|The iconic cover with "cracked" lettering|
… which is precisely what Mother does when Mary Crane comes to the motel, fresh from stealing $40,000 from her employer. Mary is en route to see her fiancé, hoping that the money will help pay off his personal debts and get married sooner. But she decides to drop in at the Bates Motel, where Norman develops a boyish crush on her, even though the years of psychological abuse have left him afraid to so much as touch a woman. Mother doesn’t like this, and so when Mary goes to take a shower, Mother storms into the bathroom:
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.
If anything, Hitchcock’s one major change to the novel was the character of Norman Bates, turning him into your everyday innocent American young man—i. e. Anthony Perkins. In the novel, Norman Bates is very different. He’s forty years old, overweight, and wears glasses. He’s also a fairly unpleasant character. As in the movie, for instance, Norman spies on Mary Crane in the bathroom through a peephole, only in the novel, Robert Bloch’s wording heavily implies that he is masturbating when he does this. He also has an unhealthy obsession with the occult and the paranormal and with pseudo-psychology and he’s always reading books on the subjects. The sap can’t even handle his alcohol.
And yet Norman is a saint compared to his mother, which is why I think the novel works so well. Mother goes around murdering people and Norman is horrified at this. He cleans everything up so as to remove all the evidence so that nobody takes his mother away to an institution. And this is where the true delight of the novel can be found.
[From here on, I’m going to assume you know the plot of Psycho, be it the novel or the movie. If you don’t, please ignore the rest of this review, because there will be spoilers. If you haven’t guessed yet, my opinion of the novel is very, very high, and I consider it a masterpiece.]
You see, every time Bloch says that Mother “does” this or “says” that or something of the sort – implying that a real-life woman is doing these things – it is always told from Norman’s point of view. The novel, although told in third-person, is told from the perspectives of various characters, and the perspectives often change around between chapters. The third-person narrator is not omniscient, he only knows what the viewpoint character thinks and feels. As a result, you’ll never see Mother picking something up when the novel is told from Mary’s POV. And this is why I think the book plays a legitimate deception on the reader, rather similarly to an Edgar-winning novel from the 1950s that practically invented the twist. (There is no way you’re getting the title or even the author out of me – if you’ve read it, you know which one I’m talking about.)
Psycho is a major achievement in suspense/mystery fiction, just like the film was a major cinematic achievement. Robert Bloch quite simply crafted a masterpiece, and perhaps now you will know why I so intensely disliked the recent film Hitchcock. Robert Bloch was the guy who came up with kill-your-heroine-early-on, the movie pretends it was Hitch’s wife Alma. In fact, it goes all Feminism-Rules! on you, telling you that it was Janet Leigh and Alma who helped Hitch come up with some of the movie’s most memorable effects. It even pays more attention to the Ed Gein murder case which inspired Bloch to write the novel instead of the novel itself, which leads to an extremely stupid press announcement by Hitchcock that in real life would have given the whole plot away (whereas Hitch in real life jealously guarded the film's secret). It’s just plain disrespectful to Bloch, whose novel is a carefully crafted piece of fiction that holds up remarkably well today.
But you know what? I haven’t stopped there. Neither did the movie studio, which finally started making Psycho sequels in the 1980s, and which were almost universally bad. (Though to be fair, Psycho IV is hardly crap at all.) Here’s the fun part: that’s the time when Robert Bloch started writing sequels to Psycho himself. So tune in tomorrow to see if Robert Bloch, the guy who wrote Psycho in the first place, could do justice to it in a sequel…