A Full Examination of Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’ (Review)

Written by: Matt Molgaard

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic picture, Psycho still stands as one of the most memorable viewing experiences any genre fan can possibly undergo. The mood of the film far surpasses simple bleakness, and the impact that Anthony Perkins’ performance delivers is a once in a lifetime magic. You just don’t see productions so seamlessly assembled on a regular basis. Janet Leigh and Vera Miles both did a bang up job as the Crane sisters and Martin Balsam made a fine Arbogast. As a whole, Psycho has rightfully earned recognition as one of the greatest films ever shot.

To learn that Robert Bloch’s original novel of the same name is actually a superior source of entertainment was just about baffling. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to prefer the depth of a novel over that of a movie, but considering how masterful I consider Hitchcock’s work to be, I still found some surprise in this specific discovery.

I suppose spoilers don’t really need to be considered: about 99 percent of horror followers have seen Alfred’s 1960 telling. It’s simply one of those movies. If you’ve made the conscious acknowledgment that horror is for you, then you know that Psycho is mandatory viewing. No two ways about it.

So, you all likely know that Norman Bates is a semi-neurotic fellow with a nasty case of dissociative identity disorder. This lunatic can’t decide if he’s little, defenseless Norman, grown, rational Norman, or his deceased mother, Norma. The guy is an out of control head case, and all the demons bouncing around in his skull find a sudden means of escape when Mary Crane stumbles into his life, and motel room, looking for a place to crash before continuing on in her journey to see her fiancée, Sam Loomis.

Huge praise goes out to the late Bloch, who paints Norman a sympathetic character, haunted by issues that seem well beyond his full understanding. There’s no difficulty in despising the story’s villain, but a strong sense of sadness is affixed to Bates, and that leaves room for sympathy. Bates is indeed a bad guy, but he’s unorthodox in the sense that he’s not an outright malicious fellow. Here we see a perfect mesh of distinct idiosyncrasies that leave readers stuck on the fence: do I hate this bastard, or do I feel deeply sorry for him?

As for the key plot points, you’re likely aware, Mary’s lifted a sizable load of cash from her employer, and she’s made a mad dash out of town. It just so happens she ended up in the worst possible place: The Bates Motel.

Alone, save for the internal voices that plague him, Norman takes to drinking, and finds himself quite conflicted, as he eyes Mary getting in the shower, through a peephole he himself has aligned. Overcome by a cruel blend of anxiety, arousal and guilt, Norman snaps, and Norma surfaces. At this point readers are subjected to the brutal murder of Mary. Unlike the film – which I’m certain functioned under close eye back in 1960 – Mary isn’t stabbed to death in the shower: she’s decapitated.

One of the most endearing elements of the novel comes in the extent of difference between details unveiled in the picture, and those that Bloch drops on the page. What’s so special you ask? The striking similarities, that’s what is so special: Hitchcock played remarkably faithful to the original novel, and when you get your hands on this book for the first time, the occasional twist in the telling feels strangely profound, yet one never loses sight of how little adjusting Hitchcock applied to the story. Major swings simply weren’t called for, and the end result is a film and a novel that share a small handful of insanely minor modifications.

Sometimes nearly no difference makes all the difference in the world.

You already know where this story is headed: Mary’s sister Lila, accompanied by Sam launch their own brand of investigation, with the help of hard-nosed investigator, Milton Arbogast. After extensive search, Arbogast is able to follow Mary’s trail straight to the steps of the Bates Motel, and the socially awkward Norman Bates.

Arbogast’s skills in detection prove to, ironically, be his undoing. The man’s presence and pressure leaves Norman completely unhinged, and that just doesn’t fly with the motel owner. A blade puts a temporary end to Norman’s troubles, and sends the investigator on a trip into the other world. But disposing of a figure of this nature only manages to draw greater attention to the recluse.

Before long Sam and Lila have put Bates in a corner. Armed with proof (a bloody earring missed by Norman while cleaning Mary’s motel room), the two attempt to once more bring the law (previous attempt at convincing the local sheriff have proven fruitless) into the fold. Bates isn’t having it however, he’s intent on maintaining his freedom, and if that means killing a few pesky civilians, so be it. But these two are resilient, and thanks to the sheriff, who’s finally come around and begun to suspect Bates, the odd man is overwhelmed and taken into custody.

But not before readers learn the full truth of Norma Bates, and a few more of the secrets her son Norman still has tucked up his sleeves.

Norma is indeed a corpse. She’s long gone, and has been since committing supposed suicide with her lover (an event that transpired twenty years prior to these specific events). But Norman’s hobbies, particularly his affinity for taxidermy, help propel him to make a gruesome decision: see long ago, after suffering a mental break following his mother’s death and subsequently being admitted to a psychiatric outlet, Norman dug his deceased mother from the earth and the coffin she rest.

The man did what could be done in regards to further physical preservation, and he’s found some measure of solace in Norma’s returned presence. That same solace eventually gives complete life to the two additional personalities (Little Norman and Norma) we meet in the early stages of the story.

In a sense, Norman drives himself insane.

He and his mother had always maintained a strange relationship. His mother was not only a woman of the hindering kind: she completely suffocated the young man. A strange incestuous connection between the two is alluded to in the story, but Bloch never hits readers with cold hard facts: were the two intimate in any way? We’ll never know without doubt. But Bloch certainly lays a strong enough foundation to build that theory.

So then, why bring the same woman that’s held you back your entire life, back to life, after she’s hit the grave, a cold lifeless mound of rubbery flesh?

Because apparently, Norman was destined to live the life of a lunatic, incapable of acquainting himself with anything remotely near normalcy.

After Bates is taken into custody, he finds himself back at the psych ward. Some may label this justice anything but fit, but I’m inclined to believe that Bloch did a fine enough job illustrating Bates and his personality issues to render sympathy. Prison isn’t fitting for a man of this nature. Norman Bates needed serious psychological help.

In the book’s waning moments, before we learn a bit more of Norma’s death, we’re gifted the chance to see that even Lila, as victimized as she may have ultimately been, is willing to accept Bates’ incarceration within the hospital rather than a prison. She understands the level of insanity the man deals with, and she enforces the outline of Bates’ personality conundrum that Bloch in Psycho’s early goings.

We’re never entirely sure what to make of this man, but he’s a sad, sad case… unmistakably sad.

As for Norma’s specific history, and the details of her death, well that’s a revelation told so well on page that I cannot bring myself to spell it all out for you. It’s about the best finale this story could offer, this look back at “The Making of Norman Bates”, if you will. And as you read the facts in print, you’ll come to admire such a ballsy approach. Robert Bloch took some risks here, and they paid off, in a big way.

Rating: 5/5

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About Matt Molgaard (1031 Articles)
Writer for Dread Central, Best Horror Movies and Starburst Magazine. Owner, operator and contributor of Horror Novel Reviews and Addicted to Horror Movies. Obviously, hooked on all things horror, for a great number of years now!

4 Comments on A Full Examination of Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’ (Review)

  1. James Keen // April 7, 2013 at 8:42 pm // Reply

    Fantastic stuff, Matt.

    Like

  2. Finished the book the day before yesterday. “Sometimes nearly no difference makes all the difference in the world.” And that was what made me enjoy the book so much!

    Like

  3. The film is far more smart than this mediocre novel.

    Like

3 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Strange Eons by Robert Bloch « Excursions Into Imagination
  2. Atoms And Evil by Robert Bloch (Gold Medal S1231 – 1962) | Vintage (and not so vintage) Paperbacks
  3. The Legend of the Psycho | The Horror Seeker

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