Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Playing With Bloch's

In the coven made up of the mothers in my neighborhood when I was a kid, my mom was the only one who allowed copies of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine into the house. This made me very popular — and it was the only thing that did — at least on the Saturdays after the new issue hit the street.

My pals and I loved looking at pictures from monster movies, and it didn’t matter whether or not we’d seen the flick, or ever would. In those pre-home-video days in that small town, we had no hope that we’d ever be in a position to see films like the silent "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or even the Lon Chaney "Phantom of the Opera."

Which brings us at last to Robert Bloch, who frequently used FM as a bully pulpit to introduce us kids to the fading grandeur of silent horror films — or those pictures that passed for horror films before sound. I had no idea at that time that Bloch wrote fiction. I don’t remember now how I found out, but it was probably at the time Hitchcock’s "Psycho" came out and suddenly Bloch’s books were on every paperback spin rack in town.

Okay, here’s where I embarrass myself by admitting that I was too scared to see PSYCHO on it first run. Here’s why: I’d read Bloch's novel on the assumption that no book could be as scary as a movie. Word circulated around the horror-movie fan underground in town that this movie was the goods, more terrifying than a William Castle picture, and that would make it scarier than all hell on a rainy weekend.

So my plan was to read the book so I’d know what the story was and I could bluff my friends into thinking I’d seen the movie, just in case I wasn’t, you know, able to see it. Damn good plan for an 11-year old, except for one thing: Bloch’s novel is not the standard mystery/thriller, like Hitch’s film is not the standard horror movie.

The book scared me. Badly. Profoundly. Everlastingly. So much, I was even more afraid to go to the movie than I had been in the first place.

I’ve cleared my conscience.

So, this Bloch guy pulls the plow, huh? Oh, yeah. By 1960, he had been sharpening his blade since he published his first "Weird Tales" short story, “The Secret in the Tomb,” at age 17 in 1934. He had been on the fringes of the H.P. Lovecraft circle since 1933, when he initiated a correspondence with the old gent that lasted until Lovecraft’s death in 1937.

Honestly, in those early stories, derivative of HPL’s concepts and frequently overwrought style, Bloch didn’t show much promise that he would ever be anything more than a precocious acolyte.
If stories like “The Feast in the Abbey“ and “The Shambler from the Stars“ rely too heavily on Lovecraftian themes and atmospherics, Bloch soon found his own voice. More than one, actually. After all, what kind of schizophrenic has only one voice whispering in his ear?

And Bloch’s best imaginary friends were schizos, serial killers, mass murderers and just all-around boy-or-girl-next-door psychopaths. They dispatched their victims with butcher knives, scarves, axes, saws, shoves off of cliffs, and even the unimaginative handgun. He more than made up for that last with a death by gorilla costume. Of course I’m serious. Joe R. Lansdale selected Bloch’s “The Animal Fair” for the 2004 anthology "My Favorite Horror Story." Check it out.

Bloch never lost his affection for Lovecraft, and even as late as 1978, his novel "Strange Eons" was in honor of his mentor, but after the publication of his first novel, 1947’s "The Scarf," he was wedded to psychological horror in the public’s mind. Short stories like “Lucy Comes to Stay” and “Final Performance” – which is wonderfully ghastly and receives a tip of the hat in the current horror film "Dead Silence," showing up regularly in everything from the crime pulps to "Playboy" – kept that association alive.

He missed out on the screenplay assignment for "Psycho," but Bloch scripted for radio, films (including two for Castle), and television. He finally linked up with Hitchcock, sort of, by writing 17 episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." In all, Bloch provided scripts for 19 series, including "Star Trek," "Thriller," and "Night Gallery."

Many of his best post-"Scarf" stories are a blend of supernatural and psychological horror. “The Cheaters” is about a pair of eyeglasses that allow the wearer to read people’s minds, and what they think is scarred by greed and lust. “Catnip” is about a high school punk who accidentally burns down an old woman’s house and is then stalked by her cat. I’ve always been a big fan of “Sweets to the Sweet,” about a little girl and her favorite voodoo doll. Very nasty ending to this one. Yummy.

He wasn’t a perfect writer. Having published more than 200 stories and two dozen novels means there are several clinkers in the bunch, but when he was clicking, he was as good as anyone.

One more thing I have to mention: Bloch was one of the funniest horror writers ever. He was a popular emcee for science fiction and horror conventions, and in print, his stuff is littered with sick in-jokes and unexpected puns. Remember all those sick gags in the movie version of "Psycho"? “Mother isn’t herself tonight” and “A boy’s best friend is his mother” both originated in the novel. I still remember the pleasant chill I felt the first time I re-read the book and Mrs. Bates accuses the effete Norman of being “only half a man.” Heh, heh, heh.

Bloch once famously said of himself, “People think I must be a monster, but really I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

But my all-time favorite Bloch moment comes in an otherwise disposable British film from 1966 called "The Psychopath," in which a sick, aging German war widow who collects dolls sends her feeble-minded but physically strong son out to murder the men she thinks killed her husband. In the film’s climax, the son injures his back while being pursued but manages to get home. The police show up to arrest him and his mother. Mom puts up a small struggle and the son, who is hiding in the attic, hears what is going on and begins howling. The police open the door and we are faced with the now-paralyzed young man seated in a chair. His fruitcake mother has powdered his face to remove his natural coloring, and rouged his lips and cheeks to make him look like a giant Kewpie doll. A tear runs down his cheek as he sobs, “Momma. Momma.”

Comic shocks don’t come any sicker than that.

Robert Bloch died of cancer on Sept. 23, 1994. Every time a new anthology of horror or crime stories is published, I look to see if it includes a new story by him. It’s a silly habit I don’t want to break.


1 comment:

Adjective Queen said...

This reminds me of how I felt when I watched "Whatever happened to Baby Jane." There was a similar scene in that. Creepy.