Psycho by Robert Bloch
The title has become so synonymous with the smash-hit movie that it's easy to forget that, before Psycho received the Alfred Hitchcock treatment and made a superstar out of Anthony Perkins, it was in fact a successful novel by well-respected horror writer Robert Bloch.
Norman Bates runs a pretty unappealing motel whose clientele has dwindled to virtually nil ever since it was bypassed by the highway. He lives as a recluse in the broken-down old house skulking behind the motel building, occasionally intruded upon by guests but increasingly thrown back upon his solitude.
The only thing that regularly disturbs Norman is the presence of his mother, a crabby old woman whose constant belittling of him has entirely emasculated him and made him deeply resentful of her existence.
One rainy night, Mary Crane checks into the Bates Motel. She's on the run after snatching thousands of dollars from her boss's office. It's entirely out of character for her to break the law, but she's spurred on by the thought of being able to marry her fiancé far sooner than would otherwise realistically be possible.
Norman hangs around trying to befriend her and spying on her through a crack in the plaster wall. He then passes out, blaming drunkenness for his incapacity. In the meantime, someone has descended into a murderous rage, sneaking into Mary's motel room and stabbing her to death in the shower. Norman instantly blames the attack on his mother, the only other person with a set of keys to the motel.
Mary's fiancé Sam Loomis, the detective hired by her boss, and her sister Lila all begin to investigate her disappearance, bringing further intrusions for Norman and his mother to deal with in their own way.
Psycho has a pretty hardboiled feel courtesy of the presence of Detective Arbogast investigating alongside Mary's concerned fiancé and sister. The novel is such a mix of outright bloodthirstiness, as the killings mount up, together with professional and amateur sleuthing, that could easily be thought of as a mashup rather than a straight horror novel. However, all of these aspects are in fact subordinate to the importance of characterisation as the story unfolds.
It is the psychology behind the crimes and the subtlety of the murderer's portrayal that makes Psycho a tour de force. Quite who is committing these violent crimes is tantalisingly kept a secret. The pace is comfortably slow, with plenty of room to develop Norman's creepy character and those of Sam and Lila.
Arbogast, present merely in a professional capacity, is more lightly drawn. It gives the reader time to gauge Norman's behaviour for themselves, something which is essential in foreshadowing the very unexpected ending. This provides the reader with space to buy into the real identity of the murderer and their complex motivation.
With the iconic Hitchcock film, and the subsequent looser adaptation by Netflix, the story of the Bates Motel and its residents could be enjoyed solely on screen. However, the original novel is well worth a read for its excellent characterisation, pacing and subtlety, as well as for its innovative analysis of a violent murderer's psychology.
Many thanks for reading my review of Psycho by Robert Bloch. I'll be back on Friday. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Father of the Bride here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of magician by Raymond E Feist here.