The Man Who Collected Psychos
Critical Essays on Robert Bloch
Edited by Benjamin Szumskyj
Despite the great impact of his work on popular culture, by for example writing the novel that formed the basis of Hitchcock’s finest film, Robert Bloch is still an underappreciated, not to say a neglected writer.
The reason for this is difficult to fathom, because he has created a body of work – in literature, film and television – that rewards perusal. Unashamedly, Bloch always wrote within certain genres and he was a working writer, an unpretentious craftsman, so perhaps that told against him. And the fact that he had a wonderfully dark sense of humour can’t have helped either. If you make readers smile, critics tend not to take you seriously. Still, his journey was a fascinating one.
His mentor and first influence was H.P. Lovecraft, a writer that he wrote to while still a teenager, and in fact the protagonist of Lovecraft’s story ‘The Haunter of the Dark’, a certain Robert Blake, is based on Bloch. At the start, he wrote horror and weird fiction, together with sci-fi, for the pulps; all the horror and violence located in a convenient Elsewhere. But beginning with his first novel, The Scarf (1947), and scrawled throughout the 1950s in a series of unsettling crime novels, this atrocious violence was transposed to the landscape of contemporary America. Finally, it wormed its way back to its source: the human mind, whether disturbed or not. Psycho appeared in 1959, at the close of the decade. And this novel, Bloch’s most famous, encapsulates what is certainly his main theme: human beings’ capacity for violence, the inexplicable nature of evil. Bloch wrote about this with black humour, an acute grasp of abnormal psychology, a storyteller’s art. And he entertained, as all good writers do.
There are twelve terrific essays in this book, by as many contributors, surveying myriad aspects of Bloch’s work and career. They cover such topics as his relationship with Lovecraft and various younger writers (for Bloch repaid his dues to Lovecraft by mentoring others), his penchant for humour and irony, an analysis of the Gothic storytelling strategies in Psycho, Bloch’s work in television, the undeniable fascination that Jack the Ripper held for him. You really need to read all of them, I think, to get a proper handle on this versatile writer: he wrote with distinction in more than one genre, as indicated, and for more than one medium. But no worries, each essay is a pleasure.
Here is the headline that I take away from the book: Robert Bloch is the missing link between H.P. Lovecraft and Patricia Highsmith. (And in all your life, you never suspected there was one…) He must be read, simple as.
The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.