And it is that thin veneer between our public persona, and our private one that drives Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel.
Although a prime example of an adaptation surpassing its source material (certainly in the public conscience), a retrospective perusal reveals a tightly written, highly gripping and creepy read. One that is unfairly considered to be mere pulp material that Hitchcock elevated into art. Yes, it is pulp. But excellent pulp.
Everyone knows the story of Norman Bates, his mother and what happens to those who stay at the Bates Motel so there’s no need to go over the story. Instead, let’s look at the writing.
Here’s how the shower scene plays out:
Then she did see it there - just a face, peering through the curtains, hanging in mid-air like a mask. A headscarf concealed the hair and the glassy eyes stared inhumanly, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be. The skin had been powdered dead-white and two hectic spots of rouge centered on the cheekbones. It wasn’t a mask. It was the face of a crazy old woman. Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream.
And her head.
When you remove the Bernard Hermann score, Janet Leigh and Hitchcock’s direction from your mind, I think you’ll agree that this is fine suspense writing. Visual, visceral and succinct. Seemingly easy to write, but harder to do so with the style and panache demonstrated above. No wonder it grabbed Hitchcock.
Norman is examined in great length, being portrayed as an alcoholic loser with no fight in him and therefore stuck in a vicious circle. Bloch depicts one internal argument as such:
He wanted to shout at her that she was wrong, but he couldn't. Because the things she was saying were the things he had told himself, over and over again, all through the years. It was true. She'd always laid down the law to him, but that didn't mean he always had to obey. Mothers sometimes are overly possessive, but not all children allow themselves to be possessed. There had been other widows, other only sons, and not all of them became enmeshed in this sort of relationship. It was really his fault as much as hers. Because he didn't have any gumption.
The end result is that Norman is a much more fleshed out character whose plight is both sympathetic and truly creepy, and this myriad of emotions that the readers experience is much more so than Anthony Perkins’ (admittedly iconic) portrayal, which removed all of the tragic elements and upped the ante on the weirdness.
Going back to the book after nearly 20 years, it’s a joy to rediscover a well-crafted novel where every major scene found its way into the film adaptation with virtually no change and the dialogue only mildly tweaked. Unlike other books that served as source material (The Godfather is one such example), Bloch’s tale packs a punch of its own.
One for those who think they wouldn’t harm a fly.
Robert Bloch, 1959, Psycho, Joffe Books, ISBN-13: 978-0719810817
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.