Friday, April 05, 2013

Psycho

The iconic cover with "cracked" lettering
Life isn’t easy when you’re running a motel in the middle of nowhere. And Norman Bates is doing just that with his life, stuck running the Bates Motel and taking care of his elderly mother, a monster in frilly clothing whose hobbies include psychological torture and preventing her son from having a life away from her. She will go to extreme measures to do this… even commit murder…

… which is precisely what Mother does when Mary Crane comes to the motel, fresh from stealing $40,000 from her employer. Mary is en route to see her fiancé, hoping that the money will help pay off his personal debts and get married sooner. But she decides to drop in at the Bates Motel, where Norman develops a boyish crush on her, even though the years of psychological abuse have left him afraid to so much as touch a woman. Mother doesn’t like this, and so when Mary goes to take a shower, Mother storms into the bathroom:

Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.

You can probably already guess what book I’m talking about, since this is the start to one of the most famous stories of all-time. Psycho is one of my favourite movies. It’s also a great novel by Robert Bloch, and for once, Alfred Hitchcock followed the plot of the novel fairly closely when he turned it into a movie. As a result, when many critics gush about Psycho and Hitchcock’s genius, they are often actually referring to Robert Bloch’s genius, especially in terms of plot. This includes the taxidermy, killing off your heroine before the halfway point of the movie, and of course the final twist.

If anything, Hitchcock’s one major change to the novel was the character of Norman Bates, turning him into your everyday innocent American young man—i. e. Anthony Perkins. In the novel, Norman Bates is very different. He’s forty years old, overweight, and wears glasses. He’s also a fairly unpleasant character. As in the movie, for instance, Norman spies on Mary Crane in the bathroom through a peephole, only in the novel, Robert Bloch’s wording heavily implies that he is masturbating when he does this. He also has an unhealthy obsession with the occult and the paranormal and with pseudo-psychology and he’s always reading books on the subjects. The sap can’t even handle his alcohol.

And yet Norman is a saint compared to his mother, which is why I think the novel works so well. Mother goes around murdering people and Norman is horrified at this. He cleans everything up so as to remove all the evidence so that nobody takes his mother away to an institution. And this is where the true delight of the novel can be found.

[From here on, I’m going to assume you know the plot of Psycho, be it the novel or the movie. If you don’t, please ignore the rest of this review, because there will be spoilers. If you haven’t guessed yet, my opinion of the novel is very, very high, and I consider it a masterpiece.]

In 1959, Robert Bloch was tackling all sorts of taboo subjects. Not only does Norman suffer from split-personalities, he’s a murderer and a transvestite. It's loosely inspired by one of the most horrific real-life murder cases I've ever read about, the Ed Gein murder case (and if you plan to Google that name, be warned that the stuff that will pop up is not for sensitive readers or anyone who's just finished eating lunch). And reading the book from a 21st century perspective, the novel is remarkably restrained. I suspect it was because people reacted so differently to things back then and Bloch had to go for subtlety. Instead of just saying that Norman masturbates while spying on Mary, Bloch words things so that it heavily implies masturbation without spelling it out. And it also gives you a major hint as to the kind of words games Bloch is playing throughout the novel.

You see, every time Bloch says that Mother “does” this or “says” that or something of the sort – implying that a real-life woman is doing these things – it is always told from Norman’s point of view. The novel, although told in third-person, is told from the perspectives of various characters, and the perspectives often change around between chapters. The third-person narrator is not omniscient, he only knows what the viewpoint character thinks and feels. As a result, you’ll never see Mother picking something up when the novel is told from Mary’s POV. And this is why I think the book plays a legitimate deception on the reader, rather similarly to an Edgar-winning novel from the 1950s that practically invented the twist. (There is no way you’re getting the title or even the author out of me – if you’ve read it, you know which one I’m talking about.)

Psycho is a major achievement in suspense/mystery fiction, just like the film was a major cinematic achievement. Robert Bloch quite simply crafted a masterpiece, and perhaps now you will know why I so intensely disliked the recent film Hitchcock. Robert Bloch was the guy who came up with kill-your-heroine-early-on, the movie pretends it was Hitch’s wife Alma. In fact, it goes all Feminism-Rules! on you, telling you that it was Janet Leigh and Alma who helped Hitch come up with some of the movie’s most memorable effects. It even pays more attention to the Ed Gein murder case which inspired Bloch to write the novel instead of the novel itself, which leads to an extremely stupid press announcement by Hitchcock that in real life would have given the whole plot away (whereas Hitch in real life jealously guarded the film's secret). It’s just plain disrespectful to Bloch, whose novel is a carefully crafted piece of fiction that holds up remarkably well today.

But you know what? I haven’t stopped there. Neither did the movie studio, which finally started making Psycho sequels in the 1980s, and which were almost universally bad. (Though to be fair, Psycho IV is hardly crap at all.) Here’s the fun part: that’s the time when Robert Bloch started writing sequels to Psycho himself. So tune in tomorrow to see if Robert Bloch, the guy who wrote Psycho in the first place, could do justice to it in a sequel…

5 comments:

  1. Nicely said that man - Bloch was a terrific writer and this one may not even be his best book (a lot of people prefer NIGHT WORLD). Very curious to know what you say about Bloch's own two sequels, which I remember reading as soon as they were out in paperback - Bloch was quite clear that he felt he had to embark on these when the studio and Perkins started making their own sequels since he had no residual financial interests in these and it was the only way he could make additional money after the modestly-priced sale of the original novel. Me, I liked the dyspeptic Hollywood satire PSYCHO 2 a lot but thought that PSYCHO HOUSE really didn't work past its teriffic opening chapter (which frankly should have been a short story).

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  2. That's interesting comparing Book Norman with Film Norman. Just five months before Psycho was released Perkins had starred in the college campus comedy Tall Story, with Jane Fonda. He had played quite a few nice--if a bit nervous--young men at that point.

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  3. The film "Hitchcock" made a subtle point of outing Perkins, who I had thought was closeted until after his death.

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  4. The real-life Hitchcock made a point of crediting Bloch and the novel as a source for the movie. And Perkins deserves credit for making the movie Norman so (shudder!) appealing.

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  5. Thanks for reminding me about the book. When people think of "Psycho," they naturally think of Hitchcock. Enjoyed your post.

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