Norman Bates has become a pop culture icon. Songs have even been written about him. Thus it is with a sense of shame that I admit, after 25 years of reading horror novels, this is the first time I’ve read Psycho. (I have, however, seen the film as well as its unfortunate remake.) My only other exposure to Robert Bloch up to this point had been Lori, a forgettable book at best. Psycho, on the other hand, offers up a thoroughly engaging, fast-paced story that is a deserved classic.
An aspect of Bloch’s novel that I found most intriguing was his female characters. In 1959 women in books, film and television were typically portrayed as submissive and timid, always waiting for the men in their lives to take decisive action for them. In Psycho, Bloch reverses the roles. He begins with Mary, who is tired of waiting for her fiance, Sam, to pay off his debts and marry her. Mary literally snatches the opportunity to change her fortunes when her employer gives her $40,000 to deposit in the bank; her theft of the money sets the novel’s plot in motion. While Sam and the sheriff are content to sit and wait to hear from the company’s private investigator, Arbogast, Mary’s sister Lila demands an investigation. It is Lila who decides to explore the Bates house by herself and find evidence of the crimes she knows have been committed, when no one else seems to care what has happened to Mary. Rather than punishing her character for being “emotional,” an epithet applied to women for centuries, Bloch makes it clear that, were it not for Lila’s emotions pushing her forward, the case would have likely never been solved. The bloody earring that Lila finds in the motel shower, a discovery driven by frustration and her refusal to give up when everyone else appears to have done so, leads her into the house and eventually the dreaded fruit cellar. To Bloch, emotions are something that all human beings ought to express, especially in a crisis, and Lila is rightfully troubled by Sam’s response to his fiancee’s disappearance.
Of course, even emotions can become a destructive force when not properly channeled, and so has Norman Bates’ codependent love for his mother destroyed his very sanity. At one point Bloch mentions that Norman believes he has symptoms of schizophrenia, though the true culprit reveals itself to be dissociative identity disorder (as noted in the DSM-IV-TR; elsewhere it is still known as multiple personality disorder). Both disorders are rare and not well-understood, even less so when Bloch was writing his novel, and DID has often been wrongly identified as schizophrenia. Despite this, Bloch does an excellent job portraying the symptoms of severe DID, the development of which fits perfectly with Norman’s past trauma. Norman’s “conversations” with his dead mother are frightening, but it is the final scene of the book in which the horror of Norman’s DID fully reveals itself. Having always been dominated by his mother, Norman allows her a twisted form of justice for his murder of her, his one last act of love–his personality “dies,” leaving Mother in its place and in his body. Not since reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has a novel’s ending disturbed me in such a way.
Robert Bloch delivered everything I enjoy in a horror novel. We have a strong female character, a vastly disturbed antagonist, and a chilling plot trimmed of all unnecessary ornamentation. As a writer there is so much I can take away from Bloch’s book: the deceptive simplicity of his prose, his talent for characterization, his gift for building suspense. Not to mention an ending that will stick with me forever.