July 2003

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

Who's Robert Bloch?

At lunch with some friends a few weeks back, the subject of Stephen King came up, and one of them told me, "I heard Stephen King say that he has the heart of a young boy, and that he keeps it on his mantle."

I didn't even blink. "King was quoting Robert Bloch," I replied (and I'm sure that King was, indeed, quoting him, as King's always shown an appreciation for those who came before him).

"Who?"

This time, I blinked.

"You know," I stuttered, still somewhat shocked, "the grandmaster of horror, the guy who wrote more great horror short stories than almost anyone, the guy who wrote Psycho?"

That last one rung a bell. And to my friend's credit, she didn't say, "Oh, he writes screenplays."

I shouldn't get too upset over this sort of thing. Great as Bloch was, it's not like many of his peers are exactly household names, either (ask any non-genre person who John Campbell is, for example). And at least a few folks do readily remember that he's the creator of Norman Bates.

But folks who only know Bloch as the creator of characters most associated with Alfred Hitchcock are missing out on one of the most important authors of the Twentieth Century, the man who almost single-handedly invented the modern psychological horror story, bridging the gap between folks like Le Fanu and Lovecraft and contemporary writers like Stephen King. They're also missing some of the best and creepiest tales written. And that's a tragedy.

Bloch, who was born in Chicago in 1917, started as a writer of old-school weird tales. As a teen, he'd corresponded with Lovecraft, and Bloch was strongly influenced by his friend and mentor (he even famously killed Lovecraft in his story "Shambler from the Stars," and Lovecraft returned the favor by offing a character named "Robert Blake" in "The Haunter of the Dark"). Although Bloch wrote some of the most influential Cthulhu Mythos stories, had he stopped there, he'd have been remembered, like Derleth and others, as nothing more than a Lovecraft wannabe.

But Bloch would prove to be a much more versatile writer than his predecessors. This evinced itself in a few ways. Perhaps the single greatest distinguishing feature of Bloch's writing is that he wrote with a sense of humor. Like another pulp-era great, Isaac Asimov, his titles were laced with puns (from anthologies with names like Tales in a Jugular Vein to his Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography), and he also had some nicely macabre turns of phrase (aside from the quote that inspired this column, he's the man who gave us the phrase, "rest in pieces").

He also knew how valuable humor could be as a storytelling mechanism. One of the biggest flaws of the early pulp tales is that their characters tended to be extremely earnest, not having any life outside of the plot. Bloch recognized how important it was to flesh out his characters, and giving them a sense of humor made them more real. He was one of the first to create truly charismatic villains, and his characters set the pace for modern villains, from the ubiquitous slashers of moviedom to Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter.

So, which of Bloch's works should you pick up?

Start with Psycho. Sure, it's a bit dated, but it's a fast, fun read, and if it's not as scary as Hitchcock's movie (the less said about Gus Van Sant's attempt at a remake, the better), it's still scarier and better written than most contemporary "thrillers."

Then, move on to Lost in Time and Space With Lefty Feep, his humorous stories of a Damon Runyonesque character, filled with some truly awful (or wonderful, depending on your perspective) puns. It isn't horror, but if you're that hung up on genre titles, you'll probably not likely to enjoy short stories with titles like "The Pied Piper Fights the Gestapo" and "A Snitch in Time" anyway.

The best collection of Bloch's short work is The Early Fears. Unfortunately out-of-print, it can still be found used on Amazon and elsewhere on the Internet. This collection includes some of Bloch's early Lovecraft pastiches, but it also has some of his later works (in spite of the title). The best stories in the collection include "That Hell-Bound Heart," for which Bloch won his only Hugo award and perhaps his second-most-famous work, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper."

Two of his later novels are also highly worthwhile. American Gothic, which explored the infamous murders by H.H. Holmes at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (fifteen years before Erik Larson wrote a nonfiction account of those crimes in The Devil in the White City). It's slight, but enjoyable. And 1978's Strange Eons was a return to his Lovecraftian roots, and is a delightful tribute to the Mythos and to Bloch's mentor.

Finally, the above-mentioned autobiography, Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography), should be required reading for any fan of horror. Not only does Bloch's style make for an immensely enjoyable read, but his early communications with Lovecraft, Howard, and other pulp authors offer great insight into the evolution of the genre. The book is shallow at times -- Bloch doesn't delve into his own feelings nearly often enough -- but it provides a nice tour of not only the early horror industry, but also of mid-century Hollywood and television.

Bloch passed away nearly ten years ago, and too much of his work is slipping out of print. For the works of a man who has won Lifetime Achievements from both the Bram Stoker Awards and the World Fantasy Awards, and who influenced almost every contemporary horror writer, to be out-of-print is a tragedy. If you are lucky enough to find a Bloch book at your local store, pick it up. If you like horror, you owe that to yourself.