Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
Looking for a good read this Halloween?
Look no further than Psycho by Robert Bloch, the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie is based. Hitchcock’s film is such an icon of horror cinema, it’s easy to forget that a novel called Psycho existed first.
And whether you’re reading it for the first time, or re-reading it for the umpteenth, it’s still a powerful read.
For me, I enjoy comparing the book to the movie, seeing things that Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano kept in, things they left out, and things they changed. I also enjoy reading the original ideas by Bloch. With very few exceptions, the story of Psycho as we know it today was entirely created by Bloch. Hitchcock and Stefano added very little in the way of ideas original to the movie.
The story of Psycho is so well known at this point, and for those folks unfamiliar with the movie or the book, the less they know about the plot the better, so I won’t go into much detail here about the story. It’s best for you to discover it on your own.
Basically, Psycho is the story of a peculiar young man named Norman Bates who lives with his domineering old mother and runs a small motel located on a back road off the main highway. A young woman, Mary Crane, has stolen a large sum of money from her employer, which she plans to use to help pay her boyfriend Sam Loomis’ debts so they can get married.
On her way to visit Sam, she stops at the Bates Motel to spend the night. She ends up having a conversation with Norman Bates over dinner, and later that night returns to her room where she takes a shower—.
Sometime later, Mary’s sister Lila and a private investigator name Arbogast arrive in Sam’s town looking for Mary, and when Sam tells them he has no idea where Mary is, that she never came to see him, the search continues. Arbogast finds evidence that Mary had stayed at the Bates Motel, and he tells Lila and Sam this news, but when Arbogast himself disappears, Sam and Lila finally decide to go to the local sheriff, who tells them he believes Arbogast has pulled a fast one on them, because if he told them he was returning to the Bates Motel to question Norman Bates’ mother, he was lying, because Norman Bates’ mother is dead.
And thus the mystery deepens, leading to one of the most memorable conclusions ever in a horror movie, and a pretty good one for a novel as well.
The first and most obvious difference between the book and the movie is the physical appearance of Norman Bates. In the movie, as played by Anthony Perkins, Norman is tall and thin, whereas in the novel, Norman is heavy, out of shape, and wears glasses. In fact, when Mary first sees him in the novel his weak appearance puts her at ease:
Mary made up her mind very quickly, once she saw the fat, bespectacled face and heard the soft, hesitant voice. There wouldn’t be any trouble.
Think again, Mary!
The novel also introduces Norman Bates right away, in Chapter 1, unlike in the movie where the first third of the movie is all about Marion Crane (she’s Marion in the movie, Mary in the book.) It’s a great way to open the novel, as the first chapter probably does a better job defining Norman Bates’ character than the entire Hitchcock movie. Don’t get me wrong. The Hitchcock film nails Norman Bates, mostly because of Anthony Perkins’ phenomenal performance, but here in the novel, especially in the opening chapter, we get inside Norman’s head and immediately are privy to interactions with his mother that define him with the kind of depth you can only find in a novel, as it’s nearly impossible to accomplish in a movie.
As in this exchange:
“—-You never listen to me, do you? It’s always what you want and what you think. You make me sick!”
“Do I boy?” Mother’s voice was deceptively gentle, but that didn’t fool Norman. Not when she called him “boy.” Forty years old, and she called him “boy.”
“That’s the real reason you’re still sitting over here on this side road, isn’t it, Norman? Because the truth is that you haven’t any gumption. Never had any gumption, did you boy?
“Never had the gumption to leave home. Never had the gumption to go out and get yourself a job, or join the army, or even find yourself a girl—.”
“You wouldn’t let me!”
And this thought from Norman:
She’d always laid down the law to him, but that didn’t mean he always had to obey. Mothers sometimes are overly possessive, but not all children allow themselves to be possessed.
This is all from Chapter 1, which really sets the tone for the rest of the novel, as right off the bat we get a full understanding of the dynamic between Norman and his mother. We see and understand what his mother has done to him, and what he has become in the process. I think it’s better defined here in this opening chapter than anywhere in the Hitchcock movie.
Of course, the defining moment of the movie PSYCHO (1960) is the shower scene, one of the most memorable and most studied scenes in film history. Now, whereas the book obviously isn’t going to capture the cinematic craftsmanship of Hitchcock, the bottom line is Bloch doesn’t have to because his version is even more brutal than the film version. His shower scene ends with a beheading. Nuff said.
Granted, I enjoy the first half of the novel better than the second. I find the chapters about Lila and Sam’s investigation much less captivating and interesting than the ones about Norman Bates and his mother. During these later chapters, Norman is in them less, and the novel just isn’t as creepy when he’s not present.
The same goes for his mother, whose presence is felt much more in the book than in the movie. When she’s in the novel, she’s a monstrous character, and Bloch does a masterful job with her. She’s much less of a force in the movie, where for obvious reasons, we don’t see her much.
There’s a great scene after Norman has spent hours cleaning up after his mother’s crime and meticulously disposing of the body. He returns to his house, exhausted. He collapses in his bed and soon hears his mother enter the room.
“It’s all right son. I’m here. Everything’s all right.” He could feel her hand on his forehead, and it was cool, like the drying sweat. He wanted to open his eyes, but she said, “Don’t you worry, son. Just go back to sleep.”
“But I have to tell you—.”
“I know. I was watching. You didn’t think I’d go away and leave you, did you? You did right, Norman. And everything’s all right now.”
Yes. That was the way it should be. She was there to protect him. He was there to protect her. Just before he drifted off to sleep again, Norman made up his mind. They wouldn’t talk about what happened tonight- not now, or ever. And he wouldn’t think about sending her away. No matter what she did, she belonged here, with him. Maybe she was crazy, and a murderess, but she was all he had. All he wanted. All he needed. Just knowing she was here, beside him, as he went to sleep.
Aaargh!!! How creepy!!!!
Psycho is an excellent read, especially around Halloween. If you want to curl up with a frightening book this Halloween, grab a copy of Robert Bloch’s Psycho and invite Norman Bates and his mother into your home. It’ll get under your skin in ways the Hitchcock film doesn’t.
Bloch brings you in so deeply into the mindset of Norman Bates and his mother, it’ll leave you feeling uncomfortable and dirty, in need of a shower. Then again— maybe you better opt for a bath.