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Essays

Robert Bloch -- A Personal Remembrance

Randall D. Larson


The death of Robert Bloch on September 23, 1994, closed the door on a particularly fertile expanse of fantasy and horror literature. Although he wrote in many different fields, and as a result failed to generate the kind of loyal following that more consistent horrorists did, such as his mentor, H. P. Lovecraft. Bloch nonetheless accumulated generations of fans, and his ubiquitous stories demonstrated much of their author's values and considerations.

From his first short stories appearing in fanzines like Fantasy Tales in the 1930's to the poignant and movingly honest essay published in Omni magazine on the eve of his demise, Robert Bloch has maintained an honest approach to horror. Despite the often fantastic and speculative nature of much of his work, despite the gruesomely ironic and frequently hilarious turnplays of his stories, Robert Bloch is in almost every case weaving a morality play. It's pure and simple good versus evil, and rather than simply dabbling in the warplay, Bloch takes a stand and demonstrates time and time again that good is better than evil, and even if the world is rapidly going down a cesspool of violence and cruelty, there is beauty to be found in those who stand for the good things even in the midst of stagnation and ugliness.

More than the simple entertainer he claimed to be, Robert Bloch was a perceptive social critic, and his views, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, found their way into his stories and novels and screenplays. Most often, his frustration with the cruel capabilities of humankind generated the delightful horror stories that examined those cruelties. As Bloch often said in interviews, he managed to exorcise many of his personal fears by way of the typewriter -- holding them up to view in the literary light of day, and in so doing realizing that perhaps they weren't so frightening after all.

From his initial dabbling in Lovecraftiana and Egyptology and other weird horrors tales of the '30s, through his start in crime fiction in the '40s and his furious, often humorous science fiction tales of the '50s on into his work for the silver screen and the boob tube in the '60s and '70s, Robert Bloch has been examining horror and terror with the down-to-earth perception of an armchair sociologist. At the same time he has been sharing those views with the gentlemanly grace of a fireside chat -- albeit occasionally punctuated with a firm axe-chop or guillotine crash, as necessary.

It's perhaps Robert Bloch's easy-going nature that will be his most memorable facet. After the end credits have rolled into oblivion, after the book has been closed, those of us fortunate enough to have met or known Bob Bloch will remember the man behind the mayhem, the gentleman behind the grue, the friendly face behind the fear. Like most horror authors, Bloch's true persona shared nothing with the horrible happenings he described on page and screen. Bob was one of the nicest and friendliest persons one could ever hope to meet. His friendship as much as the literary products of his imagination left a significant mark on me.

My first encounter with Robert Bloch came in 1970 when, as a 17-year old sophomore in high school eager to start up my own fanzine, I wrote to him and humbly solicited an interview via mail. I included a longish set of rather naive questions -- I knew virtually nothing about him except that he wrote a book called Psycho which I had been mis-pronouncing for years as Fizz-ko but which had nonetheless scared the bellbottoms off of me in both print and film. (Speaking of mispronunciation, I similarly thought Bob's name was pronounced something like Bl?che until I finally asked him in a letter how it was pronounced. He replied "as if it were spelled with a 'k';" I immediately addressed my next letter to "Mr. Kloch." Thus was I early on infected by Bloch's pun-gent sense of humor, much to the detriment of my future friends!).

Back to the 17 year old. My letter to Robert Bloch was one of several I sent out to authors and artists whose names I gleaned from letter pages in other fanzines, like Leland Sapiro's Riverside Quarterly, which is where I found Bloch's. But Bob's letter was the first I got back -- the first letter I'd ever received from a celebrity, for gosh sakes! -- and boy did it make my day. Not only was I thrilled to hear from a Real Professional Writer, but I had my first real-life interview for my new fanzine. Color me a happy camper.

Despite the naivete with which many of my questions were formulated -- most of which he'd certainly responded to dozens of times before -- Bob patiently and respectfully conveyed the answers. A correspondence ensued over the next 25 years, and as I got to know more about Bob I also got to know more about his writing. I discovered Weird Tales and Lovecraft while searching for Bob's early work, and fell in love with the Cthulhu Mythos and related brands of weird terror stories. I learned the definition of psychological terror and began a frequent acquaintance with Bob's crime and suspense fiction. I convulsed over the punch-line denouements of many of his tales of macabre justice.

I also took the liberty of bestowing upon Bob some of my own literary attempts, which met with encouragement. Bob gave me the best advice I'd ever heard as a would-be writer: constant reading and constant writing are the keys to developing oneself as a writer, and I've spent the next quarter century adopting his advice and learning how to make magic with words.

At one point Bob mentioned a bibliography of his work which had been done in England in the 1960's. Immediately I was inspired to attempt an update -- my interests in publishing, my growing admiration of Bob's work, and the simple fact of his accessibility to me, resulted in two editions of The Robert Bloch Fanzine in 1972-73, a bibliography supplemented by a compiled interview, bio, and several fannish articles about Bob. My ensuing short story, "The Thing That Collected Bloch" was not so much a humorous parody of his work -- brimming with puns on Bob's story titles -- as a forthright tribute to Bob and his writing. My interest in Bob's work peaked in The Reader's Guide to Robert Bloch, a comprehensive analytical examination of Bob's literary career, published in 1984. The fanzine interview found its match in The Robert Bloch Companion, a collection of two dozen interviews all edited together into a topological whole, while my original bibliography resulted in The Complete Robert Bloch, a book-length bibliography illustrated by reproductions of hundreds of Bob's book and magazine covers that Bob generously allowed me to inspect and photograph in his own home. He even let me handle such grail-like rarities as that 1937 issue of Weird Tales that published his first professional story. Any fingerprints I may have left on its pages were surely distorted by goose bumps.

I mention all of this not to say that I did this or I did that, but to stress how unconditionally supportive Bob was in these ventures, and how much of a mark he put on this growing young teenager. Despite numerous experiences of having had his generous labors ripped off by other well-meaning fans who solicited interviews, bibliographical data and other time-consuming information but who never got around to publishing the books and articles they'd promised, Bob generously provided me his time and energy, enduring dozens of interviews and questions, granting me permissions to quote from letters and earlier interviews, providing me with continual bibliographical updates, and always encouraging my various writing endeavors, whether fiction or non. I'm grateful that I was able to return the investment of his effort with published works that furthered the collection and appreciation of his writing.

Robert Bloch was always a giver. He gave of his time -- at conventions he met with fans, he took time out of his busy schedule to answer fan letters, he continued writing articles for fanzines, without payment, even during the 1960s and '70s in the midst of writing for Hollywood. Bob remained a fan despite his own celebrity status, and never put himself above any one else. He gave of his talent -- anyone who's ever read any of his work on the page or on the screen can attest to that. Bob had a remarkable way with words, and the way his stories were written was often as entertaining as the stories themselves; a prevalence toward wordplay, remarkable stream-of-consciousness psychological portraits of his characters, and an honestly shocking narrative structure that allowed the unexpected to creep up on you, pouncing when least anticipated. And he gave of his beliefs, sharing them unassumingly yet uncompromisingly in the body of his life's work.

While Bob kept an open mind and was friendly to all, he maintained a steadfast value system which peppered his letters and his stories and novels. His commitment to the ideal of personal responsibility was a mainstay in his fiction and his interviews, a view which drove him to examine and evaluate in literary terms much of the horrors he found in the world around him. These horrors were not the eldritch monsters and alien creatures of his early fiction, they were more often the monsters and creatures that walked around in human skin, masquerading as that nice boy next door, or the friendly butcher down on Fiske Street, or that handsome young man selling the encyclopedias. Human beings, yet monsters all the same, as evidenced by the cruelties emblazoned across newspapers and television news screens. The true horror wasn't the manifestation of another dimension or an alien life form, it was the tendency toward violence and cruelty that existed in people than frightened Bob. That preoccupation led to his most effective work and culminated in the modern legend, Psycho. Even this enduring icon of his work is rooted in Bob's examination of human violence -- it was based on a true account of deranged midwestern serial killer Ed Gein.

Beyond this, though, Robert Bloch maintained a set of personal horrors from which he couldn't escape, even via the typewriter. Bob's personal horrors turned out to be the very ones that took him from us. While the monsters and psychopaths that inhabited his stories and novels could be, to an extent, controlled, their behavior studied and predicted, Bob's personal fears had to do with those things in the real world over which we have little control -- the relentless onslaught of aging, and the merciless ravages of disease, like the cancer that so suddenly overtook him and carried him off that quiet September Friday.

As Bob anticipated in his Omni essay, when death comes to visit, he doesn't leave alone. "But he won't take all of me with him, either," Bob wrote. "A part will still remain behind, until paper crumbles, film dissolves, and memories fade."

Robert Bloch's most perceptive analysis may well be his final one. He has indeed left behind some of his best attributes, in the pages of his fiction and essays, in the scripts to films which more often than not failed to achieve the potential with which they were written, in the numerous interviews which illuminated Bob's personality and persona, and, especially, in the memories of those who knew him.

Many of these memories were shared during a small memorial service held in Westwood on September 27th. Many of Bob's closest and most enduring friends shared their memories, their gratitude, and their love of and for Bob. In his own varied manner, Bob touched each and everyone of us. We hold within us the pleasure and the impression of knowing him -- and if that sounds trite, well, you just didn't know Bob. He had a way of leaving an impression, lending a hand, or supplying a role model many of his younger fans, such as myself, strove to emulate.

Bob Bloch remains behind in all of us. He may have gone elsewhere to concoct his cleverly perceptive stories, but much of his best efforts remain behind in the hearts and minds of his friends and his fans.

He has, indeed, left the Best of Robert Bloch with us.

Randall D. Larson
San Jose, California
November 5, 1994

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.