Monday, August 27, 2012

Psycho by Robert Bloch

So does Norman Bates work better as an effeminate, boyishly handsome young man or as a baby faced, portly, forgettable mama's boy?

That's the big difference, innit? The storyline is basically the same. The structure is a bit different, too. Instead of starting with poor doomed Marion Crane and her lover, we crawl right into Norman Bates' life. Reading it, I kinda wonder how many of the original readers figured out what the big twist ending was. You can do a lot of tricks with visuals that you can't do with the written word and it's pretty obvious that Norman is shadowboxing in empty rooms.

Then again, I came to Psycho, both the film and the novel, knowing all the twists and turns. It feels like a fairy tale someone told me when I was really young and remained imprinted on my psyche. Reading it was still very rewarding. When you watch the movie version of a story, it's like you're observing it in real life. You can see the visuals, pick up the non-verbal cues, and interact with a story as a passive observer in the characters' lives. Reading the book lets you climb into people's heads. What you lose in "objective" visual clarity, you gain in intimacy.

Having climbed directly into Norman Bates' head, I gotta say it's a pretty fucked up place.

It's hard to feel sympathy for him, in that mama's boys seldom elicit sympathy in this culture. I feel a bit of pity for him, though it's easier to pity Anthony Perkins' version than the novel's version, if for no other reason than the superficial. The Norman I imagine from the book is shlubby and unappealing. People who encounter him seem to think he's harmless, but the way he carries himself and the stuff he says would set off my creeper alarm. Maybe the late fifties/early sixties were a more innocent charms, but I buy the version of Marion Crane from the movie, sitting in the parlor with Norman and being frightened by the things he tells her.

Blah blah Ed Gein blah blah Texas Chainsaw Massacre blah blah.

The big thing I took away from this book is the idea that no one really understands themselves or the people around them. Norman Bates really believes that he's covering up for his demented mother, Sam Loomis is shocked that the woman he was considering marrying could have stolen $40,000, and Lila Crane has to come to terms with a sister she barely knew. It's an idea that has some resonance with me these days.

I don't really have much to say beyond the fact that Norman Bates is the ur-psycho of pop culture. His weakness, his vulnerability, his dementia, and his mother issues have become what people think of whenever people use the word "psycho." No other madman has captured the public imagination the way that Bates has.

At least not until Hannibal Lecter came along.