“Psycho” The Novel

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Spoilers. If you don’t want them: You know what you have to do first :)

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Art by Aaron Williams

Like so many books versus the movie versions, the book gives us a deeper look inside the characters’ heads than could probably ever be portrayed on the screen. That’s a main reason I have to go out and grab the book to read as soon as I see any film I find compelling and learn it was based on a book first. Don’t get me wrong: the original movie version of Psycho is a masterpiece and a prime example of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliance. The book has its definite differences, some of which were surprising and some: not so much.

What Robert Bloch does is move the story along with wording that lets us the readers picture easily what’s going on, which I think is a mark of great writing. Reading the 1959 novel in 2015 does something I’m sure a lot of stories from that era do: show us how easy it used to be to disappear. If it had taken place today, where everything (and everyone, really) are connected by computer networks of some type, Mary Crane probably wouldn’t have been able to abscond with $40,000 like she did. And Norman (or Mother?!) wouldn’t have been able to cover up her murder so easily. Taking us back to 1959, the world was a lot wider, a lot less connected, and a much easier place in which to cover up dark and deadly secrets.

Divergent Issues

The original Norman Bates in the book is a fat 40-year-old guy with glasses. This is obviously a 180 away from the very handsome Anthony Perkins in the movie version. Yes, that’s coming from me. Hollywood does what it does, then and now. And I’m honestly glad it does. Call me shallow if you want, but good looks can make up for or at least minimize a multitude of sins, at least in the world we live in. This applies to both men and women. Anyone who believes otherwise is either very naive or deluding themselves. It’s not by accident Norman Bates/Anthony Perkins/Freddy Highmore has been called “The Most Handsome Serial Killer Ever.” Another major character difference: Mary Crane is brunette, not blonde in the novel. So I’m guessing the whole idea of “Hitchcock blonde” came from the movie version. I’d also be curious to find out where the name change came from in the movie, since she’s “Marion” in that instance. After all, her niece in Psycho II ended up being “Mary.”

The best thing about this novel: Robert Bloch does a flat-out amazing job at convincing the reader that Mother is alive and therefore a moving, conscious being totally separate from Norman. Reading it, I had the mental picture of her sitting in her rocking chair and watching everything going on from the bedroom window. I pictured an old woman who was able to decapitate Mary with a butcher knife yet could barely put up any fight when Norman carried her (seemingly alive) down to the fruit cellar until it was “safe again.”

Probably one of the most chilling parts: “Yes Norman, that’s where I’d probably be. But I wouldn’t be there alone.” Referring to the State Hospital for the Criminally insane. This is the first hint we get, 10 chapters in, that they may be one and the same. But it’s only a hint. Another thing: this is the direct origin of Norma/Mother’s reassurances, “Everything’s going to be okay. I’ll take care of everything.” And we still get to hear it half a century later in Bates Motel, which I personally love.

I’m Sinking Slowly…

Norman-in-the-book fights with a lot of guilt over covering up the murders “Mother” committed. His main task in that was to sink the victims’ cars into a muddy swamp and then cover up his tracks by making it look like he was out there in the wilderness gathering firewood. An unforgettable scene is when Norman (under the influence of quite a bit of whisky) pictures Mother sinking and drowning in the muddy swamp. Though he has to quickly tear his mind away from the visual image of the muddy water rising over her breasts–because after all, he can’t ever think about that–not with the positively Victorian ideas she brought him up with. Then everything flips, and suddenly it’s Norman who’s sinking and drowning into the thick muck, begging Mother to save him as she stand idly by on the shore.

“We Really Only See the Tip of the Iceberg With Anyone…”

A theme that echos back and then forward again with this story. Sam was engaged to Mary, and Lila lived with her, but they didn’t really know her, wouldn’t have guessed Mary was capable of stealing that money. While Norman’s cleaning up after Mother’s murder of Mary, Sam’s over in Fairvale waiting to hear from his long-distance girlfriend. He muses over the fact he’s gotten into a relationship with a woman he doesn’t truly know that well. They spent a few days together on a cruise but otherwise only had contact through handwritten letters mailed back and forth. Hard for any of us to imagine today.

The same idea comes back around again at the begging of Bates Motel Season 2. In Gone But Not Forgotten, Norma says much the same thing about Blair Watson.

Psychic Sensitive and Resurgence

We readers get a very up-close look inside Norman Bates’ troubled mind. Along with taxidermy, the version of him in this book has a few other interests: namely books on occultism, the supernatural, mythology, anthropology, abnormal psychology, witchcraft, the origins of the universe, and even a couple of translations of the Marquis du Sade’s. When Lila’s snooping around in his bedroom, she opens a coverless book to an image that’s “positively pornographic.” I’m assuming that was a de Sade book. Once in the past, Norman even went as far as to research the Oedipus complex but of course got a lot of hell rained down on him once Mother found out about that one. I don’t know…given that I know what I know now, I’m becoming more convinced that complex is an antiquated farce…But that’s just me..

Norman’s developed the idea that he’s developed some level of psychic powers, at least to the point where he knows Sam and Lila are coming out to the motel before they get there. He can’t tell in his mind exactly who they are, but he knows they’re coming. On one hand, I think he figured that out through some regular old logical deduction, but even so the idea is an intriguing one due to the way these passages are written. What I find even more interesting is that I’ve thought of exploring that idea myself. As in whatever that darkness is within Norman, what if it’s not entirely “psychosis” as we understand it? What if it’s something with an unexplained or even supernatural origin? But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I don’t want to drop any fic spoilers. Plus, it’s only an embryo of an idea kicked out there at this point. Will I end up using/developing it? Only time will tell…

By the time he’s reached the age of 40 at the time of this Psycho writing, Norman’s also superimposed his own version of reality over how Mother’s still alive, when she supposedly died 20 years before. In essence, he’d convinced himself he’d developed the power of resurgence and used it to bring her back to life after digging up her coffin in the middle of the night and breaking it open. He felt so guilty about what he’d done that he could never allow her to die, even if it only meant keeping her alive in his own mind. I know it’s supposed to be scary, creepy and disturbing, but it’s also so sad and tragic to me on another level. I mentioned it before: positively Shakesperian in that sense.

Deadly Triad

The truth gets drudged up, and so do the two cars Norman shoved into the swamp to cover up for Mother. The origin of possible abusive incest (among other things) in his past is simply muckraking newspaper reporters looking to sell more copies of their cooked-up version of the story. Some things change; some things never do. After Norman’s psychiatrist at the State Hospital for the Criminal Insane is able to get the details out of Norman, he describes three distinct sides of Norman’s personality that had splintered apart: Norman the “little boy,” Norman the man who presented himself as “normal” to the outside world, and Norma Bates herself. She does indeed live inside him now, and has for many years.

Side note: Mother’s name “Norma” does come up in this original book, in the last chapter. The idea we never know her name until later is incorrect. She says it right to us, through Norman: “I am Norma Bates.”

By the time Mary showed up, Norma was the dominant personality, as the adult Norman was cracking under the strain of guilt and grief over what he’d done to her. Each of these three personalities always had some overlap to begin with, and none could have been destroyed without destroying the others. Or so Dr. Steiner the psychiatrist initially thought. At the very end, Norman’s gone–likely for good as this novel’s storyline intends. Only Norma’s left in him.

The book is to me as much tragedy as it is horror, perhaps even more so. It gives us a great, thorough look at where it all came from–first for the Psycho movies and later for Bates Motel that so wonderfully takes on these characters and their story.