By ROBERT BLOCH (Scream Press; 1986)
From the late lamented Scream Press (arguably the premiere independent horror publisher of the 1980s) comes this hardcover omnibus of three early novels by Robert Bloch (1917-1994). Bloch seems destined to be forever known as “The Author of PSYCHO” (the novel, that is), although he wrote far more, including a myriad of short stories, novels and quite a few screenplays.
As a novelist Bloch was nothing if not a product of his time, namely the 1940s and 50s. Although he got his start writing Lovecraftian pastiches, Bloch’s gritty (for their time) novels--including FIREBUG, TERROR, THE KIDNAPPER and THE WILL TO KILL--tended to mix quintessentially noirish narratives with the type of dimestore psychology popular at the time. I feel Bloch has been vastly overpraised by many (he’s often identified as “The Master”--of what?), yet his books do have something. Quite simply they’re fun, albeit probably not in the way Bloch intended.
THE SCARF, initially published in 1947 and revised in 1966, was Bloch’s first novel, and the best of the three collected herein. It’s quite dated in most respects, but is still a reasonably potent peek into the deranged psyche of a compulsive murderer.
It begins with aspiring writer Dan Morley strangling his irritating GF with a scarf. Morley subsequently heads for New York, where he transcribes the details of the killing in a novel that catapults him to fame and fortune--and then commits another murder. He also falls in love, but finds the object of his affections won’t love him back. Clearly another murder is imminent, if not two or three--first, though, there’s another scenery change, this time to Hollywood, where Morley tries to knock out a screenplay based on his novel but has trouble, seeing as how his mental state is steadily deteriorating. As in most of his best fiction Bloch demonstrates a disturbing ability to capture the convolutions of a twisted mind, and does so in admirably unselfconscious, compulsively readable prose. The narrative does grow a tad lugubrious toward the end, and closes with a so-so twist that won’t ever displace the finale of the aforementioned PSYCHO in anyone’s mind, but this is chilling stuff.
THE DEAD BEAT, from 1959, follows. It’s prototypical Bloch, being the tale of a small time hood who, after being double-crossed by his pals, attempts to reestablish himself by conning his way into the lives of a nice middle-class couple. This sets up the novel’s none-too-subtle theme of the generational clash of the late fifties, underlined by a know-it-all middle-aged man character who’s always lecturing everyone about the good old days. There’s also the protagonist’s underlying psychosis, which appears to have sprung from an overly literal reading of Freud on the part of the author, and rises to the fore in the final chapters. It’s a silly and extremely dated novel, but quite enjoyable nonetheless, with uncomplicated, easy-to-read prose.
UNHOLY TRINITY’S final entry is THE COUCH, a 1962 novelization of Bloch’s script for the Blake Edwards produced flick of the same name. It’s essentially an early version of the serial killer thrillers of Shane Stevens and Thomas Harris, intercutting the exploits of a man committing a string of random killings based on a deep-seated psychosis with the efforts of several determined cops to bring him down. In his off-hours the killer visits a psychiatrist while secretly romancing the man’s daughter, just as the overall populace grows increasingly panicked by the presence of this unseen killer in their midst. The novel is again readable and unpretentious, although it’s probably most interesting nowadays for its portrayal of crime in the early sixties, with people getting up in arms over a few killings that probably wouldn’t even make the newspapers today.