by Robert Bloch
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that nearly every genre fan reading this blog has seen Alfred Hitchcock's seminal prototype slasher film Psycho, or, at the very least, seen the epically pointless Gus Van Sant remake. And I'm going to go out on another limb here and say that not nearly as many have actually read the source material, the novel of the same name by "Weird Fiction" writer Robert Bloch. In more dated instances (Dracula, Frankenstein) this would be more understandable, but it's a bit more difficult to explain when it comes to modern fare...and yes, when it comes to cinema and literature, 50+ years can still be considered "modern".
This becomes more forgivable upon actually reading the book, however. Hitchcock was so thoroughly faithful to the Bloch novel--with pretty much all characters and plot points accounted for and only a few nominal changes made for cinematic presence--that the book could just as easily have been a novelization of the film. This works both as a pro and a con.
On the one hand, it's always refreshing to see an adaptation that doesn't bastardize the original source. But on the other hand, for those of you who have already seen the movie, there is nothing new or undiscovered waiting for you between these covers. It is the equivalent of reading a novel-length plot synopsis of the movie. An exercise in futility, almost, which is ironic and a shame, since Bloch's work predated the film.
If one were somehow to go into this book fresh, having no familiarity with the film or the story, this would be one hell of a good read. Mary Crane, recently having lifted a hefty sum from her employer, flees from her old life en route to a new one. She stops at the nearly-forgotten Bates Motel, where she piques the attention of motel proprietor and mama's boy Norman Bates, who watches her through a secret peephole as she undresses, filled with a combination of lust and disgust. In short order, Mary is attacked and killed while she showers by the titular Psycho (Norman's frail and feeble mother)...and that's when the story really begins. Mary's fiancee and her younger sister form an unlikely alliance with a licensed investigator, and eventually the local police, as they attempt to discover the missing girl's fate. To say anymore would spoil the surprises...if five decades of time hasn't already done so.
Bloch crafted here a crime story that slowly evolved into a horror story by way of the psychological thriller. It is a convincing character study of madness, one that cares just as much about the cause and interior workings of the mental illness as it does about the mental illness itself. Inspired by the real-life case of Ed Gein (which is said to have happened something like 35 miles from Bloch's home), this is thankfully not a mere true-crime work, but a rock-solid original piece that is grounded in reality, which gives it a much more timeless quality. Even if it is overshadowed by Hitchcock's movie.
Maybe one needs to look at is as if the film version was the version that was meant to exist, and Robert Bloch's novel was just the first step in its natural evolution. Without Bloch, there would be no Psycho, there would be no Norma/Norman/Normal Bates. And as far as being overshadowed by Hitchcock, you could do a lot worse. He was the Master of Suspense.
He cast a pretty big shadow.