Though author Robert Bloch's career was frequently encapsulated by his most famous work - the 1959 novel Psycho, which served as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film of the same name - he produced a vast and celebrated body of work, including numerous books, short stories, screenplays and teleplays over the course of a six-decade career that minted him as one of the masters of horror fiction. He began publishing stories in his teens, emulating the eldritch fantasies of his mentor, H.P. Lovecraft. But in the 1940s, Bloch wrote a series of novels in which the terror was generated by all-too-human sources, beginning with the fetish thriller The Scarf (1947) and culminating in Psycho, a novel of lethal split personalities based on the real-life crimes of Ed Gein, later the inspiration for "The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre" (1974). Hitchcock's "Psycho" allowed him to work steadily in television and features, writing for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS, 1955-1960; 1962-64; NBC, 1960-62; 1964-65) and "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69), among other series, while continuing to turn out novels and short stories at a prolific rate. He returned to Psycho for two sequels, Psycho II (1982) and Psycho House (1990), which were unrelated to the Hitchcock film and continued to write until his death in 1994. Bloch's vision of psychological terror lurking within the façade of everyday life, as well as his substantive body of work, had a profound influence on the horror genre, of which he was one of its most respected practitioners.
Born Robert Albert Bloch in Chicago, IL on April 5, 1917, he was the son of bank cashier Raphael Bloch and his wife, Stella Loeb, who raised their son in the Chicago suburb of Maywood until moving to Milwaukee, WI in 1929. Their son's introduction to the genre that would make him famous came when he attended a screening of "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) with Lon Chaney, Sr. The film's iconic moment, when actress Mary Philbin peeled off Chaney's mask, revealing the disfigured face beneath, terrified the eight-year-old Bloch, but also sparked his lifelong fascination with horror and fantasy. His earliest written effort in the genre was "The Thing," a short story penned for his high school's literary magazine. During this period, Bloch was also a dedicated reader of Weird Tales, a pulp fiction magazine that published works by some of the greatest names in 20th century horror and fantasy, including Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Manly Wade Wellman and a little-known Rhode Island author named H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories and novels about ancient gods and cosmic terror would have a profound influence on popular culture. In 1933, the teenaged Bloch struck up a correspondence with Lovecraft, who became an influential figure to the younger author. Bloch's first professional sales, a pair of stories in the July 1934 edition of Weird Tales, were heavily influenced by Lovecraft, and he contributed several significant stories in Lovecraft's expansive "mythos," a collection of interconnected stories centered around the author's vision of a world on the brink of destruction by ancient forces. Lovecraft would return the tribute by loosely basing the main character in his 1936 story "The Haunter in the Dark" upon Bloch.
During this period, Bloch also supported himself by working as a copywriter for an ad agency and campaign strategist for Carl Zeidler's successful campaign for mayor of Milwaukee. He also sold gags to radio comedies and penned his own radio drama series, "Stay Tuned for Terror," in 1944, which featured adaptations of many of his fiction works. Bloch's first collection of short stories, The Opener of the Way, was issued by Arkham House, a publishing house devoted to horror fiction and founded by authors August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. During this period, Bloch began to move away from Lovecraft's influence and establish his own style of genre fiction; one of the first efforts in this direction was 1943's "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," which depicted the legendary murderer as a supernatural being who killed to extend his life to immortal lengths. The story not only placed Bloch's work within a modern context, as opposed to Lovecraft's 19th-century-influenced work, but also marked the beginning of a fascination with real-life criminals that would feature prominently in his subsequent writing.
His first novel in this vein was The Scarf (1947), an eerie thriller about a writer whose fetish for the titular object drove him to compulsive murder. He published frequently in the late '40s and 1950s, producing four novels, including The Will to Kill (1954) and a foray into science fiction called Shooting Star (1958), as well as numerous short stories for Amazing, Ellery Queen and other mystery/fantasy magazines. Despite this proliferation of work, Bloch was unsatisfied with his career. His hardcover novels had gone out of print, while the short story and paperback work netted minimal returns. His wife, Marjorie, also suffered from tuberculosis of the bone, which hindered her ability to walk. In 1953, Bloch left his ad agency job and relocated his wife and their daughter, Sally, to Marjorie's hometown of Weyauwega, WI, so that she could be closer to her family. Four years later, he began reading reports from Plainfield, a town 35 miles away, about a reclusive farmer, Ed Gein, who had been arrested for the murders of two women. Upon entering his home, police found a grisly collection of body parts, mostly female and many culled from local graveyards. Gein had languished under the abusive reign of a fanatically religious mother until her death in 1945, upon which he launched a horrific campaign to transform himself into a woman by donning the skins of female corpses.
While the country reeled from the gruesome reports of Gein's crimes, Bloch became fascinated by the idea of an individual leading a double life - one outwardly unremarkable, which shielded a second, monstrously-depraved side from the community at large. In six weeks' time, he penned Psycho, a novel based loosely on Gein's crimes, about a middle-aged motel owner who assumed the personality of his domineering mother in order to commit several murders. The book received not only positive reviews for its thoroughly modern approach to horror, which drew its greatest terror from warped psychology and not the supernatural, but also a blind bid from an unnamed entity in Hollywood seeking the screen rights to the novel. Bloch's agent accepted an offer for $9,500 with no bonus for a film sale. It was only after accepting the deal that Bloch learned that the rights to Psycho had been purchased by Alfred Hitchcock, who turned the book into one of Hollywood's most terrifying thrillers.
Contrary to popular belief, Hitchcock's "Psycho" did not launch Bloch to stardom. The film was largely regarded by the industry and even members of the director's production team as a grave error that would spell the end of his career. While waiting for the public to decide the fate of "Psycho," Bloch had won the prestigious Hugo Award for his short story "That Hell-Bound Train." He had also accepted an offer from a colleague to come to Hollywood and contribute scripts for the legal drama "Lock-Up" (syndicated, 1959-1961), which led to numerous screenwriting assignments, including "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," for which he would eventually pen 10 episodes. A 1960 Writers Guild strike put his new career on hold for nearly half a year, during which he returned to writing short stories. Upon its conclusion, he was able to move his family to California, where the most successful phase of his career began in earnest. To the surprise of many, "Psycho" became a runaway hit, and while Bloch had little to do with the film's production, his association with the picture gave his profile a considerable boost. His subsequent novels, including 1960's The Dead Beat, Firebug (1961) and Terror (1962), were credited as "by the author of Psycho." Bloch was also in demand as a television writer, penning some of the best episodes of the anthology series "Thriller" (NBC, 1960-62) and "The Sorceror's Apprentice," a 1962 episode of "Hitchcock Presents" that was pulled from broadcast after the show's sponsor, Revlon, considered it too gruesome.
By 1964, Bloch had branched out into feature films, penning the "Psycho" carbon "Strait-Jacket" for director-showman William Castle, and "The Skull" (1965), an adaptation of his short story "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade" for England's Amicus Productions that starred horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Bloch would pen several additional features for Amicus, including "The Psychopath" (1966), the nature-gone-amuck thriller "The Deadly Bees" (1967) and two horror anthology films "Torture Garden" (1967), "The House that Dripped Blood" (1970) and "Asylum" (1972), with the latter two built around adaptations of Bloch's short stories. He also wrote several notable episodes of the original "Star Trek," including a variation of the Jack the Ripper myth called "Wolf in the Fold," and contributed to some of the better small screen horror efforts of the period, including "Night Gallery" (NBC, 1970-72) and Castle's "Ghost Story" (NBC, 1972-73). His novel and short story output also continued unabated, including forays into straight drama with The Star Stalker (1968) and science fiction with Ladies Day (1967), though horror titles like the psycho-thrillers Night-World (1972) and American Gothic (1973) remained his most successful showcase.
That same year, he wrote "The Cat Creature" (ABC, 1973), the first of two TV-movie collaborations with cult director Curtis Harrington; intended as a remake of "Cat People" (1941), Bloch instead incorporated tropes from a wider variety of classic Hollywood horror, including reincarnated Egyptian gods and mummies. The film and its immediate follow-up, "The Dead Don't Die" (NBC, 1975), later became favorites among followers of small screen genre efforts. After receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the First World Fantasy Convention in 1975, Bloch continued to produce new material at the same prolific rate he had maintained for the previous two decades. Two new novels - the Lovecraft tribute Strange Eons (1978) and a mainstream book called There is a Serpent in Eden (1979) - capped the decade along with six short story collections. He then returned to the novel that launched him to worldwide fame by writing Psycho II (1982), which saw Norman Bates escape from his long incarceration in an asylum and resume his killing spree while heading for Hollywood, where a film version of his crimes was in production. The novel was soundly rejected by Universal, which retained the rights to the original film and any potential sequels. The studio released its own follow-up film, Richard Franklin's "Psycho II" (1982), while Bloch's novel sold well enough to warrant a third book, Psycho House (1990), which addressed the cult of celebrity generated by infamous killers by envisioning a Bates Motel transformed into a tourist attraction, complete with murder scene recreations.
Between Psycho releases, he won a second Hugo in 1984 for his five decades as a fantasy, horror and science fiction author. He also returned to the Jack the Ripper murders with Night of the Ripper (1984) and penned The Jekyll Legacy (1991), a sequel to the classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Bloch also continued to write for television, contributing to the fading horror anthology genre with episodes of the revived "The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (NBC, 1985-86/USA Network, 1987-89) and "Tales from the Darkside" (syndicated, 1984-88). In 1993, he published his autobiography, Once Around the Bloch (1993), which detailed his six-decade career pre- and post-Psycho, as well as his adventures in Hollywood. The following year, Bloch succumbed to cancer on Sept. 23, 1994 at the age of 77.
By Paul Gaita