This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week
will write about a significant work in the
genre. You are invited to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the course of the
year—if we survive—we will have tackled
zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons,
vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for
a new title...but remember to bring along
garlic, silver bullets and a protective
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Essay by Ted Gioia

The horror story, in its earliest origins, almost always involved the supernatural. You can
trace this back to the ghost stories of ancient times—Pliny the Younger related one in a
letter almost 2,000 years ago, and it is surprisingly similar to those told round the campfire
nowadays. Such tales no doubt came out of an even older tradition of myths about
journeys to the underworld. These earlier narratives were always embedded in belief
systems and were often surrounded by ritual practices, but at a certain undefined juncture
in human history, the stories got secularized. They were told simply to scare listeners. The
trip to the underworld no longer represented a heroic quest to secure totemic powers or
acquire the support of tutelary spirits, but was recounted as a kind of cathartic

This was the greatest moment in the history of horror
fiction, the juncture when the scary tale left creed and
ritual behind and aimed simply to terrify and astonish.
Yet a second revolution took place during the second
half of the twentieth century, almost as important as
the first—namely, the arrival of the horror story devoid
of supernatural elements. These new efforts often
borrowed heavily from other genres, especially crime
fiction. But you will never mistake them for a detective
whodunit. The goal is not to solve the crime, but to put
it on display in vivid detail—and the reader is all the
more unnerved because such plots require nothing
magical or occult. These gruesome incidents could
actually happen, maybe even to you.

I won’t claim that Robert Bloch invented this new style of
horror fiction with his novel
Psycho, but this was clearly
the story that pushed psychotic criminals to the forefront
of the genre. Bloch, in essence, enjoyed the breakthrough success that paved the way for
later horror-and-crime hybrid novels such as
The Silence of the Lambs and American
Psycho. In many ways, this was the final stage of secularization for the horror story—a shift
so complete that many of these plots could easily be drawn from news stories. In some
instances (such as Truman Capote's
In Cold Blood or Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie), they
actually did originate in the real life reporting.  

My Year of Horrible Reading by Ted Gioia

Bloch explained that this shift in perspective came out of the experiences of World War II,
with its battlefield horrors and genocidal atrocities. "By the mid-1940s, I had pretty well
mined the vein of ordinary supernatural themes until it had become varicose," Bloch
related to horror critic and author Douglas E. Winter. "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

Yet Bloch had started out as a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft, whose weird tales mixed together
elements of dark fantasy, science fiction, and a private mythology that has exerted a
powerful influence on subsequent generations of genre writers. Bloch’s earliest
publications show the pervasive influence of Lovecraft—and the master returned the favor
by basing a character on his young disciple, "Robert Blake," a horror writer who dies while
investigating a dark cult in Lovecraft’s 1935 tale "The Haunter of the Dark." But Bloch
gradually abandoned most of the elements of this early mentor, not just the Cthulhu
mythology, but also the baroque sentences and elaborate descriptions that are the calling
card of Lovecraftian prose.

Yet even in the early stages of his career, Bloch showed clear signs of his destiny as a horror
writer. When he incorporated supernatural elements into his fiction, he often combined
them with sensationalistic real life crime stories—as in his celebrated 1940s tales "Yours
Truly, Jack the Ripper" and "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe."  His first published novel,
(1947), involves a serial killer. During the 1950s, Bloch seemed to have put horror
behind him, and turn into a specialist in crime fiction.
 Shooting Star, from 1958, is a
conventional hard-boiled private investigator novel, but in
The Kidnapper, The Will to Kill
and Spiderweb, Bloch starts to show a greater interest in the psyche of the criminal. This
new focus would come to fruition at the close of the decade with
Psycho.  Here Bloch finds
a way to insert all his favorite ingredients—horror, suspense, crime, abnormal psychology,
and a dark noir sensibility.

As an added twist, the story at the heart of
Psycho involves two different criminals. Mary
Crane has stolen $40,000 from her employers, and has left town with a vague plan of
joining up with her fiancé, who lives in the distant city of Fairvale. After making a wrong
turn and encountering a fierce storm, she decides to spend the night at the Bates Motel.
The proprietor Norman Bates is a shy, eccentric man who still lives with his mother in a
house behind the motel. At first glance, he seems  harmless enough, a little odd but hardly
dangerous. Yet his relationship with his mother is peculiar, perhaps even a little sick.

Most people today remember
Psycho for the shower stabbing of Mary Crane (or Marion,
as she is called in the movie version). Hitchcock turned this on-screen murder into one of
the most celebrated and studied scenes in cinematic history. This gruesome confrontation
between a demented killer and a naked, vulnerable victim is also the centerpiece of the
book. But also give Bloch credit for understanding the conceptual shifts taking place in
American society during the 1950s, a period when Freud went mainstream and even
people who had never taken a class on psychology would talk about Oedipal attachments
and psychosexual development. Norman Bates was the perfect foil for these
preoccupations, not merely because of his imitation of Jack the Ripper (a historical figure,
by the way, with whom Bloch was obsessed) but perhaps even more due to evocation of the
leading currents in pop psychology. He wasn't just a villain, he was also a case study.

Norman takes an interest in his attractive lodger, and even invites her up to the house for a
makeshift dinner. But Mom is a wild card. She doesn't like her son cavorting with ladies,
and she decides to take matters into her own bloody hands.  But nothing is what it seems in
this novel. Norman Bates is hardly as innocent as he first appears, and Mom is even more a
victim than a victimizer.

Bloch spins this story out with great patience, and brings

in a host of characters who have an interest in finding out
what really is going on at Bates Motel. The story obviously
requires a private investigator—a necessary foil in every

crime tale—but he only plays a secondary role in this novel.
He won’t solve the crime, merely serve as the instigation for
another one. We also have a sheriff, but he is even less skilled

at crime detection than the private eye. The burden of solving
the mystery falls on Mary  Crane’s sister and boyfriend.

The focus of this novel is really the psychotic criminal. I can’t really call him the hero, but
Norman Bates is anything but a cardboard villain. He is the centerpiece of Bloch’s
masterwork, and he is portrayed with such creepy vividness that, even today, Mr. Bates
ranks among the most famous characters in the history of horror fiction. I’m hardly
surprised that Bates has been brought back for many encore performances, in movies, TV
shows and stories.  When the American Film Institute picked the
top 100 film villains,
Bates (as played by Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s move version of
Psycho) ranked
number two on the list—trailing only
Hannibal Lecter. And, frankly, I can’t conceive of
Lecter without the precedent of Bloch’s Bates.

The novel holds up fairly well all these years later. As with the Hitchcock film, Bloch’s story
never revels in gore and gruesome details. The intense
ly psychological quality of the
narrative is paramount, and this aspect of
Psycho has hardly aged at all. I can still imagine
Norman Bates
and others like him out there nowadays, although they are probably residing
on the Internet rather than operating a cheap motel. But you still don’t want to mess with
them. Or their moms, either, for that matter.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author ten books, most recently How to Listen
to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication Date: June 27, 2016
Many feared the man who wrote Psycho. But
Robert Bloch would reassure them. "Despite my
ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a
small boy," he insisted. Then added: "I keep it in
a jar on my desk."

Bloch first made
his reputation for
his association with
"Yours Truly, Jack
the Ripper," and later,
looking back on his
career, expressed a
fondness for
and The
Star Stalk
Fortunately those are
names of his fictional works, not his close

Born in Chicago in 1917, Bloch first discovered
his attraction to horror at a movie theater
showing of
The Phantom of the Opera (1925),
starring Lon Chaney, Sr. As a teenager, when
most of his peers were playing baseball or
collecting stamps, Bloch began corresponding
with horror master H.P. Lovecraft. The
influence of Lovecraft, who encouraged and
mentored many younger writers, can be seen in
Bloch’s early works, and in some of them he
drew on his role model’s Cthulhu Mythos. But in
time Bloch, shifted focus, away from monsters
and the supernatural and towards a different
kind of horror, grounded in crime fiction and
the psychology of aberrant behavior.

The success of his story "Yours Truly, Jack the
Ripper," which appeared in
Weird Tales in 1943,
led to a series of other stories drawing on
historical figures (including Lizzie Borden and
the Marquis de Sade). While others wrote
detective tales about heroic private eyes, Bloch
preferred to make the criminal the focal point of
his story. And the creepier the killer, the better.  
Bloch’s first novel,
The Scarf (1947) dealt with a
serial murderer who was also a writer.
(1954) told the story of Steve Collins,
who abducts a wealthy heiress. But the success
Psycho (1959), the story of demented motel
operator Norman Bates, would eclipse
everything else Bloch ever achieved. Alfred
Hitchcock’s 1960 film version would stand out
as the most frightening horror film of the period,
and Bloch would reap the benefits. Readers
wanted more of the same, and during the course
of the 1960s, Bloch would publish 15 short story
collections and 7 novels, as well as screenplays
and other projects.

Bloch died in 1994 at age 77—just a few days shy
of the 60th anniversary of his first published
story. His legacy is commemorated with the
Robert Bloch Award, presented at the
Necronomicon convention for contributions to
the field of weird fiction.
by Robert Bloch
To purchase, click on image
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Robert Bloch

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Thomas Harris
The Silence of the Lambs

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction

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Norman Bates
wasn’t just a
villain, he was
also a case study.