One of the many proteges of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch penned Psycho in the late 1950s, at a time when psychiatry was largely considered the domain of lesser physicians. The Freudian model of the mind prevails throughout the novel and the characters are easily dissected through the psychoanalytic school of literary criticism. That said, it reads like a novel from the 1950s minus Atticus Finch or the imago of Atticus Finch.
Bloch based the character of Norman Bates on Ed Gein, a real-life serial killer who was captured a few miles from Bloch’s home in Wisconsin. When the police arrested Gein, they discovered the dismembered bodies of several women and girls in his home. The bodies were mostly stolen from graveyards, but Gein is known to have murdered at least two women. Upon discovering a belt made from human nipples, police decided that Gein was attempting to make a suit out of women’s flesh in order to emulate his dead mother.
According to people who knew the family, Gein’s mother, a puritanical and strict woman, dominated her son and kept him from making friends. She ruthlessly controlled him, kept him down, and eroded his self-confidence. This treatment exacerbated Gein’s psychological problems and, instead of facing immediate trial, the killer found himself in an asylum after his capture.
Bloch drew from the news reports to create Norman Bates. Again, the Freudian analytic model of the human psyche inspired him. Bates’ mother, long dead as a result of her son’s psychotic break with reality, has become internalized, a twisted, bitter imago of the woman she had been. As a result of his heinous action, Norman internalizes his mother’s nagging, and her memory replaces or masks his superego. It is this imaginary mother, this other presence in Norman’s psyche, which compels him to murder Mary Crane.
The details of the novel match the story of Hitchcock’s masterful adaptation. It’s difficult to read the book knowing that Norman’s mother isn’t really there, isn’t really speaking to him, but is a figment of his deranged imagination. That difficulty is compounded by the style of the novel which is, as noted, archaic. Further, the author waxes a bit melodramatic in places, belaboring points and making several contemporary faux pas which add emphasis. It’s stilted now, but remains a far cry from the eldritch style which suffused his mentor’s works.
Ultimately, the novel works well as a piece of realist horror, despite the antiquity of style. Ed Gein was a real man who really did murder and desecrate the bodies of women. Like Gein, Norman Bates kept the dessicated corpse of a woman in his home. Like Bates, Gein murdered a family member (his brother, Henry.) Like Gein, Bates was fascinated by the foreign cultures and practices of the islanders of the South Pacific.
Bloch’s portrayal of Gein as Bates, though fictionalized, gives the reader an insight into not only the twisted psyche of Ed Gein, but also into the prevailing psychoanalytic philosophies of the day. The emphasis on Gein’s relationship with his mother reminds us that we’ve come a long with mental health in this country.