(In it’s rightful place as first among the psychos)

By Robert Bloch


What a perfect start to this semester. I’ve loved Psycho for as long as I can remember. Of course, like most people, I saw the Hitchcock movie first and found myself for the first time ever torn about how I felt for the villain of the story. The book was inspired by the real life psycho Ed Gein, who had a similar Oedipus complex and while he only killed a few people, was a consummate grave robber. He admitted to trying to may a woman suit so that he could become his mother. While Gein’s crimes sound horrific and unforgivable, Norman Bates comes off as the sad result of a dominated and abused child and Bloch’s description of him adds to that. Bloch describes Norman as having a “fat, bespectacled face” and a “soft, hesitant voice”. The description brings to mind an immediate vision of a boy likely bullied all his life and self-conscious because of it.

Hitchcock chose to remove Bates’ alcoholism and replaced the 40 year old dowdy bachelor with a young handsome Anthony Perkins. In my research, this was done to give Norman a more sympathetic feel although I would disagree. I think the book’s description adds even more sympathy to his character. Besides these changes, both the movie and the book presented Norman in a sympathetic villain light. I love it when I can relate to the villain, when I struggle with what I know is right and what I feel in my heart. I like a story that makes me examine those parts of my being I would normally suppress.

Mary/Marion Crane is not the innocent victim either. She is a thief who has stolen from a man who appears to be a caring and wonderful boss. I never related well to her and I think this is part of the brilliance of the story. We question our morals throughout the story. Who is the victim, who is really the bad guy? Do we really know what Norma Bates was like? Could it be that she was a loving mother to a mentally ill son, a paranoid schizophrenic who made her into something else entirely in his head? We’ll never know. He had a lot of interesting and expensive books in his library as well as an expensive hobby that we know he was into before his mother died, who gave him all those things? She surely knew of his interests if they lived together. So, if we really think about it, who really was the bad guy?

Maybe it was the sheriff and the townsfolk who turned a blind eye to the strange man who went about his business after he was released from the State Hospital. Maybe it was the doctors who didn’t ask many questions about the strange deaths.

As for the writing, itself, I found several instances where Bloch gives us clues as to what is really happening. His word choices foreshadow the final reveal. Had the reader not known Norman’s secret, they would have been able to go back and say “how did I not see this coming?” We start in the very first chapter where Norman is reading a book about the drying and preservation of corpses by the Incas. He reads with satisfaction about making drums out of taught tanned abdominal skin of dead enemies and then a conversation between his mother and himself occurs. It is during this conversation when each time his mother “speaks” Norman thinks of “the sound reverberating from the mangled mouth” of the enemy’s corpse, and when she calls him “boy”: “there it was again, boy, boy, boy! Drumming away out of the jaws of death.” Later on, in chapter two, Mary is thinking about how the rain reminds her of the day her mother was buried and Bloch describes her thoughts: “And now the darkness was here, rising all around Mary. She was alone in the darkness. The money wouldn’t help her and Sam wouldn’t help her….she’d made her grave and now she must lie in it.” Darkness did ultimately rise up to swallow her in the swamp, after she was killed in the rain of the shower. There was a lot of mirroring in this chapter as well and it was done well.

There was some subtle mirroring as well which made Norman’s bipolar thoughts sound just as normal as those of Sam and Mary. In Chapter three, Mary begins the chapter with the plan of heading on in the morning to Sam, but by the end, her thoughts have done a 180 and she is ready to go home and face her sins. In chapter five, Norman begins in an angry rage towards his mother with the plan to turn her in to “ put Mother where she belonged”. His inner monologue gradually changes to how they protected each other and a decision to never speak of it again. Is that thought process really so different than anyone else’s facing some difficult decisions? Even Sam in chapter fourteen, begins by planning to stall Bates while Lila goes to find the sheriff, and after talking to Norman for a little time, he decides they were wrong to suspect him and lets his guard down. I think perhaps all of us go a little bipolar at times.


Would I have picked any of these things up as a basic reader? I don’t know, but as a critical reader, I did and I am glad for it. I knew this story like the back of my hand, I have read it and watched it more times than I can count, yet never once did I want to put the book down, never once did I start finding fault in the writer’s method. That says a lot to me. Psycho will always be one of my favorites and I’ll always be a Norman Bates fangirl. If that’s sick of me to say, than I don’t want to be well.


8 thoughts on “Psycho

  1. Joe-la, I can tell this book is one of your favorites! I have to say, Bloch made this book too hard to put down, just by the simple fact that it’s short and easy to read. No flowery prose, no confusing sentence structure, just a straight-forward book that deals with complex issues. It was extremely well-done, and if I’m a little more critical of the plot-points, it’s only because I felt Bloch is better that!


    • The Petulant Muse says:

      It is a favorite. I have always loved it. And I understand your criticisms. Don’t worry I commented on yours too. 🙂


  2. Joe-La, I think it’s very telling that Hitchcock felt that a lead character who, honestly, looked a LOT like him wouldn’t be sympathetic to audiences.
    You brought up all the good issues about the book’s complexity, and how “grey” the main characters were — no black and white, here’s the good guys, here’s the bad guys crap for Bloch! Bates was a surprisingly sympathetic psycho in both the movie and the book, and I’ve been trying to figure out why he should be portrayed that way.
    Part of me wonders if both Bloch and Hitchcock didn’t have some deep-seated “mother” issues of their own, and so could relate on some level. Another part thinks that the ONLY way they could have a psycho as the star of a book, and then a movie, in the Fifties/Early Sixties was to make him sympathetic — audiences just weren’t ready for the psycho-as-anti-hero that showed up later in popular culture.
    Either way, it’s totally fine that Norman Bates makes you go all fan-girl SQUEE … Really. Besides, I think there’s a pill for that now, anyway.


  3. tgould says:

    I think that Boch’s choice to have the point of view of several characters was definitely the right one to make. It opens up a whole new world as we watch the characters make decisions, changer their minds, and then do whatever they want. I especially like how Norman Bates doesn’t simply garner sympathy from the reader but the other characters as well.


  4. I love that Mary Crane wasn’t just an innocent victim. It adds to the complexity of the story. Very little is what it seems on the surface. Mary is a criminal in her own right, a woman dissatisfied with her life who took an opportunity (albeit an illegal one) to do something about it. She was tired of waiting around for Sam. Lila ends up being far braver than we initially give her credit for. Norman, well he’s extremely complicated with his mental illness and mother fetish. Sam and the Sheriff are the two most useless characters in the whole story, but even they serve to highlight the complexity of everything else going on around them.


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