that, moreso than his fanciful stories of the supernatural, reveals the themes in Bloch's fiction. Bloch himself; Bloch the human being, with the convictions and concerns infused from a lifetime of observing others. In the final analysis, what Bloch is writing is nearly always a morality piece. Not only in his frequent explorations of themes of good and evil, but in the underlying depth of thought that lies behind the horrors and fantasies of his fiction. It's a style and an attitude that would reach their pinnacle the following year in Psycho and would continue through later books like "Night-World," "American Gothic," "Night of the Ripper," "Lori" and "Psycho House." Where his short stories emphasize the punch-like shock endings, the ironic or shattering denouement, the comic wit amid horrific happenings, it is in his novels -- and especially those early handful of books discussed here -- that Bloch becomes the most perceptive. They expose Bloch himself; Bloch the human being, with the convictions and concerns infused from a lifetime of observing others. In the final analysis, what Bloch is writing is nearly always a morality piece. Not only in his frequent explorations of themes of good and evil, but in the underlying depth of thought that lies behind the horrors and fantasies of his fiction.

This essay was originally published in The Scream Factory #11 (1993).

The former editor/publisher of CinemaScore, CineFan, and Threshold of Fantasy magazines, Randall D. Larson has written 8 books and more than 200 articles for fantasy, fire service, public safety, cinema, and motion picture music periodicals, books, CD booklets, and Web sites. Larson is currently the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine (public safety communications and response), and a senior editor for Soundtrack magazine. Avoiding spare time at all costs, Larson is also a writer for mania.com while maintaining a full-time career in the field of emergency services communications.

Larson is also the author of three of the major reference books on Robert Bloch and his writings -- a book of collected interviews, a readers' guide, and a detailed bibliography, all as discussed on the FAQ page. These books may be ordered from Larson directly.

Mr. Larson can be contacted at larsonrdl@aol.com.