“#2 Psycho. Can you ever feel safe in a shower again? I think there may have been a film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock.”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “13 Best Non Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
As you can see from KEW’s quote, it’s not easy to review a cultural icon. Especially one that most people mostly know from a popular film version. Everyone is familiar with the plot! It might be a bit easier to do the job if the movie adaptations were bombs (and some were), but the 1960 version with Jamie’s mom is a classic.
To make matters worse, I actually finished the last chapter of the novel while watching said movie (courtesy Ted Turner).
Well. It is Halloween.
The novel begins with Norman Bates sitting at his desk in the motel owned by him and his mother. It’s out in the middle of Texas. He’s contemplating how the pounding of the rain on the window panes remind him of a book he read on Inca victory dances where the body of dead foe served as the drum section. Then his mother enters the room and gives him a load of grief. Bates is described here as a fat, bald man, not at all like the Anthony Perkins character. Finally, he notices someone has driven up to the motel.
The next scene flashes back to the day before. Mary Crane is a 27-year-old secretary who’s having to endure the lure of a big-bucks land speculator in the real estate office where she works. The speculator, Tommy Cassidy, casually slaps down 40K in front of her to pay for a house for his daughter as a wedding present. She’s told by her boss to take the money to the bank.
But it’s Friday and Mary has some other ideas. She met Sam Loomis on a cruise (won the trip in a contest) some years before and they’re planning on getting married. Sam owns a hardware store in another part of the state, but he’s forced to live in the back room of it. When he inherited the store from his father, he also inherited the debts. Sam is determined to pay off the bills and save up for the future, but it will take time. And Mary is tired of waiting.
Knowing she’ll have a weekend head start, Mary takes the cash and flees town. She manages to exchange cars along the way until she decides it’s time to take a rest. And where better to chill than an isolated motel off the main highway? It just so happens to be Norman Bates’ motel.
Much of the novel is written from Norman Bates’ point-of-view. Not in first person mode, but in third, as if Bloch was staring over Bates’ shoulder as the man went about his daily routine. Bloch would later claim the book was inspired by the Ed Gein case. The writing is crisp, showing Bloch’s skill as a professional writer.
For a sample, here is one of the most chilling accounts of child abuse I’ve ever encountered:
Maybe the real trouble was that his eyes were bad. Yes, that was it, because he remembered how he used to enjoy looking in the mirror as a boy. He like to stand in front of the glass without any clothes on. One time Mother caught him at it and hit him on the head with the big silver-handled hairbrush. She hit him hard, and it hurt. Mother said that was a nasty thing to do, to look at yourself that way.
Bloch would also write two sequels to the book, which were never filmed. I haven’t read either, but I’m told he takes a chainsaw to Hollywood in at last one. He also claimed in his autobiography that Psycho didn’t “make” him as a writer; he had a successful writing career long before the book was optioned for a film. Bloch passed away in 1994.
For an excellent introduction to the whole “crazed killer living next door” genre, you couldn’t find a better book. It’s also brisk: my copy runs 153 pages.