Robert Albert Bloch (April 5, 1917 – September 23, 1994) was an American fiction writer, primarily of crime, horror, fantasy and science fiction, from Milwaukee,Wisconsin.
Bloch is best known as the writer of the 1959 novel Psycho, the basis for the 1960 film of the same name directed by Alfred Hitchcock. His work has been extensively adapted for the movies and television, comics and audio books.
His fondness for a pun is evident in the titles of his story collections such as Tales in a Jugular Vein, Such Stuff as Screams Are Made Of and Out of the Mouths of Graves.
Bloch wrote hundreds of short stories and over thirty novels. He was one of the youngest members of the Lovecraft Circle. H. P. Lovecraft was the young writer’s mentor and one of the first to seriously encourage his talent. However, while Bloch started his career by emulating Lovecraft and his brand of “cosmic horror”, he later specialized in crime and horror stories dealing with a more psychological approach.
Bloch was born in Chicago, the son of Raphael “Ray” Bloch (1884–1952), a bank cashier, and his wife Stella Loeb (1880–1944), a social worker, both of German Jewish descent. Bloch’s family moved to Maywood, a Chicago suburb, when he was five.
Formative Years and Early Career
At ten years of age, he attended a screening of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). The scene of Chaney removing his mask terrified the young Bloch and sparked his interest in horror.
In 1929, the Bloch family moved to Milwaukee. Robert attended Lincoln High School, where he met lifelong friend Harold Gauer. Gauer was editor of The Quill, and accepted Bloch’s first published work, a horror story titled “The Thing” (the “thing” of the title was Death).
Bloch’s first professional sales, at the age of 17 (July 1934), to Weird Tales, were the short stories “The Feast in the Abbey” and “The Secret in the Tomb”. “Feast…” appeared first, in the January 1935 issues which actually went on sale November 1, 1934; “Secret in the Tomb” appeared in the May 1935 Weird Tales.
Bloch’s early stories were strongly influenced by Lovecraft. Indeed, a number of his stories were set in, and extended, the world of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. These include “The Dark Demon”, in which the character Gordon is a figuration of Lovecraft, and which features Nyarlathotep; “The Faceless God”; “The Grinning Ghoul” and “The Unspeakable Betrothal”. It was Bloch who invented, for example, the oft-cited Mythos texts De Vermis Mysteriis and Cultes des Goules. Many other stories influenced by Lovecraft were later collected in Bloch’s volume Mysteries of the Worm.
After Lovecraft’s death in 1937, which affected Bloch deeply, Bloch broadened the scope of his fiction. His horror themes included voodoo (“Mother of Serpents”), the conte cruel (“The Mandarin’s Canaries”), demonic possession (“Fiddler’s Fee”), and black magic (“Return to the Sabbat”). Bloch visited Henry Kuttner in California in 1937. Bloch’s first science fiction story, “The Secret of the Observatory”, was published in Amazing Stories (August 1938).
In an Amazing Stories profile in 1938, accompanying his first published science fiction story, Bloch described himself as “tall, dark, unhandsome” with “all the charm and personality of a swamp adder”. He noted that “I hate everything”, but reserved particular dislike for “bean soup, red nail polish, house-cleaning, and optimists”
In 1944 Bloch was asked to write 39 15-minute episodes of a radio horror show called Stay Tuned for Terror. Many of the programs were adaptations of his own pulp stories. A year later, August Derleth’s Arkham House, published Bloch’s first collection of short stories, The Opener of the Way. At the same time, one of the first distinctly “Blochian” stories was “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”, which was published in Weird Tales in 1943.
The story was Bloch’s take on the Jack the Ripper legend, and was filled out with more genuine factual details of the case than many other fictional treatments. It cast the Ripper as an eternal being who must make human sacrifices to extend his immortality. It was adapted for both radio (in Stay Tuned for Terror) and television (as an episode of Thriller in 1961 adapted by Barré Lyndon).
Bloch followed up this story with a number of others in a similar vein dealing with half-historic, half-legendary figures such as the the Marquis de Sade (“The Skull of the Marquis de Sade”, 1945) and Lizzie Borden (“Lizzie Borden Took an Axe…”, 1946).
Bloch’s first novel was the thriller The Scarf (1947). (He later issued a revised edition in 1966). It tells the story of a writer, Daniel Morley, who uses real women as models for his characters. But as soon as he is done writing the story, he is compelled to murder them, and always the same way: with the maroon scarf he has had since childhood.
With the demise of Weird Tales, Bloch continued to have his fiction published in Amazing, Fantastic, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Fantastic Universe; he was a particularly frequent contributor to Imagination and Imaginative Tales. His output of thrillers increased and he began to appear regularly in such suspense and horror-fiction magazine projects as Shock.
Jack the Ripper
Bloch continued to revisit the Jack the Ripper theme. His contribution to Harlan Ellison’s 1967 science fiction anthology Dangerous Visions was a story, “A Toy for Juliette”, which evoked both Jack the Ripper and the Marquis de Sade in a time-travel story. His earlier idea of the Ripper as an immortal being resurfaced in Bloch’s contribution to the original Star Trek series episode “Wolf in the Fold”.
His 1984 novel Night of the Ripper is set during the reign of Queen Victoria and follows the investigation of Inspector Frederick Abberline in attempting to apprehend the Ripper, and includes some famous Victorians such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle within the storyline.
Psycho (1959 novel)
Norman Bates, the main character in Psycho, was very loosely based on two people. First was the real-life serial killer Ed Gein, about whom Bloch later wrote a fictionalized account, “The Shambles of Ed Gein”. Second, it has been indicated by several people, as well as allegedly by Bloch himself, that Norman Bates was partly based on Calvin Beck, publisher of Castle of Frankenstein.
Bloch has also, however, commented that it was the situation itself – a mass murderer living undetected and unsuspected in a typical small town in middle America – rather than Gein himself who sparked Bloch’s storyline. He writes: “Thus the real-life murderer was not the role model for my character Norman Bates. Ed Gein didn’t own or operate a motel. Ed Gein didn’t kill anyone in the shower. Ed Gein wasn’t into taxidermy. Ed Gein didn’t stuff his mother, keep her body in the house, dress in a drag outfit, or adopt an alternative personality. These were the functions and characteristics of Norman Bates, and Norman Bates didn’t exist until I made him up. Out of my own imagination, I add, which is probably the reason so few offer to take showers with me.”
The novel is one of the first examples at full length of Bloch’s use of modern urban horror relying on the horrors of interior psychology rather than the supernatural. “By the mid-1940s, I had pretty well mined the vein of ordinary supernatural themes until it had become varicose,” Bloch explained to Douglas E. Winter in an interview. “I realized, as a result of what went on during World War II and of reading the more widely disseminated work in psychology, that the real horror is not in the shadows, but in that twisted little world inside our own skulls.” While Bloch was not the first horror writer to utilise a psychological approach (that honour belongs to Edgar Allan Poe), Bloch’s psychological approach in modern times was comparatively unique.
Bloch’s agent, Harry Altshuler, received a “blind bid” for the novel – the buyer’s name wasn’t mentioned – of $7,500 for screen rights to the book. The bid eventually went to $9,500, which Bloch accepted. Bloch had never sold a book to Hollywood before. His contract with Simon & Schuster included no bonus for a film sale. The publisher took 15 percent according to contract, while the agent took his 10%; Bloch wound up with about $6,750 before taxes. Despite the enormous profits generated by Hitchcock’s film, Bloch received no further direct compensation.
Only Hitchcock’s film was based on Bloch’s novel. The later films in the Psycho series bear no relation to either of Bloch’s sequel novels. Indeed, Bloch’s proposed script for the film Psycho II was rejected by the studio, and it was this that he subsequently adapted for his own sequel novel.
The 1960s: Hollywood and screenwriting
TV work included ten episodes of Thriller (1960–62, several based on his own stories), and ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1960–62). In 1962, he wrote the screenplay for The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), an unhappy experience.
In 1962, Bloch penned the story and teleplay “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The episode was shelved when the NBC Television Network and sponsor Revlon called its ending “too gruesome” for airing. Bloch was pleased later when the episode was included in the program’s syndication package to affiliate stations where not one complaint was registered. Today, due to its public domain status, the episode is readily available in home media formats from numerous distributors and free video on demand.
Freddie Francis directed British production The Skull (1965) was based on his short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” but penned by Milton Subotsky. Bloch went on to write five feature movies for Amicus Productions: The Psychopath, The Deadly Bees, Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum. The last two films featured stories written by Bloch that were printed first in anthologies he wrote in the 1940s and early 1950s.
In 1968 Bloch contributed two episodes for the Hammer Films series Journey to the Unknown for Twentieth Century Fox. One of the episodes, “The Indian Spirit Guide”, was included in the TV movie Journey to Midnight (1968).
The 1970s and ’80s
During the 1970s Bloch wrote two TV movies for director Curtis Harrington – The Cat Creature and The Dead Don’t Die. The Cat Creature was an unhappy production experience for Bloch. Producer Doug Cramer wanted to do an update of Cat People (1942), the Val Lewton classic. Bloch says: “Instead I suggested a blending of the elements of several well-remembered films, and came up with a storyline which dealt with the Egyptian cat-goddess (Bast), reincarnation and the first bypass operation ever performed on an artichoke heart.” A detailed account of the troubled production of the film is described in Bloch’s autobiography, Once Around the Bloch.
His numerous novels of this two decade include horror novels such as the Lovecraftian Strange Eons (1978); the non-supernatural mystery There is a Serpent in Eden (1979); his two sequels to the original Psycho (Psycho II and Psycho House), and late novels such as the thriller Lori (1989) and The Jekyll Legacy with Andre Norton (1991). Omnibus editions of hard-to-acquire early novels appeared as Unholy Trinity (1986) and Screams (1989).
Bloch’s screenplay-writing career continued active through the 1980s, with teleplays for Tales of the Unexpected (one episode, 1980), Darkroom (two episodes, 1981), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (one episode, 1986), Tales from the Darkside (three episodes, 1984–87) and Monsters (three episodes, 1988–1989 – “Beetles”, “A Case of the Stubborns” and “Everybody needs a Little Love”). No further screen work appeared in the last five years before his death, although an adaptation of his “collaboration” with Edgar Allan Poe, “The Lighthouse”, was filmed as an episode of The Hunger in 1998.
In 1994, Bloch died of cancer at the age of 77 in Los Angeles after a writing career lasting 60 years, including more than 30 years in television and film.
Image credits: Too Much Horror Fiction
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