His Youth and Education
Robert Albert Bloch was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 5 in 1917, to two German Jews, Raphael Bloch and Stella Loeb who, despite their Jewish heritage, had the family attend a Methodist Church. When Bloch was only eight years of age, he attended a screening of Lon Chaney Sr.’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925) on his own, where he was traumatized by his first horror scene—where Chaney removes his mask to reveal the Phantom’s horrific face. According to Bloch, “it scared the hell out of [him] and [he] ran all the way home to enjoy the first of about two years of recurrent nightmares.” Like many fans of horror who see their first horror flick too young, this trauma and subsequent nighttime hauntings sparked his interest in horror. He became an avid reader at eight, reading books well above his own level of schooling, as well as experimenting with pencil sketches and watercolor art. While he very much had a love for artwork, but he was diagnosed with myopia in his youth and it deterred him from pursuing it professionally.
At the age of twelve, Robert’s father lost his job at the bank and the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he grew up throughout the Great Depression. During his youth, he delighted in the Golden Age of horror films that played in the picture houses, and the magazine Weird Tales, which he scrimped and saved for each month from his allowance so as to purchase a copy of this pulp magazine. Bloch’s favorite childhood short story was one of Lovecraft’s first-person narratives about an artist whose disturbing creations lead to his disappearance, entitled “Pickman’s Model,” and he would also end up doing flattering imitations of his mentor’s style later on. When Bloch was just seventeen years old he wrote to his highly regarded idol, H.P. Lovecraft, to proclaim his admiration for the writer’s short stories. It is said that he greatly preferred Lovecraft’s particular flavor of genre—cosmic or as it’s often regarded, Lovecraftian horror—over what he was being taught in his own high school English classes.
To the unending joy of Bloch, Lovecraft wrote him back and sent him copies of earlier stories he had written and asked Robert if he himself had written any weird fiction. This is when he would be admitted into The Lovecraft Circle as well as when he began writing some of his first (of many) short stories that would be published in Weird Tales. He would be the youngest member of The Lovecraft Circle, which were a group of writers who followed H.P. Lovecraft and published their short fiction in Weird Tales—a pulp horror magazine that circulated during the Great Depression.
With the early influence of Lovecraft and his cosmic horror, Bloch’s earliest short stories took place in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos fictional universe. Not too long later, Bloch would begin to associate with the Milwaukee Fictioneers, a group of writer’s dedicated to pulp fiction where he began to deviate and develop his own style, instead of relying upon the Lovecraft influence. When Lovecraft died in 1937, Robert was deeply affected by the loss of his mentor, but used it as a reason to keep writing.
Bloch’s first novel to be published was The Scarf (1947) and was very reminiscent of the style he had developed when he was involved with the Lovecraft circle, but also marked the beginning the development of a style he would explore later that would be considered pulp fiction. Like most other horror writers, Bloch had a certain kind of story that inspired him—for some writers it’s urban legends, supernatural monsters, or wicked folklore; but Robert’s inspiration didn’t come from folklore so much as it did true-crime serial killers from all throughout history. Jack the Ripper, Marquis de Sade, and Lizzie Borden were amongst those whom Robert created stories based on their legacies, which included short stories such as “A Toy for Juliette” and “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax….”
When Ed Gein was arrested in his home in Plainsfield, Wisconsin for the murders of two women in 1957, authorities discovered that Gein had been stealing corpses from fresh graves of local women and then using their flesh to create furniture, silverware, and clothing. Bloch only lived about thirty-five miles away from where Gein had lived, so after the discovery of this serial so close to home, he became obsessed. The idea of his next door neighbor being a monster, but going undetected even in such a small town is what he considered his largest inspiration for Norman Bates, the anti-hero of Psycho (1959). The story of Ed Gein was sensational at the time, but what really translated Bloch’s Psycho into an instant classic both in text and Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation for the big screen, was due to the psychological not-so-undertones of the story.
While Bloch had enjoyed some critical and commercial success before he produced Psycho, it wasn’t until the novel was published that his life changed forever. With Psycho and its instant success, he was approached by a Hollywood production company with an offer to purchase the rights to the film. He made a whopping $9,500 which through inflation would equate to $84,472 and some change.
The world of horror would be forever changed by Norman Bates, the sensitive mama’s boy, whose domineering mother corrupted him—which brought an interesting air to the 1960s as the field of psychoanalysis and the research of the Oedipus Complex which coincided with a crisis in contemporary American masculinity which followed the women’s movement of liberation. When Norman psychologically becomes his mother at the end of the novel it was representative of Freudian horror in the utmost of extreme cases. Psycho wasn’t Bloch’s only success and he continued on with his creative writing, winning awards and accolades for his talent.
Bloch was seventy-seven when he passed away on September 23, 1994—he had long battled with cancer and it finally took him at his home in Los Angeles. Before he passed, however, he wrote what was considered an unauthorized autobiography, which was titled Once Around the Bloch (1993) and while he didn’t speak of his illness, it was clear that it was written with the realization that he was not long for this world.