Book review: Psycho

Psycho.Psycho by Robert Bloch.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

When I was a teenager, going through something of a Hitchcock stage, I found a copy of this book and I remember loving it. But that was thirty years ago, so I figured I’d better revisit Bloch’s best-known work and see if it still stands up.

Unsurprisingly, it does. I think it’s probably more affecting at this point than it was when I was younger: the book is a lot sharper than I remembered.

Bloch was a pulp writer through and through. His work is eminently saleable, and is smart enough to know that sometimes a little sharp stupidity is what a text needs. This, his sixth novel, is no exception: there’s some wonderfully descriptive passages, but when the stress of the narrative needs it, he’s unafraid to, er, cut things off with a wryly violent bon mot.

The story is, on the face of it, simple: a woman steals from her employer and flees, en route to a lover. She stops at a motel and then… well, it ain’t restful. Cue investigation.

If you only know the story of Psycho because of Hitchcock, it’s worth reading this to grab a little more background. It’s different, in some ways. Yeah, there’s different character names (Mary versus Marion) and different character descriptions (Norman Bates here is a pudgy, middle-aged loser with a predilection for occult literature) but that’s not the most pressing reason to take up a copy.

It’s the explanatory narrative.

See, throughout the book, there are plenty of examples of characters’ internal dialogues, and these offer greater sense of motivation, of regret and fear. Sure, the cinema can convey all these things, but reading Bloch’s words I understood better both Norman and Mary’s feelings of being trapped, entangled. Of living with mistakes and trying to fix them. If anything, there’s a greater sense of empathy in the text than there is in the movie, which can veer a little towards the cartoonish at times.

Written in 1959, some of the psychological descriptions are certainly outdated, or read as borderline offensive, but there’s a distinct sense of Bloch trying to understand his creations, rather than just label them as particular types and leave it at that.

Thirty years after I first read it, and a good sixty after it was published, this slim book still offers shivers aplenty.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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