October 30, 2009

Rabid Reads for Halloween: "Psycho" by Robert Bloch

Title: Psycho
Author: Robert Bloch
Publisher: First Tor edition (1989); originally published in 1959
Genre: Horror/Suspense
Pages: 223
ISBN 0-812-50031-8
Can. ISBN 0-812-50032-6

If you're like me, you're far more familiar with Alfred Hitchcock's iconic film than the novel upon which it was based. It's just one of those films that has transcended genre classification and has permeated through American pop culture. If you ever hear a violin hitting those piercing, slashing notes, your mind instantly envisions the shower scene and that shot of the butcher knife thrusting down repeatedly. There's good reason why people count this among their favorite horror/suspense movies, or favorite movies in general.

Well, this fall I wanted to concentrate my reading list on some of the classic pieces of horror literature that've been sitting on my bookshelf. Psycho was the oldest one of the eight books I highlighted on my fall reading list (you can see my fall reading list here). It's also one of those books that any fan of dark fiction should read at least once in their lives, whether you loved the movie or not.

The story should be familiar to all in this day and age. Mary Crane is in a job she doesn't like, working for a man she can't really stand, and on a Friday afternoon she's nearly at her wit's end. Then, she's tasked with taking forty thousand dollars in notes to be deposited in the bank before she heads home early for the weekend. Remember, this is the late '50s and forty grand is some serious coin. Well, the dollar signs go off in her eyes, and she sees a new life with the man she loves, Sam Loomis. But, before she gets to him, bad weather and a detour through a neglected patch of highway leads her instead to the Bates Motel.

Norman Bates, the proprietor of the motel, is the quintessential loner. Looking after both a forgotten motel and his domineering mother, Norman leads a quiet and secluded life. Hardly anyone comes to the motel now that the new stretch of highway bypasses them entirely, and he's both lonely in his position and resentful for being placed in such a position. So, when Mary Crane arrives on a rainy night looking for a room and a hot meal, he's all too eager to accommodate her, even though his interactions with women other than his mother are very rare. Things go along pleasantly enough between the two, but before long ...

Well, need I remind any of you of the iconic shower scene?

To read the book for the first time, it's easy to see how Alfred Hitchcock could be inspired to create such a chilling piece of film. There's a tone to the story that carries through almost from the very first page. The story plays out at first with a very contemporary feel, but as soon as Mary Crane is murdered, you start to see the inner turmoil in Norman Bates' life. There's also the matter of Mary's lover, Sam, and her sister, Lila, trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance and the missing forty thousand dollars. It came close to feeling like a hard-boiled detective novel, but there's such a demented slant provided by Norman Bates that the novel takes on a life all its own.

For people who have seen the movie, I say there is more than enough material in this surprisingly short novel to give readers something to chew on. The foreboding atmosphere alone is reading just to admire it. And if you were unfortunate to see the wholly unnecessary remake starring Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche, then you absolutely must see the original film and read this novel too--you'll need something to get the bad taste out of your mouth.

Ultimately, Psycho is not one of my favorite films or novels, but I appreciate the story as one of the most skillfully crafted pieces of fiction to grace the silver screen and the printed page. If you've never experienced the twist ending, you've been living under a rock, but you're also in for a real treat. And if I had experienced this with absolutely no preconceptions, I may have been swayed to count it among my all-time favorites as well.

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