Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
The Mixing of Genres: Moore, Kuttner, Bloch, Leiber
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
As we have seen, Unknown explicitly advocated the mingling of genres—specifically, the genres of science fiction and horror. It is not always the case that a given writer melded these genres in a single work, although many did so; some chose to target a given pulp market with material it specifically desired, with the result that some adept pulpsmiths published widely in very diverse fields. But even Lovecraft, so devoted as he was to supernatural horror, found himself drifting toward an unclassifiable science fiction/horror amalagam. To a large degree, as we have seen, this shift was dictated by his own philosophical development, but it is hard to deny that repeated rejections by the flagship journal of supernatural fiction, Weird Tales, did not at least subconsciously lead him to gauge the salability of his work elsewhere. Such of his colleagues as Frank Belknap Long and Donald Wandrei also found ready acceptance in Astounding and Wonder Stories.
Two late colleagues of Lovecraft, C. L. Moore (1911—1987) and Henry Kuttner (1915—1958), must inevitably be considered together in this context, not only because they married in 1940 and thereafter collaborated on virtually everything they wrote thereafter, but because they both corresponded with Lovecraft—Moore for several years, Kuttner for scarcely more than a year (it was, in fact, Lovecraft who introduced them to each other)—and both benefited from his literary tutelage. Both worked easily in several related genres, whether their work appeared in Weird Tales or elsewhere.
Moore made a splash by the publication of “Shambleau” (Weird Tales, November 1933), nominally set on Mars but really set in a never-never-land of Moore’s imagination. It is a highly evocative melding of sex and fantasy—something that had rarely been done before and would not come to the forefront of weird fiction for decades. The strange creature that calls herself Shambleau is one of a race of vampiric creatures who also triggered the origin of the myth of the Medusa. Moore’s human hero, Northwest Smith, finds himself simultaneously repelled and attracted to her. Although the story is a bit long and repetitious, it creates a powerful atmosphere of weird fantasy.
Northwest Smith finds himelf on Venus in “Black Thirst” (Weird Tales, April 1934), where another vampiric entity, called the Alendar, engenders a race of lovely women because he himself lives on beauty. This piquant conception leads to an extraordinarily intense depiction of intolerable beauty. The Alendar tells Smith:
“Beauty is as tangible as blood, in a way. It is a separate, distinct force that inhabits the bodies of men and women. You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women … the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else.” (61)
Certainly an innovative explanation of the “dumb blonde”!
In spite of its title, “Black God’s Kiss” (Weird Tales, October 1934) does not involve Northwest Smith, but another of Moore’s favourite protagonists, Jirel of Joiry. Joiry is evidently a region in mediaeval France, and Jirel is seeking revenge against one Guillaume, who has conquered her territory. She risks her soul by descending into an underground world and coming upon the statue of a hideous idol, which she then kisses; she subsequently kisses Guillaume, and he turns to stone. This narrative too is effective, although the mediaeval atmosphere is not notably convincing.
Subsequent works by Moore veer more and more toward pure science fiction. “No Woman Born” (Astounding Science Fiction, December 1944) may reveal Lovecraft’s influence—particularly “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow out of Time”—in its scenario of a woman whose brain is preserved in a lovely metal body. Somewhat closer to pure supernaturalism is “Daemon” (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, October 1946), in which a sailor is able to detect the “daemons” (really their consciences) hovering around the people he encounters.
Perhaps Moore’s greatest triumph in the fusion of weirdness and science fiction is “Vintage Season” (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1946), a rich novella set more overtly in the mundane world than was customary in her work. Here a trio of strange and perhaps not fully human people rent a dilapidated house for a month; a married couple, just as strange, want to buy the property. It is gradually determined that all these individuals are from the future: they have come to this period of earth’s history because it is one of the “vintage seasons”: “’Now this month of May is … the loveliest in recorded times. A perfect May in a wonderful period” (347). The atmosphere of exotic strangeness engendered by this novel—perhaps influenced by Sloane’s To Walk the Night—is indescribable.
Kuttner’s work is, sadly, rather more uneven than Moore’s. Indeed, although he wrote a great deal of supernatural fiction early in his career, much of it is inferior, and it was wise of him to switch to the genres of science fiction and fantasy later in his career. Kuttner perhaps began writing—or, rather, publishing—a bit too early. His first story in Weird Tales, “The Graveyard Rats” (March 1936), is little more than an exposition of purely physical horror. It is set in Salem, Massachusetts, although it becomes painfully obvious that Kuttner, a native of California, had little knowledge of the history or topography of the New England town. This deficiency was even more evident in the first draft of “The Salem Horror” (Weird Tales, May 1937), which Kuttner showed to Lovecraft, who painstakingly corrected Kuttner’s many historical blunders. The revised story is an explicit contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos, introducing us to Nyogtha, “the Thing that should not be” (233), whatever that may mean. Otherwise, the story is merely a feeble variation on Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Kuttner also contributed a new book to the growing library of Lovecraftian occult lore, the Book of Iod. Very few of Kuttner’s explicitly Lovecraftian tales amount to anything; curiously, for one who was so attuned to science fiction and fantasy, he has utilised, in almost every single instance, Lovecraft’s earlier conceptions of the Mythos as an offshoot of black magic, with spells, incantations, and other occultist paraphernalia. Lovecraft’s later conception of the Mythos as an instantiation of “non-supernatural cosmic art” has entirely escaped Kuttner, as it escaped August Derleth.
Kuttner also published extensively in “weird menace” magazines like Thrilling Mystery, where seemingly supernatural phenomena are explained away—usually implausibly—as the result of error or, more likely, trickery by some evil genius. Consider “Laughter of the Dead” (Thrilling Mystery, December 1936), a ludicrous, histrionic tale in which the weird incidents (including an animated skeleton) are unconvincingly accounted for as the product of hypnosis. Even his purely supernatural tales, most of them published in Weird Tales, don’t amount to much. Two, “I, the Vampire” (Weird Tales, February 1937) and “The Shadow on the Screen” (Weird Tales, March 1938), are among the earliest to fuse weirdness with the burgeoning film industry, specifically the horror film industry. In the first, a figure called the Chevalier Futaine—whose identity as a vampire is made clear from the start—interestingly appears on the screen as a “glowing fog” (192).
Two stories present clever twists on readers’ expectations. “The Frog” (Strange Stories, February 1939) exhibits a strange batrachian creature that may be some kind of metamorphosed remnant of the witch Persis Winthorp. The protagonist, Norman Hartley, strives to believe that there must be a natural explanation, but the entity is clearly supernatural. This is a reversal of the standard weird menace trope, where supernaturalism is presented at the start only to be discounted at the end. In “Masquerade” (Weird Tales, May 1942) a young couple comes to an old asylum that is now occupied by a dubious and degenerate family named Carta. Are they vampires or merely murderers? They may be the latter—but it is the couple that are the vampires. The tale is narrated in a pungently satirical manner that enhances its weirdness.
In a story like “Pegasus” (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, May 1940) we see Kuttner already heading toward fantasy. This charming account of a country family’s attempt to domesticate Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek myth, is entirely lacking in horrific atmosphere, and it becomes clear that this kind of tale is where Kuttner’s strengths lie. He had already written a science fiction story as early as “When the Earth Lived” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1937), and his subsequent work would be in these genres.
Lovecraft’s influence, both personal and literary, is perhaps best exemplified in what are arguably his two most distinguished disciples: Fritz Leiber (1910—1992) and Robert Bloch (1917—1994). Leiber corresponded with Lovecraft for less than a year prior to the latter’s death, but that brief association left a permanent impress upon his work and temperament, as he himself testified on numerous occasions. His apparently startling remark that H. P. Lovecraft was “the chiefest influence on my literary development after Shakespeare” (cited in Byfield 11) may perhaps be less puzzling if we interpret the statement absolutely literally; for Leiber’s emphasis here may be on the word development, and if this is the case, then it suggests that Lovecraft’s own work—and, perhaps more relevantly, the advice that he supplied in his relatively few but ample letters—provided Leiber with suggestions as to the improvement of the style, plotting, motivation, and conception of his early tales, and that these suggestions held Leiber in good stead throughout the subsequent course of his long and fruitful career.
We must perforce ignore much of Leiber’s work, which falls outside the domain of supernatural horror. He achieved early celebrity with “Adept’s Gambit” (which Lovecraft read and commented on at length), the first of many sword-and-sorcery tales featuring the distinctive figures Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser; these are manifestly in the domain of fantasy. Analogously, much of Leiber’s other fiction, long and short, falls squarely in the realm of science fiction. What is left is a relatively slim but enormously rich and fruitful group of stories, along with one novel, that helped to revolutionise the field in the 1940s and 1950s. August Derleth recognised Leiber’s brilliance and issued his first book, Night’s Black Agents (1950), with Arkham House.
Leiber was aware that the horror tale was almost inherently a backward-looking genre because of its emphasis on, and utilisation of, such ancient elements of myth, superstition, and folklore as the vampire, the ghost, and the werewolf. He appears quite early on to have wrestled with the quandary of how to update these venerable tropes so that they could still have relevance and emotive power in a twentieth century that had come close to relegating them to the dustbin of intellectual and cultural history. In the late essay “My Life and Writings” (1975) Leiber discusses at length his motivations for writing horror fiction:
Now, looking back at those days [the early 1940s], it seems to me obvious that I found the supernatural horror story easier to write because its structure and dynamics were simpler and closer to my own experience. The success of such a story depended on creating in the reader a feeling of strange and lonely terror, and that was something I could do. The essential elements were a weird phenomenon, a carefully slow and poetic build-up, and a sensitive protagonist to experience the terror, and then escape to tell the tale… . I found artistic capital in my extended childhood fears of the dark and violence, the unexpected and unknown, to which a strong curiosity added the necessary spice of wonder. Such stories didn’t show up my limited social development, while the memories of a lonely childhood were a storehouse of suitable atmospheric material, in which the early-absorbed language of Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet was not the least useful treasure. (59—60)
This passage, strikingly similar to several in Lovecraft’s essays and letters (and remember that Lovecraft, too, had a “lonely childhood” and “limited social development”), does not directly address the issue of modernising the weird tale, although some hints are there. And in spite of Leiber’s suggestion that his language in these early tales was directly or indirectly derived from Shakespeare, the one thing that strikes us about his works of the 1940s is their aggresively modern language, ranging from a deft imitation of hard-boiled crime fiction in “The Automatic Pistol” to Camus-like existential angst in “Smoke Ghost” and numerous other tales.
“The Automatic Pistol” (Weird Tales, May 1940) is a striking tale of a handgun that exacts vengeance for the death of its owner. It shows Leiber’s adeptness in mastering the hard-boiled style pioneered by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler during the years of Prohibition and the depression; but more significantly, it likens the pistol itself to a witch’s familiar. When one of the characters, Glasses, makes this allusion, another, No Nose, finds himself puzzled, as he does not know what a familiar is; so Glasses explains:
“Well, No Nose, the Devil used to give each witch a pet black cat or dog or maybe a toad to follow it around and protect it and revenge injuries. Those little creatures were called familiars—stooges sent out by the Big Boy to watch over his chosen, you might say. The witches used to talk to them in a language no one else could understand. Now this is what I’m getting at. Times change and styles change—and the style in familiars along with them.” (N 133—34)
That final sentence is the key: in updating the myth of the familiar, Leiber has not only spurned the use of a conventional animal (and recall that Lovecraft’s familiar in “The Dreams in the Witch House”—a tale that Leiber greatly admired—is Brown Jenkin, a relatively conventional rat, albeit with tiny humanlike hands), but an animate entity altogether. In our mechanised age only a thing of steel can achieve the intimacy with its owner that formerly resided in living creatures.
Of “Smoke Ghost” (Unknown Worlds, October 1941) it is difficult to speak in small compass. This mesmerising tale is virtually the prototype of the urban horror story, and its influence upon a long line of writers from Bradbury to Ramsey Campbell to Clive Barker is patent. Leiber has testified in “My Life and Writings” that “Smoke Ghost” was a “modern-setting supernatural horror story” (59), while in the autobiographical essay “Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex” he notes that it was his “first strong supernatural story” and that it was inspired by riding the elevated trains in Chicago, which “introduced and wedded me to Chicago’s lonely and dismal world of roofs” (281). In “Smoke Ghost,” the protagonist, Catesby Wran, appears to see a cloudy, smoky figure on the roof of a building as he rides the elevated. He had earlier discussed the matter of ghosts with his secretary, Miss Millick, and when she states that she had once seen “a thing in white” coming out of a closet in the attic bedroom, Wran counters significantly: “’I don’t mean that kind of ghost. I mean a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul. The kind that would haunt coal yards and slip around at night through deserted office buildings like this one. A real ghost. Not something out of books’” (N 109).
Wran’s first glimpse of the entity emphatically places it within the context of a modern age far different from the aristocratic castles of old-time Gothic fiction, the never-never-land of Poe’s fictional topography, and even from the witch-haunted Arkhams and Innsmouths of Lovecraft’s invented New England:
There was a particular sea of roofs he had grown into the habit of glancing at just as the packed car carrying him homeward lurched around a turn. A dingy, melancholy little world of tar-paper, tarred gravel, and smoky brick. Rusty tin chimneys with odd conical hats suggested abandoned listening posts. There was a washed-out advertisement of some ancient patent medicine on the nearest wall. Superficially it was like ten thousand other drab city roofs… . Unconsciously it came to symbolize for Catesby Wran certain disagreeabe aspects of the frustrated, frightened century in which he lived, the jangled century of hate and heavy industry and total wars. (N 112)
The smoke ghost is the symbol for the industrialised world that, paradoxically, has simultaneously banished conventional spectres from modern consciousness through the advance of science and, by means of the psychological pressures it places upon human life lived in accordance with the unnatural rhythms of machinery, reintroduced them in a different form.
In “The Hound” (Weird Tales, November 1942), in which David Lashley, an employee in a clothing store who appears to be plagued by an immense and ferocious-looking dog, Leiber definitively transfers the locus of supernatural terror from the exterior world to the interior—that is, to the world of our inmost fears and neuroses. It is significant that Lashley, in wondering whether the entity haunting him is some kind of werewolf, has to “read up on such things at the library, fingering dusty books in uneasy fascination” (N 187). The stock image of the werewolf is now consigned to out-of-date treatises that contain only the musty products of those long ages of pre-scientific delusion. A friend of Lashley’s, Tom Goodsell, delivers a somewhat pedantic lecture on the difference between ancient and modern ghosts. He notes that it is the very triumph of modern science in banishing fears of conventional supernatural entities that has unleashed modern terrors of a very different sort: “We began by denying all the old haunts and superstitions. Why shouldn’t we? They belong to the era of cottage and castle. They can’t take root in the new environment. Science goes materialistic, proving that there isn’t anything in the universe except tiny bundles of energy. As if, for that matter, a tiny bundle of energy mightn’t mean anything” (N 190). Leiber is careful not to render the existence of the werewolf entirely psychological: other characters see it, or sense it, sometimes even before Lashley himself does. Accordingly, the werewolf becomes not simply a product of Lashley’s own perturbed psychological state—something suggested earlier in the story by reference to his recollection of a cartoon from World War I in which a wolf was portrayed as symbolic of “war, famine, or the ruthlessness of the enemy” (N 188)—but a supernatural symbol of the fears that haunt our war-torn age.
“The Dreams of Albert Moreland” (1945) carries forward the connection between war and the supernatural that “The Hound” had only hinted at. This tale, aside from expressing Leiber’s long fascination with chess, renders the outbreak of World War II a cosmic event that could spell nothing less than the unravelling of the entire fabric of the universe. Beginning pointedly in “the autumn of 1939” (N 169), the tale recounts the recurring dreams of Albert Moreland, who finds himself playing on an immense chessboard and comes to believe that “He had traced a frightening relationship between the progress of the game and of the War” (N 182). Leiber fuses interior and exterior horror by seeing in modern psychological trauma, caused both by the war and by the frenetic and neurosis-producing tempo of industrialised life, a reflection of the dissolution of the cosmos.
With “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (1949) Leiber all but completes his transformation of Gothic horror icons into something balefully credible in the modern world. In this well-known tale of a woman who, not in herself but only in her photographed image as seen on billboards and other advertising, exercises a fatal sexual lure upon the men who see it is distinguished by its tight-lipped, Hemingwayesque prose (“But the Girl isn’t like any of the others. She’s unnatural. She’s morbid. She’s unholy” [N 228]) and in its suggestion that the girl is a vampire very different from the conventional sort (“There are vampires and vampires, and the ones that suck blood aren’t the worst” [N 240]). In the end the narrator—the photographer who discovered the girl and, to his abiding regret, caused her image to be broadcast to the world—becomes aware of what she symbolises:
I realized that wherever she came from, whatever shaped her, she’s the quintessence of the horror behind the bright billboard. She’s the smile that tricks you into throwing away your money and your life. She’s the eyes that lead you on and on, and then show you death. She’s the creature you give everything for and never really get. She’s the being that takes everything you’ve got and gives nothing in return. When you yearn towards her face on the billboards, remember that. She’s the lure. She’s the bait. She’s the Girl. (N 241)
There is more to this than just the false promises of advertising: what is involved is a far deeper, broader psychic vampirism as formerly represented by such mythological entities as the Lorelei or the Sirens—the “eternal feminine” whose temptations are ineluctably seductive to males of a certain temperament, especially those of such “limited social development” as Leiber.
The novel Conjure Wife—first published in Unknown Worlds (April 1943) and in book form in 1953—is the acme of Leiber’s updating of Gothic tropes, in this case the tropes of witchcraft, voodoo, and sorcery. Leiber has stated in “Not So Much Disorder” that the novel was loosely based upon his experiences at Occidental College in Los Angeles (348), but that he transferred to setting to a fictitious college in New England, Hempnell College, so that the scenario could be geographically closer to the source of American witchcraft traditions. On the face of it, the central plot of the novel—a group of faculty wives practising witchcraft in order to advance their husbands’ careers—might seem comical, something on the order of Alice Hoffman’s novel Practical Magic (1995), the basis of a popular film. But in Leiber’s hands the plot becomes the vehicle for compellingly dramatic action, complete with a striking twist at the climax, and more significantly a textbook instance of the modernisation of Gothic tropes.
Leiber’s chief concern is the matter of convincingness. He is well aware that his readers are likely to be, in the overwhelming main, sceptical of the notion that actual witchcraft has come into play—or, rather, that the witchcraft practised by the quartet of wives has actually been supernaturally efficacious in its stated purpose. Of the hundreds of thousands of witches persecuted in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including those in Salem, a certain percentage may well have believed that they were witches and that their magic rituals—ranging from herbal potions to the practice of the Black Mass—did indeed produce the effects they sought; but no one believes that they were gifted with supernatural powers. It is, accordingly, vital to Leiber’s purpose that both the Norman Saylor and his wife, Tansy, are profound sceptics. The most that Norman can admit—after he has inadvertently discovered that Tansy is practising some kind of conjure magic derived from “an old Negro conjure doctor” (7) whom Norman had interviewed years before in the course of some research—is the following: “’And what is superstition, but misguided, unobjective science? And when it comes down to that, is it to be wondered if people grasp at superstition in this rotten, hate-filled, half-doomed world of today? Lord knows, I’d welcome the blackest of black magic, if it could do anything to stave off the atom bomb’” (18). This is the same kind of sociopolitical rationalisation of the supernatural—superstition as the product of the multifarious terrors and psychological pressures of modern existence—that we have seen in Leiber’s short stories. But Tansy herself, even though she admits that “I’ve always felt that women were more primitive than men, closer to ancient feelings” (17), is said to be a sceptic: “But Tansy was so sane, so healthily contemptuous of palmistry, astrology, numerology and all other superstitious fads. A hardheaded New Englander. So well versed, from her work with him, in the psychological background of superstition and primitive magic” (10).
Once the fact of Tansy’s attempts to practise magic is revealed, the question, both for Norman and for the reader, is whether Tansy’s magic has actually worked or whether she is merely a neurotic. In spite of some hints of the former, both Norman and the reader clearly opt for the latter at the start. Tansy confesses that “the things I did … well, they seemed to work … at least most of the time” (14); this hesitation and equivation seem to clinch the psychological explanation of Tansy’s actions, for if her magic really had supernatural force, why did it not work all the time? (We later realise that the magic of the other wives, often directed against Tansy’s own magic and in support of their own husbands, has on occasion negated Tansy’s efforts.)
The rest of the novel is a systematic onslaught on the reader’s scepticism so that the only alternative left is to assume that supernatural magic is actually being practised—but Leiber is compelled to use the most austere elements of logic and reason to effect this contra-rational result. His chief weapon is the law of probability. Given a certain series of actions, what is the most plausible explanation of them? If that explanation is conventionally regarded as supernatural, should it be rejected on that count alone? Would it not be more rational to accept the supernatural in lieu of clutching at such implausible straws as extreme coincidence or widespread psychological trauma? At one point Norman confesses, “Sorcery is… . Something has been conjured down from a roof. Women are witches fighting for their men. Tansy was a witch. She was guarding you. But you made her stop” (89). But that is not quite the end of the matter. Later Norman wonders whether even witchcraft might be encompassed within the bounds of a wider conception of science:
… was it not likely that all self-destructive impulses were the result of witchcraft? Those universal impulses that were a direct contradiction to the laws of self-preservation and survival. To account for them, Poe had fancifully conceived an “Imp of the Perverse,” and psychoanalysts had laboriously hypothesized a “death wish.” How much simpler to attribute them to malign forces outside the individual, working by means as yet unanalyzed and therefore classified as supernatural. (107)
Here again the principle of probability (“was it not likely …”; “how much simpler …”) is put to use. And yet, Norman cannot quite bring himself to admit the supernatural even in this quasi-scientific manner. Even when he himself begins a succession of magic rituals to counter those of his enemies, he is still maintaining that he only “pretend[s] to believe in black magic in order to overawe three superstitious, psychotic women who had a hold on his wife’s mental life” (173)—in other words, that all this magic was merely of psychological origin and that its efficacy, if indeed it was efficacious, operated purely on a psychological level, just as a man who is told that he is the object of a curse might well fall ill if he believes that curses are real.
In this context it is significant that Norman initially uses “the modern science of symbolic logic” (173) to come to Tansy’s aid: symbolic logic, the pinnacle of Western philosophical rationalism, would seem just about as far from witchcraft and sorcery as anything could be, and yet it does prove fruitful (along with certain elements of superstition, such as the use of mirrors, potions, a piece of thread tied into an intricate knot, and the like) in combating the ultimate source of the evil, the aged Mrs. Carr, who had sought to usurp Tansy’s young body while hoping to entice Norman to kill her own body with Tansy’s soul trapped within it.
Conjure Wife once again suggests that ancient superstition, far from being banished by scientific rationalism, has only gone underground, remaining as potent as ever and perhaps all the more powerful for its apparent defeat by reason. Norman Saylor is at the outset presented as a “modern husband” (1), and a telling metaphor regarding his house is also made at the beginning: “Today’s washable paint covered last century’s ornate moldings” (2). The modern age may cover over the superstitions of the past, but this superficial coating only conceals and does not eradicate. Ironically, Saylor and his colleagues are themselves referred to as witches, “performing the necessary rituals to keep dead ideas alive, like a college of witch-doctors in their stern stone tents” (3). In one of his classes Norman states that “we’re modified anthropoid apes inhabiting night clubs and battleships” (35)—a brilliant simile that underscores how the retention of primitive superstition has gone hand in hand with spectacular technological progress.
Leiber of course went on to write prolifically throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and one later work will be worth considering in a subsequent chapter.
Robert Bloch is as different from Leiber as it is possible for two writers in (approximately) the same genre to be. They share a common association with Lovecraft; indeed, Bloch’s four-year correspondence with the Providence writer transformed his life and work to such an extent that he felt perennially indebted to Lovecraft for making him the man and writer he became. Within a week of their getting in touch in April 1933, Bloch sent Lovecraft some of his early tales. Lovecraft’s reponse is illuminating:
It was with the keenest interest & pleasure that I read your two brief horror-sketches; whose rhythm & atmospheric colouring convey a very genuine air of unholy immanence & nameless menace, & which strike me as promising in the very highest degree… . Of course, these productions are not free from the earmarks of youth. A critic might complain that the colouring is laid on too thickly—too much overt inculcation of horror as opposed to the subtle, gradual suggestion of concealed horror which actually raises fear to its highest pitch. In later work you will probably be less disposed to pile on great numbers of horrific words (an early & scarcely-conquered habit of my own), but will seek rather to select a few words—whose precise position in the text, & whose deep associative power, will make them in effect more terrible than any barrage of monstrous adjectives, malign nouns, & unhallowed verbs. (Letters to Robert Bloch 10)
This is a refrain Lovecraft would repeat for several years—although it is arguable that Bloch did not fully learn the virtues of artistic restraint until a decade or more after Lovecraft’s death. In any event, Bloch’s early stories in Weird Tales—“The Feast in the Abbey” (January 1935), “The Secret in the Tomb” (May 1935), and many others—were exactly of the lurid, overcoloured sort that Lovecraft was warning Bloch against. They are entertaining in their way, but ultimately insubstantial. A number of them develop themes in Lovecraft’s pseudomythology, and Bloch can presumably be proud of devising a popular title in the Cthulhu Mythos library—Mysteries of the Worm by Ludvig Prinn (although Lovecraft had to come to his aid in fashioning the Latin title, De Vermis Mysteriis). The well-known trilogy—Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales, September 1935), Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” (Weird Tales, December 1936), and Bloch’s “The Shadow from the Steeple” (Weird Tales, September 1950)—need not concern us greatly: that each writer took great relish in killing the other off in the first two stories points to the fundamental frivolity of the enterprise.
An important transition from Bloch’s Lovecraftian pastiches to his more serious later work is the story “Black Bargain” (Weird Tales, May 1942), in which Bloch abandons the Lovecraftian idiom—although De Vermis Mysteriis is intimately involved—in writing a supernatural tale written in an effective hard-boiled manner. Although the tale is disappointingly conventional in summoning the Devil, it is nonetheless effectively atmospheric.
It was around this time that Bloch began to find his own voice in tales that August Derleth decided to collect in Bloch’s first volume, The Opener of the Way (Arkham House, 1945). The book’s title belies the fact that many of the tales expand upon or even repudiate the Lovecraft manner and seek new ground—specifically, the nebulous boundary between horror, fantasy, and crime/suspense fiction. In “The Cloak” (Unknown, May 1939), for example, we are never sure whether the cloak of the title truly endows its wearer with vampiric powers or whether the vampiric tendencies of the wearer are psychological in origin. The celebrated “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (Weird Tales, July 1943) is perhaps not as meritorious a tale as its popularity suggests: the supernaturalisation of the Jack the Ripper murders is fundamentally unconvincing.
The collection Such Stuff as Screams Are Made Of (1979) encompasses many of the tales that Bloch, in an afterword, refers to as “psychological suspense” (284), although there are a few supernatural specimens. One of the cleverest stories is “I Do Not Love Thee, Dr. Fell” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1955), in which the protagonist claims to be visiting a psychiatrist for his various psychological ills but has in fact invented the psychiatrist. Although told in the third-person, the tale is as vivid an example of the unreliable narrator as one would wish.
Psychological terror reaches its pinnacle in two of Bloch’s novels, The Scarf (1947; revised 1966) and Psycho (1959). The former might even be regarded as superior to its celebrated successor were it not for its contrived and implausible ending. We are here dealing with Dan Morley, who gives a first-person account of an early psychological trauma when, as a schoolboy, he was seduced and almost killed by a female teacher and subsequently developed a hatred of women. But in spite of this, he becomes attached to a succession of women—each of whom he kills with a scarf after he has written stories about her. Dan exhibits a classic dehumanising rationalisation for his acts: “I killed Rena because she was just a story character to me. She wasn’t real. She didn’t exist at all” (17).
The novel turns authentically weird when we are presented with extracts from a diary or “Black Notebook” that Dan keeps, in which he records not only his criminal acts but the bizarre nightmares he suffers. These passages are powerful in themselves as instances of psychological terror; and because we are not distracted with the question of whether Dan is or is not guilty of the murders he commits—thereby eliminating the suspense component from the scenario except toward the end, when he is being pursued by those who have come to suspect his complicity in the crimes—we are allowed to perceive his psychological aberration in a relatively undiluted form.
Psycho deserves to be read in addition to, or apart from, Hitchcock’s celebrated film, for it reveals subtleties and moments of chilling terror that even the film has not captured. In addition, it is much more authentically a weird tale than the film, which—aside from its iconic portrayal of Norman Bates’s residence as a kind of haunted house from the Gothic tradition—is largely an exercise in psychological suspense. It is worth studying Psycho in relation to a much earlier tale, “Enoch” (Weird Tales, September 1946), as the latter’s premise is strikingly similiar to that of the novel. In this tale, the protagonist believes that a strange entity lives on the top of his head and compels him to commit murder; he goes on to say that “Most people … thought I was crazy—because of my mother” (Best of Robert Bloch 26). This utterance is not entirely explained, but it appears that his mother was a witch. The story is in fact supernatural—the entity in question, Enoch, really does exist, as a district attorney finds to his discomfiture—but on the whole it is an unsuccessful venture: the very use of supernaturalism here undercuts the psychological force of the story by absolving the protagonist of moral guilt in the crimes he commits. Psycho, being a tale of psychological horror, does not make that mistake.
But for all that we find a horrible compulsion in the murderous actions and, especially, the rationalisations of Norman Bates—for he has not only denied the fact of his mother’s death, but maintains that it is she who is killing the women who come to his motel—the novel contains some notable instances of what I would call pseudo-supernaturalism in details of landscape, atmosphere, and character description. And let us recall that, to a reader coming upon the work for the first time, Norman Bates’s mother is actually alive at the outset and actually does the killing.
The passage where Lila Crane, the sister of the murdered Mary Crane, enters the Bates home to ascertain the truth of the matter is perhaps the most horrific scene in the novel. It is here that pseudo-supernaturalism comes into play, for the narrative tone suggests a kind of haunted-house atmosphere where anything can happen; Lila’s repeated utterance, “There are no ghosts” (144, 145), carry exactly the opposite connotation, and we would not be surprised if the ghost of Mrs. Bates (for by this time we have learned that she is in fact dead and that it is Norman who has been carrying out the crimes in her name) were to emerge suddenly out of her bedroom, which has been kept eerily intact ever since her death.
Robert Bloch, as with almost every other writer who has ever lived, wrote too much, and a certain proportion of his work is hasty and uninspired, and even verges on hackwork. He wrote two additional and splendid suspense novels, The Dead Beat (1960) and Night World (1972). Less compelling is the historical serial killer novel American Gothic (1974); and of his two sequels to Psycho, Psycho II (1982) and Psycho House (1990), the less said the better. His hundreds of short stories feature an array of good work; a judicious selection would be welcome.