Chet Williamson on Psycho: Sanitarium

With the upcoming release of Robert Bloch’s Psycho: Sanitarium, I got some time with one of my favourite writers, and long time friend now it seems, to ask some probing questions.

Robert Bloch's Psycho: SanitariumThe Psycho Interview

Q: Psycho has quite a legacy. What drew you to it?

A: I wasn’t drawn to it as much as it was drawn to me! I was approached by Macmillan Entertainment and the Robert Bloch estate about writing an immediate sequel to Bloch’s first Psycho novel, and I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the film on its first release when I was twelve, and was absolutely terrified by it. I bought the paperback as soon as I could, and that started a lifelong affection for Bloch’s work. So when I got the chance to not only follow in his footsteps, but to also write about one of the most iconic characters in fiction, there was no way I could say no.

Q: What makes Psycho stand the test of time?

A: Robert Bloch’s Psycho was really the first popular novel to deal with what we think of as a serial killer. When Hitchcock made it into a film, it cemented the book for all time as a classic. Everyone knows Norman Bates and “Mother.” Bloch’s two sequels, the film sequels, Bates Motel — they’ve all helped to keep Norman in the public eye, but frankly, the first film and Bloch’s original novel, from which Hitchcock drew nearly everything we see in the film, would have been enough for Psycho to maintain its classic status.

Q: What makes the Bates character different to other antagonists?

A: I think it’s because he’s a protagonist as well. There’s no real hero in Psycho, no Will Graham or Clarice Starling — Norman is the main character, filled with both good and evil. It’s his struggle against “Mother,” who is actually a part of himself, that creates the drama and tension in his story.

Q: What makes him appealing to write?

A: The fact that there’s such a dichotomy between the different parts of his psyche. There’s a real vulnerability about Norman. In a way, he’s a child-man like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, though his mind is much sharper. He doesn’t want to do bad things, and when he does, it’s ironically because Mother is trying to protect him. Norman has to be empathetic to a certain degree. He should inspire as much sympathy as fear.

Q: Are you planning to write another Psycho novel?

A: That’s really not in the cards. Let’s not forget that in Bloch’s universe, Norman doesn’t leave the sanitarium until twenty years after he’s committed there.

Q: What are the differences between the film and the novel?

A: It’s primarily the character of Norman. Though he’s the same psychologically, Bloch’s Norman Bates is much older than Hitchcock’s — in his early 40s — and instead of being a sylph-like Tony Perkins, he’s stocky, doughy, and overweight, which helps to explain more clearly why he feels he’s unattractive to women. Another change from novel to film is the locale. Bloch never says it’s California, as Hitchcock does. Bloch’s Fairvale and environs are never really definitively located, though internal evidence suggests that it’s anywhere from northeast Texas up to Kansas or Missouri. Otherwise, the novel and film are very similar.

Q: Is Psycho the movie scarier than most movies (still)?

A: To my mind it is. With younger viewers who are used to gore above all, maybe not. Let’s not forget that ever since Psycho was released to theatres, filmmakers have stolen from it over and over, so its tropes have become too familiar. Still, Hitchcock’s film is a masterpiece, and I can’t imagine anyone, even today, unmoved by the shower sequence and the revelation of Mrs. Bates.

Q: What do think about ‘Bates Motel’?

A: I hate to say that I’ve never watched it. After I did my outline for my book, I went so far as to read a Wikipedia synopsis to make sure that I wasn’t using any of its ideas, but Bates Motel and the film sequels are in an entirely different universe from Bloch’s Psycho — and mine.
Q: Did you meet Robert Bloch at any time, and discuss Psycho?

A: I met Bloch several times from the 70s through the 90s and chatted, though not specifically about Psycho. He was kind enough to blurb my first two novels, and I sold him a story for an HWA collection he edited. I even introduced him at an HWA event. He was always a kind, friendly, and very funny man, and a terrific writer. I’ve always said that he was my biggest influence as a writer, along with Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, so it’s been a real pleasure — and a responsibility — to do this book. I hope it’s to Bloch’s (and Norman’s) credit as well.

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