Stigmas and Psychos: Me and Robert Bloch By S. L. Edwards

[Long-time friend of the press, S.L. Edwards has a new collection, Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts, out now via Gehenna and Hinnom. When S.L. was making the rounds doing interviews to promote it, I decided put on my J. Jonah Jameson mustache and demand pictures of Spider-Man and/or 5,000 words on the influence of Robert Bloch’s work on Edwards’ own. He took the easy way out and delivered on the Bloch challenge. It’s something Sam and I have discussed in private and I was excited to hear him address it in long-form. Take a gander and make sure to pick up everyone’s favorite Texan’s debut collection HERE. -Ed.]

            So, let me start this with a warning: I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing here, writing this. First of all: I am not convinced a writer can be a reliable assessor of their own work. Obviously, most writers have an intent when they tell stories. But there is a risk of misrepresenting yourself, of trying to look at yourself through rose-colored lenses and make yourself seem like a better writer (and person) than you are. There’s the flipside of this risk too: bringing yourself down, deconstructing your work to the point where it seems bad in your eyes. To the point you have nothing to say nothing nice to readers.

And that’s…that’s not good for selling books.

Which begs the “second of all:”

Who the fuck am I? I’ve just debuted my very first short story collection, Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts. As I write this, I’m not sure what the reception to the book will be. Honestly, I’m quite nervous and I hope readers like it. Prior to that, my claims to fame were my involvement in Borkchito and the use of memes to make myself known on what I call “horror writer Facebook.”

This feels a little unearned. It certainly may look that way. I wouldn’t blame any of you out there, scoffing and shaking your heads at what no doubt appears to be navel-gazing nonsense. Because it is, without a doubt, exactly that.

But when Benjamin Holesapple made offered to host a piece like this, I couldn’t resist.

I’ve been through a gamut of interviews recently, and there’s nothing quite like a whole slate of interviews that forces you to slow down and look at your own work critically. I’ve been interrogated a lot about my love for Russian literature, I think because it’s not too common that you have a horror writer involved in a comic about a talking dog who enjoys Tolstoy. But a writer who I have spoken of quite frequently, and yet have not discussed much at all, is Robert Bloch.

To return to the “second of all:” Who the fuck am I? I’m not a Lovecraftian. I’m not a Weird Fiction scholar or historian.  I’m not an “established” writer, who once personally knew all the old greats who were long gone by 1991. There are plenty of those, who lead their valuable voice to keeping weird classics relevant and interesting. I am not one of those people. There is a lot of Robert Bloch I have not read. I haven’t read his biographies. I don’t have his complete filmography memorized.

I didn’t encounter Bloch that way. I encountered him, as I suspect the majority of people reading this have, through Lovecraft. I am not sure what anthology I found “A Notebook in a Deserted House” in, but I do remember the story making me think that the book had been closed on Lovecraft pastiches. That the peak had been reached. And while I am delighted to report that I was wrong, the story remains my go-to example of what good Lovecraft pastiche can be.

So if I don’t really play in Lovecraft’s playgrounds all that often, if I’m not a Weird Fiction historian, who is Robert Bloch to me? Why do I keep citing him? And, furthermore, where is he in my own fiction?

In these pieces I’m going to try to answer that, I am going to take a step back and try to discuss a few stories that had early influences on me, as well where they link up in my own fiction. I’ll spend a little time on the man on himself too, focusing in particularly on a piece written before Bloch’s death in 1994 that showcases that he is extremely relevant to current discussions taking place in weird fiction. Through doing this, I hope I can not only allow readers and my fellow writers an insight into my own work, but the work of a writer who’s technical skill I find unrivaled and underappreciated.

Irony and Invention:

          Readers normally come to Bloch through one of two avenues: Lovecraft or Psycho. Bloch was the youngest member of the “Lovecraft circle,” and sold his first story at 17. But Bloch lived far longer than Lovecraft, and in doing so left a large (though less memorialized) footprint that Lovecraft did not.

Bloch not only in producing hundreds of stories and novels, but was also involved in the Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well. And these shows were good fits for him, as Bloch seemed more preoccupied in walking in the footsteps of O’Henry and Saki that those of Lovecraft.

Take a look at, for instance, the final lines of Bloch’s “Bedposts of Life:”

“He, of course, was a vampire.”

            “And she had AIDS.”

This is only one example of Bloch’s cruel irony. And there are, to be clear, far less cruel instances. In “The Cloak,” a man becomes a vampire and attempts to seduce a woman, only for her to reveal herself to be a more powerful vampire. In “Enoch,” a District Attorney attempts to make a man into a cold, calculating murderer, only for him to confirm the man’s seeming ravings about a creature that lives in the back of his head. In “A Sorcerer Runs for Sheriff,” a Sorcerer is undone by his own spells. In “A Bottle of Gin,” a man accidentally drinks a djinn.

The list goes on.

But through the 1940s-1960s Bloch had a perfect opportunity to enshrine “the twist” into nearly all manifestations of horror. His horror drifted away from Lovecraft’s cosmic influence and into more character-driven horror. His characters were despicable, heroic, desperate or stupid. And the predicaments they got themselves into were at once patently ridiculous and terrifying. This fits rather well with “horror-as-a-cautionary-fable.”

“Don’t be cruel, lest the monsters come for you” seems to be the one central lessons, repeated loudly and often across Bloch’s fiction.

Whiskey and Weirdness:

          Revisiting my Bloch collections, “The Early Fears” and “Flowers from the Moon and Other Lunacies,” has been a startling experience. I first read these stories some Christmases ago, in my earlier twenties. Both collections have since gone out of print, and I now understand why Bloch is not widely read outside an older generation who personally knew the man. His short work is difficult to find, both in ebook and paperback.

Citadel’s “The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch,” in paperback is hardly complete. Not only this, but all but the first book are out of print. “Mysteries of the Worm,” which collects most of Bloch’s Mythos fiction, is still available from Chaosium. But Bloch has yet to get the electronic omnibus format which has allowed Lovecraft, Poe, Blackwood, and Machen’s fiction to proliferate. No publisher has yet undertaken the task of creating a truly complete Bloch series, such as Night Shade has done for Clark Ashton Smith (lovely books, those).

As such, much of Bloch remains beyond the access for new readers. We can encourage them to, of course, go to their local libraries, but Bloch’s fiction has fallen victim in large part to collectors. This will not be the first time in this series that I plead for some publisher to reissue Bloch’s short stories (at least his horror and weird fiction) in some hardcover series. I’ll even write an introduction for you!

But I say the experience has been “startling,” because I am beginning to see improbable, forgotten influences along my own fiction. I had, for example, thought the “cat horror” of “And the Woman Loved Her Cats,” was completely original to me, only to revisit the story “Catnip.” To be fair, cats have had long and reoccurring appearances in horror and weird fiction.

But there are a few other stark reminders of my own work.

“Golden Girl” and “Movie Magic” alike both fixate on entertainment in horror; Golden Girl on a puppet show and “Movie Magic” on a particularly unnerving film. Bloch wrote with a lot of animus towards Hollywood, particularly in the Psycho sequels. While I can’t say these stories directly speak to that animus, I also can’t say they would exist without Twilight Zone.

Then there is Bloch’s ability to write what we might call “Fairy Tale Horror,” a sort of fantasy-laden vintage Weird Tales style of terror that is both difficult and less common these days. I think of “The Mandarin’s Canaries” as the peak example of this, and certainly that tone influenced my story “We Will Take Half.”

And of course, Bloch’s emphasis on cleverness echoes into my own writing. Enoch, if we take the creature as a conceit for mental illness, would be just at home with the unnamed monster of “I’ve Been Here A Very Long Time.” Both stories rest on an ominous, yet-unfulfilled promise; promises which the protagonists force. I could say the same of “We Will Take Half,” where the protagonist is bound by the promises of his parents to a race of changelings, that they will earn half of whatever he makes.

The irony, deliberate attempts at “cleverness” certainly appear in my own work. But I think, if I am to pin down where Bloch’s influence is the strongest, it would be in the titular tale of my collection, which I had been rewriting when I first encountered Bloch’s writing. In one of the most familiar, permanent monsters of western culture:

The Devil.

Deals with the Devil:

          The titular story of my collection is “Whiskey and Memory.”

For those poor sods following all of my interviews, you’ll know that I try to get a strong emotional reaction out of myself when it comes to characters. I need to love them. To be afraid of them. Or to hate them.

I loath John.

The protagonist of “Whiskey and Memory” as an irredeemably bitter man. He’s a misogynist. He’s psychologically abusive. An alcoholic. He’s afraid of women. He hates women. He derives a pleasure from being above them. He takes pleasure in domineering over them.

He’s awful. And deserves everything coming to him and more.

The catalyst for the story begins when John bumps into a woman just outside his sight. She hands him a bottle of whiskey (the name of the bottle itself inspired by Bloch’s “De Vermis Mysteriis”) which he has never seen before. After one drink, he stumbles upon a bar he’s never seen once, on all his walks in the city.

The shadowy woman is not clearly the devil. She doesn’t kill John, doesn’t make him a deal or set him on a new course. She just gives him a vehicle to take him to his final destination faster.

But I see echoes of this story and two of Robert Bloch’s, “The Fiddler’s Fee” and “That Hell Bound Train.” The latter story is one of Bloch’s most famous, rightfully so. In it, a down-on-his-luck homeless man makes a bargain with the devil, that he’ll be able to stop time for a single moment. A moment of his choosing. A moment that he is happy.

The quest for this moment propels the man to professional and personal success. He falls in and out of love, and manages to ruin everything he gained. Unlike many of Bloch’s stories, the ending is not particularly tragic. Remarkably it ends on an optimistic note, despite being bound for hell.

“The Fiddler’s Fee,” however, remains in my opinion one of Bloch’s finest and most overlooked. Here, I will actually spoil the ending. So beware.

The story features the very real violinist, Paganini. In his lifetime, Paganini was accused of having made a deal with the devil. And though we never actually encounter the devil in the story, it is very clear that they are real. The main character is brought to the devil by Paganini to his master, and is granted talent. But, characteristic of Bloch’s other stories concerning the devil, the bargain does not bring him happiness.

In a particularly brutal series of events, the protagonist orchestrates the death of his rival’s wife, driving the man insane. The rival in turn makes his own bargain with the devil. And that bargain proves fatal for everyone involved.

Revenge. Cruel Irony. These are the staples of Bloch.

The devil in “Whiskey and Memory” is very close to that of “the Fiddler’s Fee.” We never clearly are able to discern them, but very clearly they are at least real enough to move the story forward. And all they do is add fuel to a burning fire. John cannot blame the devil for his misfortune, nor can the characters in “Fiddler’s Fee.” Remarkably, it seems that the devil has even less agency than these characters.

John is told, towards the end of “Whiskey and Memory” that there were many points for him to set himself straight. That there were points to escape his cycle of violence and to be a better person. That he could have avoided all of this.

But he didn’t.

Stigmas and Psychos: Addressing the Controversy in Your Own Work

          Poor Norman.

Without a doubt, Bloch’s most popular and known character. Norman has inspired a franchise of Hollywood movies, haunted houses, television shows and remakes. In each iteration, Norman is a victim of his mother, who sought to control every aspect of his life. What he read. Who he dated. Keeping him bound to a dying Hotel as the highway moves a lifeline of travelers around the town of Fairvale.

And, in each iteration, the final scene of this story is nearly always the same.

Norma dead. Norman, screaming high-pitched and shrill with a knife on his hand.

Wearing a dress.

The scene, justifiably, has come under attack as transphobic. If Norman wearing a dress is indeed designed to inspire terror, then it inarguably the definition of transphobia. In the film version, this problem is exacerbated when a character explains with some horror that Norman is a transvestite. But the film is largely Hitchcock’s story, just as The Shining is largely that of Stanley Kubrick.

The ending of the novel, however, is much darker and more ambiguous. Yes. Norman killed his mother. Yes, he wore the dress. And yes, the story ends with the “Mother” personality assuming the dominance of Norman’s mind.

However, whereas in Hitchcock’s version the viewer is left thinking that “Mother” is conniving, feigning innocence in order to escape, treats the reader to a sample of “Mother’s inner thoughts.” She explains that she had to take over Norman, because his was the murderous personality. If true, this means that Norman never wore a dress to kill. It was merely deflection, an act to fool himself and potential investigators. It also lends considerable doubt to Norman’s version of events, and hints at a darker dynamic that existed between himself and his mother. Was Norma the controlling, domineering one, or was it Norman? Was Norma jealous, or was it Norman, who was so threatened by his mother’s lover that he poisoned them both? What, exactly, was the abusive dynamic within the Bates Household?

The books sequels,’ notably Psycho II do the allegations of transphobia no favors. Norman escapes his insane asylum by killing and dressing up as a nun. A copy-cat killer fixates on the infamous “shower scene,” and readers are made to understand this is because his mother was raped and killed as a child. The cover of the first addition features more men in more dresses.

From his introduction, “The View from 1993,” to The Early Fears, it appears that Bloch was at least somewhat aware of this:

“Nonetheless, at least a dozen of the stories which follow…are not what is presently termed ‘politically correct.’”

I’ll admit that returning to Bloch, I was surprised to find this.

Every new horror writer learns rather quickly about the robust debate regarding Lovecraft, his racism, and what to do with it. The debate has gone on for some time, and will continue as long as racist norms persist. I wondered then, if an awareness about this debate had affected Bloch in 1993, when he was writing the introduction as his health quickly deteriorated as a consequence of a long battle with cancer.

But there’s more:

“Such matters [political correctness] didn’t concern me or my colleagues in times past; our chief aim was to avoid the drooling of prurient censors sniffing out sex rather than the shrillings of paid activists, professional spokes-persons, self-appointed leaders, agitators, protestors, demonstrators and assorted  supporters. But today it’s the in thing to be outraged, and there’s much here to fuel the fuminations of the indignant indigent, the religious right, gays, feminists, liberals, teen-agers, the mentally-disturbed, the physically disadvantaged, the medical professional, the clergy, the devout Satanists, Egyptians, African-Americans, Haitians, Europeans, Asians and just about every ethnic group except the Eskimos-whom, I strongly suspect, don’t allow anyone to call them Eskimos anymore.”

Woof.

Where to begin?

This certainly does not read like anything resembling an apology. And it seems persistently timely. Today, in the age of Donald Trump, terms like “the politics of outrage,” “identity politics,” are repeated with frequency and intensity. Social media has, to an extent I don’t think anyone suspected, only deepened divisions even further. And it has heightened the consequences and costs for writers, especially when they put forward racist, homophobic or otherwise prejudiced opinions.

All of this is to say, I don’t think Bloch would have gotten away with that statement if he posted it on twitter. At least in my reading, it comes across as arrogant and deriding, dismissive of the very real concerns faced by marginalized and persecuted populations. To his credit though, Bloch’s statement does read with some self-mockery. And he certainly seems to be saying that he is an equal opportunity offender.

He goes on to explain once more for the reader:

“The sole purpose of my work was to entertain rather than exacerbate. And when these stories first saw print the beliefs and attitudes expressed were quite typical of those held by most authors and readers throughout the world. I trust new readers will keep this in mind and view a story’s text within the context of its time.”

Again, the eternal Lovecraft debate is screamingly relevant here. And Bloch does not appear to be asking for forgiveness, so much as understanding. He is asking readers to be entertained, rather than offended. He explains that in his time he was viewed as radical, dangerous and subversive. Sexual themes, themes of violence, these were on the cutting edge at the time. AC comics. The remarkably poignant social commentary of “The Twilight Zone.” Bloch was, in his own way, a sledgehammer to an oppressive and puritanical cadre of editors, overbearing parents and pearl-wringing, torch-carrying politicians.

At the very least, he seems to think he was.

There are interpretations upon interpretations, and I have no doubt that scholars could write one thousand compelling pieces arguing over the jack-assedness or virtuousness of Bloch’s self-assessment. It’s my opinion that Bloch was drawn to the idea of non-binary villains because he specifically wanted to invoke psycho-sexual terrors. Could he have done this in a way without making a non-binary individual a monster? Did Norman need to wear a dress? Would the story have been just as effective if instead the reader is granted the sight of Norma’s corpse, a screeching Norman behind her without the dress?

I don’t think you can have Psycho without Norman thinking he’s his mother. But beyond that, Bloch could have been more responsible. Did he know how? Did anyone at the time? And did he care to? Those are questions better answered by historians, queer scholars, and other individuals who are far more learned in the subject matter than I am.

But the matter of Bloch’s reflection (for all the “so much for the tolerant left” that it invokes) does make me think about my work. What aspects are problematic? What can I do about them? Is there anything I would do different?

A Confession:

          Shortly after coming on the weird fiction scene, I wrote a story entitled “Skins,” for Ravenwood Quarterly’s second issue. I have always been fascinated by werewolves, and have a whole werewolf mythology that I am extremely reluctant to come back to.

The concept of “Skins” was supposed to be relatively novel. How does the experience of being a werewolf affect a person’s psychology? Their character? Would these changes persist after the curse was lifted? The main character was supposed to begin feeling a nostalgia for her experience. Once she was “cured” there was to be a sense of relief. Of peace and hope. But slowly we were supposed to see a longing. A desire for the wildness that came with an unstoppable rampage. That the physical transformation came with a mental and moral one.

But, I took an easy out. I made the character someone who was bipolar and manic. And, I did that simply so I could explain blackouts and long disappearances. I did not need to do that. And, I believe the story would have been better had I began with a different sort of characters.

One reason I do not talk about my own depression is that it comes with a stigma. Especially now, it seems every time there is a mass shooting there is a tendency to dissect the killer’s mental illness. And, in the process, there is a tendency to blame the illness rather than the person for violence. And then you become concerned with your co-workers depression not because you care about them, but because you’re worried they’ll “shoot up the place.”

This fear does no favors for those struggling with mental illness.

So, for “Skins,” I am sorry. I used mental illness as an easy out, a crutch. And I regret it. As of now, I am unsure of what to do with the story. I want to rewrite it one day, because I think the core concept of the lingering werewolf is one worth exploring. But it won’t be collected in its present form. Nor will it be reissued in such. Perhaps, one day, the second issue of Ravenwood will become a collector’s item precisely because of this admission (and an incredible story from Russell Smeaton entitled “The Street.”).

The theme of mental illness, however, does manifest in “Whiskey:” most notably in the story “When the Trees Sing.”  In this story, a man returns home from the Vietnam War to his wife and young daughter. He struggles with PTSD and depression, ultimately becoming so depressed and distant that his wife commits suicide. His daughter then wonders into the woods, and the two revisit him, and he flees. Ultimately, the guilt of running away from these ghosts haunts him more than the ghosts himself.

And there again, are easy outs. “The man was clearly insane.” “Maybe he killed his family.” Certainly, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that was my intent. But to be perfectly clear, as I attempted to be in my story notes that follow in Whiskey: my intent was not to create a character who could have imagined the whole thing. The intent was not to make the character’s PTSD the central feature of the story.

Rather, the centerpiece is guilt.

Guilt at having participated in the atrocities of Tiger Force (a quick google search gets you the stuff of nightmares, be warned). Guilt at becoming distant from his wife. Guilt at getting angry at his daughter. And yes, there is room enough in the story for mental illness. But something horrible, supernatural and evil can take place alongside mental illness. The existence of one does not wipe out the possibility of the other.

One need look no further than Bloch’s story “Enoch,” as to how such a thing could be accomplished. In it, a man clearly somehow disturbed claims to have a small creature named “Enoch” who lives on the back of his head. Enoch demands sacrifices, and often describes his preferred victims. When the main character refuses to kill for him, Enoch threatens and bullies him into carrying out the killings. The man is ultimately arrested, and discloses the existence of Enoch to a psychiatrist. The district attorney, in an incredible abuse of power, attempts to trick the man into testifying that Enoch does not exist. I will not give away the ending of the story. Suffice to say, Enoch is revealed to be very real. This, despite any “unreliability” on part of the narrator.

All of this is to say that “When the Trees Sing,” was an attempt to be more responsible with the feature of mental illness than “Skins” was. Mental illness is a part of life, as are other potential stigmas. Bloch wrote more than once about sex workers, probably because he was drawn to taboos but also because he was drawn to the weird intersection of humor and horror. Modern writers such as William Tea have made great strides in responsibly featuring trans individuals, as well as sex-work, in their stories. I would argue then, that the integration of a diverse cast of characters into horror without making diversity itself the villain (see Dracula, see Innsmouth, see the “seductive foreigner” trope) is not only possible but essential.

And again to his credit, Bloch’s short fiction is nowhere near as problematic as his predecessors. There are no descriptions of “the other” as a shambling dark man (see “Herbert West: Reanimator”). There are no descriptions of utopias as “socialist-fascist” (see “Shadow out of Time”). Bloch does seem, and did seem, more preoccupied with the novelty and irony of a thing than social commentary. Like Rod Serling, he was fixated first and foremost on “the twist.” And perhaps this is what led to the infamous dress in Psycho. The exacerbation of psycho-sexual violence that is “Psycho II.”

None of this is to excuse Bloch, or prejudice at all. But reading those words did give me pause, and made me wonder as to authors might admit to their mistakes. How they might try to address the problematic aspects of their own fiction. Because life itself exists on the margins. We cannot ignore the suffering of those who are forced to live on the periphery. Nor, do I think, authors should rush away from a good story. But we might try to tell them carefully, to pause with a bit of reflection and ask how our words might exacerbate already existing problems. We might think of potential “damage control,” or we may even invite other authors to read our stories before we attempt to publish them. Because certainly running away from a problem is not solving it. I cannot ignore my depression. Nor can my fiction. But certainly, I could stop and pause and critically self-assess.

The View from 2019:

          There are writers, other than myself, who seem to be channeling Bloch. Russell Smeaton is able to work humor and horror quite well together, and with a certain Blochian inventiveness at that (see his story “Balls” in Test Patterns to see what I mean). Sean M. Thompson’s characters always manage to be very funny, even in some truly terrifying circumstances. Betty Rocksteady’s work isn’t exactly humorous, but there’s a bit of absurdity to it. How could one not at least smirk at the concept of loving a spider? Max Booth III’s Carnivorous Lunar Activities also shows us a writer with an incredible capacity for simultaneous horror and humor. And of course, there’s Jonathan Raab’s Cecil Kotto, who is just begging for his own Netflix adaptation.

Beyond literature, the coupling of horror and humor is alive and well.

Twilight Zone has been rebooted, this time at the helm of Jordan Peele, who I’m not sure anyone expected to become one of the genre’s favorite sons. “Get Out,” was both absurd and socially poignant. “The Santa Clarita Diet,” was also bizarrely funny while being visually and thematically grotesque.

Lovecraft and his shadow remain as relevant as ever. Despite what many hypothesized to be a “Cthulhu-exhaustion,” there are still anthology calls for more Mythos and more unique takes on it. And while there has been renewed interest in other “classic” weird fiction writers (Nightscape’s Nox Parodelia makes reference to Robert Aickman, and Pickman’s Press is putting together at least one anthology about Clark Ashtom Smith) the field still seems most defined by Lovecraft.

But, Bloch’s own shadow continues to grow. More and more writers are getting asked, and asking themselves, about the responsibility they have when telling controversial stories. The field is expanding and with it we are fortunate to hear voices who have been excluded for the better part of (at least) two centuries. And these voices are saying things wholly unlike any other.

It’s a refreshing time to be a writer. And I’m young. I hope that I live a long, good life, and that the friends I am making now will be with me well until the end of my life; where like Bloch I will no doubt try to account for my own controversies to the reader (I promise to try and be a bit better about it).

Despite Bloch’s enormous role in horror, despite him being a contemporary of Bradbury and Matheson, his short fiction remains difficult to collect. Psycho and his Mythos remain the most cited of his works. My hope is that this piece might encourage the interest of an editor or publisher. I would be thrilled to see a Bloch-inspired anthology, or the recollection of all of his weird fiction into a series of volumes. And, furthermore, I would be elated to see more readers and authors use Bloch’s work as an opportunity to reflect on the history of the genre. Both the history that has passed, along with Rod Serling and Twilight Zone, and the living history of “Get Out” and Jordan Peele.

I hope this self-reflection, both for readers and writers alike, continues well past 2019. I hope that horror becomes increasingly bolder, scarier, and human as more and more voices are welcomed into the fold.

So far the view from 2019 looks good, perhaps even better than the view from 1993.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s