Psycho's Norman Bates, Robert Bloch, Alfred Hitchcock
Robert Bloch: Master of Psychological Terror.

Robert Bloch: Master of Psychological Terror.

Science fiction, fantasy, horror, pulp magazines and movies: this extraordinary man connects most of the interests in These Fantastic Worlds. Although best known for his novel and the film, Psycho, Robert Bloch was an acolyte of H. P. Lovecraft, a prodigious author of pulp era short stories and wrote for the original Star Trek TV series. He covered the entire canon of speculative fiction in a long and productive life writing, efficient, unsentimental page-turners; he was fortunate to coincide with the rise of film, then TV, but rose with them to examine the hopes and fears of the modern world.

from Weird Tales 1936I’ve written about a number of other horror and sf writers recently (Machen, Hope Hodgson and others) but none pursued their writing with such relentless zeal. From a very early age he flirted with the pulps (as a 17 year old his first story was sold to Marvel Tales) and was greatly encouraged by the mentorship of Lovecraft, but as the Golden Age of science fiction developed from the Pulp Age so Bloch moved on and he published book after book, wrote screenplays and populated almost every terror-inflected genre of fiction.

Chicago in the 1920s

 In 1917 Bloch was born in Chicago to hardworking parents, his father was a bank clerk, and mother, a social worker. The first years of Bloch’s life corresponded with massive social and cultural change in the Northern cities of America, Chicago in particular. It’s hard to ignore the likely effect of this on a young, imaginative boy.

In the 1920s commercial radio exploded, with over 500 stations appearing across the country; the glamour of the Silver Screen gripped an eager nation, and the youth of America flocked to the new dance halls, bought LPs and listened to the sounds of the first truly American art form: Jazz.

Cecil B De MilleThis was the era of swinging capitalism, where the roots of the consumer society flourished, with chain retailers (such as A&P, Woolworth’s) and the use of advertising spread nationally, where money for the middle classes was quickly acquired and more quickly spent. And, the mass production of the motor car in the 1920s brought gas stations and motels, and with the work came the  spending money, music and dancing.

But with excitement and growth came tension. Even the hint of such hedonism made those with more traditional, rural views feel threatened. For the first time in the 150 years since  American independence more people lived in cities than rural communities, and the Great Migration from the Mississippi Delta brought a tide of African Americans into the industrialised North, searching for the better lives and employment created by new industry.

And so came prohibition as a means to contain the general over-excitement.  Gangsterism followed swiftly as drinking was driven underground, created a black market that could be controlled. This was the Chicago of Al Capone and the Valentine’s Day Massacre, and through the eyes of the young Robert Bloch, there was thrill and adventure all around.

Lovecraft and the Pulps

 With increasing growth, prosperity and mechanization came other changes, including the mass production of cheap wood pulp which brought down the price of paper, so creating a market for so-called ‘pulp magazines’ such as Black Mask and Detective Fiction Weekly. In this golden age for the pulps the bigger titles sold a million copies each issue and enthralled a generation of fiction consumers.

Weird Tales July 1949Bloch had always been an enthusiastic reader, and in 1933 when his family moved from Depression-hit Chicago to the cheaper suburbs of Milwaukee he made an effort to keep in touch with his inspirations and interests; he fell into correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft. The master of weird horror was a generous man and enjoyed the collaboration of others, exchanging also with a generation of speculative writers, including E. Hoffman Price and Robert E. Howard. Bloch’s first story, with Lovecraft’s encouragement,  was published in 1934 in Marvel Tales, swiftly followed in the same year by The Secret of the Tomb in Weird Tales. These two were the first of over 100 short stories that Bloch poured into the various pulps of the 1930s and early 40s, and included Shambler from the Stars and other titles that were later placed within the Cthulhu Mythos, a unique collaboration of writers who wrote in and extended Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology. Many of Bloch’s Weird Tales stories were illustrated by the stellar Virgil Finlay who also graced the work of Lovecraft, Hoffman Price and Clark Ashton Smith.

At the end of the second world war Bloch published a collection of his short stories, as Sun Kissed and The Opener of the Way, the latter by Arkham House, the publisher created by fellow Lovecraft fans and collaborators, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei.

As an aside, amongst many short story characters, he created the series Lost in Time and Space with Lefty Feep which while successful then, now feels a little dated.

Novels and other printed works

Robert Bloch's Jack The Ripper, journey into mystery 2003In 1943 Bloch published his most famous short story, Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper and achieved some public recognition, also with successful versions appearing on radio and, later, in comics. He moved on from the fantastical creatures of his younger years to explore the personal horrors of unexplained events, the terrors and motivations of all-too-human killers, studying the effect of fear on victims. He often employed the point-of-view narrative style, withholding information from the reader to escalate the tension and the terror. In the 1940s he continued to publish short stories in the pulps (including Weird Tales,  Amazing, FantasticFantastic Universe) writing with his usual verve, now balancing parody with invention and intrigue.  .

Bloch’s first novel, The Scarf, was published in 1947 and confirmed his interest in psychological horror. He wrote more than 30 novels in total, in a range of genres, but his most successful remain American Gothic (1974), Strange Eons, (1978), The Night of the Ripper (1984) and, of course the Psycho titles (Psycho, 1959; Psycho II, 1982; House of Psycho, 1990), the first of which was turned into the genre-busting movie success. From this point on he spent the rest of his life on the production of novels, short stories and scripts, collecting his old stories, repackaging them in print collections and adapting them for the television.

Radio, TV and the Movies.

Psycho movie poster, Hitchcock, Robert BlochBloch’s particular style of fast-paced fiction brought him to the attention of radio where he wrote almost 40 episodes of Stay Tuned for Terror. It was an experience that would take him beyond the world of books and Bloch explored the opportunities offered by the TV boom of the 50s and 60s. Hitchcock’s great success with Psycho in 1960 served Bloch well and he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Boris Karloff’s Thriller series, followed by several episodes of the classic Star Trek series in 1966.

Movie script collaborations were often based on his old short stories, producing films with terror-stalked leading ladies of the day, including Babara Stanwyck in Night Walker (1964) Joan Crawford in Strait Jacket (1964). Other movies that brought his short stories to screen include Torture Garden (1968), Asyulm (1972), The House that Dripped Blood (1970).

Legacy

Bloch passed away in Los Angeles, in September 1994, aged 77 years old. Although many readers associate him with Psycho this was just one of his many achievements and the scale of his work was recognized by a series of awards including A Hugo, A Bram Stoker,  A World Fantasy Award, and for a time in 1970 he was elected as president of the Mystery Writers of America.

Virgil Finlay, Robert BlochHis association with Lovecraft and Hitchcock, Star Trek and Weird Tales places him at the centre of speculative writing through 20th century, the heyday of classic horror movies, the birth of crime and mystery radio, TV and the blockbuster movie. His influence on the next generation of professional storytellers, including Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Robert Matheson and Neil Gaiman,  although often unacknowledged, is unrivalled. And, every consumer of modern horror, science and fantasy fiction of almost any kind owes a debt of gratitude to Robert Bloch, the master of psychological terror.

Links

Other posts of interest in These Fantastic Worlds include:

A Pinterest board for the H. P. Lovecraft post is here.