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||Robert Bloch (1917-1994) - also wrote as Collier Young|
American crime and suspense writer who acquired fame with his portrayals of psychopaths. Robert Bloch's writing career spanned seven decades of the 20th century. Bloch's best known character is Norman Bates from Psycho (1959), a novel which impact is deeply connected to Alfred Hitchcock's famous film version from 1960.
"I discovered, much to my surprise - and particularly if I was writing in the first person – that I could become a psychopath quite easily. I could think like one and I could devise a manner of unfortunate occurrences. So I probably gave up a flourishing, lucrative career as a mass murderer." (Robert Bloch in Faces of Fear by Douglas E. Winter, 1990)
Robert Bloch was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Raphael Bloch, a bank teller, and Stella Loeb, a schoolteacher and and social worker. Bloch's parents were of German-Jewish descent, but did not practice Judaism. In 1923 the family moved to Maywood and then to Milwaukee. At the age of nine, Block saw his first horror movie, The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, and slept for a long time afterwards with the light on. Weird Tales became his favorite reading. Bloch started writing stories while still in high school. His first appearance in print was a parody of H.P. Lovecraft, entitled 'The Thing', which he wrote for The Quill, his Lincoln High School literary magazine. Pretentious Press reprinted the work in 1993 in a limited edition of 85 signed copies. After graduating Bloch bought a secondhand typewriter. Bloch was seventeen when he sold his first story, 'The Feast in the Abbey', to Weird Tales magazine.
Due to the Depression Bloch could not find any other work; between 1934 and 1942 Bloch was a full time writer. He also did some stand-up night club work and sold gags to radio comedians. Many of his early stories show the influence of Edgar Allan Poe or especially of H.P. Lovecraft, with whom Bloch corresponded since 1932. "He merely praised what I did," Bloch said in an interview, "and if he made any criticisms, they were always couched as suggestions and largely were about factual matters."
Bloch's true first book was A Portfolio Of Some Rare And Exquisite Poetry By The Bard Of Bards, printed by Comet Publications in 1937 or 1938. Bloch published it under the pseudonym 'Sarcophagus W. Dribble', but his real name was given at the end of the text. Most of the fiction Bloch created between 1935 and 1938 referenced the Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. In spite of the writer's age, they also show psychological understanding of human nature. Bloch returned Cthulhu Mythos periodically, also as late as 1979, when Strange Eons appeared.
After Lovecraft's death in 1937, Bloch broadened the scope of
his fiction. His horror themes included voodoo ('Mother of Serpent's),
revenge ('The Mandarin's Canaries'), demonic possession (Fiddler's
Fee'), and black magic ('Return to the Sabbat'). Bloch's first science
fiction story, 'The Secret of the Observatory', was published in Amazing
Stories. Bloch also wrote humorous science fiction – he did not
know much about hard sciences and considered his work scientific
fantasy. By the mid-1940s he had gone through supernatural themes, and
he shifted his interest in psychology. In 1939 Bloch's self-consciously
modern and deliberately comic short story 'The Cloak' launched his
reputation as the most capable writer since Ambrose Bierce. His
humorous approach, derived from slapstick comedy, became an inseparable
part of his style. "Comedy and horror are opposite sides of the
same coin," he once said. Bloch commonly wrote a good pun for the last
line, and then built a story around it.
In the 1940s Bloch's fiction began to reflect his growing interest in the mind of psychopathic killers, who had entered after WW II widely at the scene of popular culture. In such films as George Waggner's The Wolf Man (1940), Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942) and Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), psychiatric theories played an important role in explaining the behaviour of the characters. 'Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper' (1943) is one of the most famous pieces about the forefather of all serial killers. The story was published in Weird Tales and has been reprinted in a number of anthologies. The narrator is John Carmody, a psychiatrist living in Chicago. He meets Sir Guy Hollis of the British Embassy. Hollis has a theory: he supposes that Jack the Ripper did not grow old and asks Carmody's help to capture the killer. In an alley Hollis finds out that his hunch was right. "Never mind the 'John",' I whispered, raising the knife. 'Just call me... Jack.' The adaptation of 'Yours Truly' for radio resulted in Bloch's own radio series, "Stay Tuned for Terror" in 1945. Bloch adapted for it thirty-nine of his stories.
In 1942 Bloch began to work at the Gustav Marx Advertising Agency, where he stayed for eleven years. His novels from the 1950s and '60s helped to break down the walls separating the horror and crime genres. The Scarf (1947), his first novel, was narrated by a young man turned into a serial strangler by a childhood trauma. The story begins with the eerie lines: "Fetish? You name it. All I know is that I've always had to have it with me..."
Several years passed before the appearance of his next books, but in 1954 Bloch published three novels. In 1959 he made his breakthrough with Psycho, when Hitchcock acquired the rights to the story of Norman Bates. Bloch was not involved in the film project, although he had already moved to Hollywood, where he had multiple assignments from various television companies. However, he was not allowed to write for five months when the Writers Guild had a strike. After the strike was over, he became a much used scriptwriter in television and film projects in the mystery, suspense, and horror genre. His first assignments were for the Macdonald Carey vehicle, "Lock-Up", but he soon wrote for "Thriller", "Star Trek", "Night Gallery," and from 1955 to 1961 "Alfred Hitchcock Presents".
Psycho depicts a seemingly normal small-town resident. Norman Bates, who runs a hotel, has a dual life as a psychotic murder, unsuspected by his neighbors, and ordinary member of the community. Bates reads a passage from Victor W. Von Hagen's The Revolt of the Incas, and has a "conversation" with his mother. Mary Crane arrives at the motel. She has stolen $40,000 and plans to meet her lover, Sam Loomis, in Fairvale. She decides to return the money, but is killed in the shower seemingly by a crazy old woman. Mary's sister Lila and the insurance investigator Milton Arborgast start to look for Mary. Arborgast is killed when he goes to question Norman. Lila contacts Sheriff Chambers who tells that Norman's mother died 20 years ago. Sam and Lila arrive at the motel. Mary finds the corpse of Mrs. Bates in the cellar. Sam rescues Lila. Norman is examined by Dr. Nicholas Steiner; his two personalities have fused, so that Mother is in charge. The story was based partly on the Ed Gein affair, where police on the trail of a missing woman were led to a Wisconsin farmhouse, and found parts from the bodies of fifteen middle-aged women. Gein kept the body of his long-dead mother in his house. Film sequels of Psycho: 1983, Psycho II, dir. by Richard Franklin; Psycho III, 1986, dir. by Anthony Perkins; Bates Motel, TV 1987, dir. by Richard Rothstein; Psycho IV: The Beginning, 1990, dir. by Mick Garis, cable network film. NOTE: Janet Leigh's book Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller (1995) chronicles the making of the first film.
Since 1959 Bloch produced several novels and nearly thirty collections of stories, scripts for films, and a number of teleplays. His low-budget films have been forgotten, but he also wrote for such noteworthy efforts as The Night Walker (1964), directed by William Castle and starring Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. In the story the widow of an executive, who was killed in an explosion, is haunted in her dreams not only by her former husband but a mysterious lover who turns up in reality. Strait Jacket from 1964, directed by William Castle and starring Joan Crawford and Diane Baker, was about a woman who has murdered her husband with an axe. Bloch once said that the best adaptation of his stories was Asylum (1972), directed by Roy Ward Baker; the worst was The Deadly Bees (1967).
Bloch enlarged Psycho into trilogy with Psycho II (1982), in which Norman Bates escapes from the mental asylum posing as a nun, and Psycho House (1990), in which the author suggested that it is the world outside the asylum that has become psychotic. "Violence has become not only a cop-out terms of being presented as self-explanatory – 'this is human nature, that's the way it is, folks' – but it is also a drug. When you dose yourself with it, you find that you need increasingly bigger fixes." (Bloch in Faces of Fear, 1990)
During his career Bloch won several awards in the field of
fantasy (World Fantasy Convention Award in 1975), horror, and science
fiction (Hugo Award in 1959), as well as an Edgar Award from the
Mystery Writers of America in 1960. He was in 1970-71 president of
Mystery Writers of America. In 1990 Bloch received the Bram Stoker Award
from Horror Writers of America, and in 1991 the World Horror Convention
Grandmaster award. Bloch was married twice, first to Marion Holcombe,
they had one daughter. Bloch's first wife suffered from tuberculosis of
the hip. After her health deteriorated, Bloch moved her and their
daughter Sally Ann to Weyauwega, Wisconsin. The marriage dissolved in
1963 and in 1964 Bloch married Eleanor Alexander, a widower.
Robert Bloch died of cancer on September 23, 1994, in Los Angeles, California. "It may be that someday these three novels, The Scarf, The Deadbeat, and Psycho, will be anthologized as a kind of unified triptych, as were James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce – for in their own way, the novels that Robert Bloch wrote in the 1950s had every bit as much influence on the course of American fiction as did the Cain "heel-with-a-heart" novels of the 1930s." (Stephen King in Dance Macabre, 1981)
For further reading: Robert Bloch by Randall D. Larson (1986); The Complete Robert Bloch: An Illustrated, Comprehensive Bibliography by Randall D. Larson (1986); Faces of Fear by Douglas E. Winter (1990); Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of "Psycho" by Stephen Rebello (1990); The Robert Bloch Companion: Collected Interviews, 1969-86, ed. by Randall D. Larson and Robert Bloch (1989); Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Biography by Robert Bloch (1993); Speaking of Horror by Darrell Schweitzer (1994); Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed. by David Pringle (1998). Radio Plays: Stay Tuned for Terror series 1944-45 (39 scripts). Television plays: The Cuckoo Clock, The Greatest Monster of Them All, A Change of Heart, The Landlady, The Sorcerers Apprentice, The Gloating Place, A Bad Actor, The Big Kick (in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1955-61); The Cheaters, The Devil's Ticket, A Good Imagination, The Grim Reaper, The Weird Tailor, Waxworks, Till Death Do Us Part, Man of Mystery (in Thriller, 1960-61); scripts for Lock-Up, 1960; I Spy, 1964; Run for Your Life, 1965; Star Trek, 1966-67; Journey to the Unknown, 1968; Night Gallery, 1971; The Cat Creature, 1973; The Dead Don't Die, 1975; Beetles, 1987.