Horror Fiends: Robert Bloch

Originally published in Shadows of Centralis Monthly Magazine: Issue #13 (April 2023).

Robert Bloch was a prolific writer of crime, fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories; elevating him from his early cult-pulp status, many of his tales were later adapted for film and television, as well as radio. Taking early inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft, a writer whom he later became close friends with, Bloch initially focussed his writing efforts towards inclusion in the pulp magazines of the day, such as Weird Tales, Imaginative Tales, and Other Worlds, amongst others.

As Bloch’s writing career progressed, so too did the size of his audience as his works were broadcast via film, television, and radio, as well as continuing to be published in magazines and in book form. Released as a film in 1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, one of Bloch’s most famous stories is Psycho, which was originally published as a novel in 1959; the film served to catapult Bloch’s reputation as a master writer of psychological horror and chilling suspense. Following the success of the Psycho film, the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s saw the release of many of Bloch’s stories across a variety of mediums, though he still continued to work on his ‘traditional’ written stories format, too.

Though he began his creative career as a writer, Robert Bloch was open to working in a range of mediums, including audio recordings, comic book features, and film. Released in 1960, centred around his created character of Norman Bates, Psycho was the first of Bloch’s stories to be adapted for film. Over the decades that followed, including the likes of Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood, Asylum, and The Cat Creature, more of Bloch’s stories were adapted for film and television.

Born in Chicago, Illinois on April 5, 1917, son of Raphael ‘Ray’ Bloch, a bank cashier, and his wife Stella Loeb, a social worker, Robert Bloch grew up within a religious household. Encouraged by his parents, the young Bloch’s preferred childhood pastimes included reading, sketching, watercolours, and collecting toy soldiers. A prolific reader, Bloch’s interest in reading was especially encouraged by his parents, and he was soon a member of the local library, where he devoured scores of novels.

When he was eight years old, Bloch went to a screening of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. This film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel sees Lon Chaney shock audiences with his ghoulish and macabre makeup effects, which the actor himself took the lead in creating. Such was the impact of seeing the film, Bloch suffered recurring nightmares, but this film also ignited his love of horror and triggered his interest in the nuances of psychological hauntings.

In the late-1920’s, Robert Bloch and his family relocated to Milwaukee, following his father unfortunately losing his position at the bank where he worked. Bloch’s schooling in Milwaukee included time with Washington School, then Lincoln High School. It was during Bloch’s time at Lincoln High School when he met Harold Gauer, the two quickly became close friends. Editor of Lincoln’s literary magazine, The Quill, Gauer took a story Bloch had penned, entitled The Thing, and included it within one of the magazine’s issues. The story was well received, and Bloch set about drafting further stories; inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, the young writer’s go-to genre soon became weird fiction.

‘Weird Tales’, March 1942. Cover artwork by Hannes Bok.

Bloch’s love of horror and tales of the supernatural is something which remained with him throughout his childhood, through his teenage years, and into adulthood. Having been an enthusiastic reader of Weird Tales magazine for many years, when he was a teenager Bloch wrote to one of Weird Tales’ most revered contributors, the superb H.P. Lovecraft. What followed was a correspondence between Bloch and Lovecraft in which Lovecraft offered his advice and guidance with regards to Bloch progressing his career as a writer of weird fiction. Much more than a mentor, Lovecraft became close friends with Bloch; frequently corresponding via letter, sharing ideas and stories, the friendship continued until the premature death of Lovecraft in 1937. Through his association with Lovecraft, Bloch also began corresponding with other writers, such as August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and Frank Belknap Long, amongst others.

Influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, forming part of the Cthulhu Mythos, Bloch’s The Shambler from the Stars was first published in the September 1935 issue of Weird Tales. In response, intended as a sequel, and dedicated to Bloch, Lovecraft wrote The Haunter of the Dark in the winter of 1935; The Haunter of the Dark was first published in the December 1936 issue of Weird Tales, and was one of Lovecraft’s final works.

Encouraged by Lovecraft and his literary circle, Bloch spent more and more time authoring short stories, such as Lilies, The Laughter of a Young Ghoul, and The Black Lotus. However, upon submitting them for inclusion in Weird Tales, these works were rejected, though later, Lilies and The Black Lotus were included in the publications Marvel Tales and Unusual Stories, respectively. Unperturbed by the initial rejections, Bloch continued to submit his stories for inclusion in Weird Tales, and his persistence paid off; his short stories The Feast in the Abbey and The Secret in the Tomb were published. Over the years that followed, carving out a cult fanbase for himself, Bloch became a constant contributor to a plethora of pulp magazines.

In 1940, Bloch married his fiancé Marion Ruth Holcombe; the marriage, it is said, was intended to prevent Bloch from serving in the army. Three years later, the couple had a daughter, Sally.

Published by Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary of Paramount Global, in 1959, weighing in at a little under 200 pages, Bloch’s Psycho tells the tale of Norman Bates. Beneath a veneer of respectability, Psycho describes the unravelling of Bates as his split personality and murderous tendencies are detailed. Starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, and Janet Leigh, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a film adaption of Psycho was released in 1960; to many, Psycho is the film most commonly linked with Hitchcock, and is often considered his finest work. Though the film received several Academy Awards nominations, it failed to win awards, however, for her role as Marion Crane, Janet Leigh did receive the Best Supporting Actress accolade at the Golden Globe Awards. Meanwhile, alongside screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Robert Bloch was honoured with the Best Motion Picture Screenplay at the Edgar Allan Poe Awards.

Featured in the July 1943 issue of Weird Tales, Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper sees Bloch create his version of the Whitechapel serial killer legend; the story’s protagonist is led to committing human sacrifices to fuel his immortality. This story was later aired on radio, a communications medium which Bloch became more involved with, soon writing dozens of fifteen minute episodes for his own radio show, Stay Tuned for Terror. Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper was also adapted for television, featuring in an episode of the Boris Kaloff-hosted Thriller series of shows.

Illustration by Boris Dolgov for Robert Bloch’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, published in Weird Tales, July 1943.

At this time, blending aspects of crime, suspense, mystery, and intrigue, Bloch’s stories were often of the thriller genre. Published in 1947, Bloch’s novel The Scarf tells the story of a writer who murders. Over the course of the following decade, Bloch saw the publication of a number of his other novels, such as Spiderweb, The Kidnaper, and The Way to Kill, amongst others.

In 1963, Bloch and his wife Marion divorced. The following year, Bloch remarried as he wed Eleanor Alexander, a fashion model and cosmetician; the two remained together until Bloch’s death in 1994.

Having previously worked with the mediums of radio and television, Bloch was open to the use of popular, mass media in order to project his stories to a wider audience. The 1960’s and 1970’s, especially, saw a swathe of television and film projects for Bloch. Such was his creative zeal, and so diverse his visions, projects for Bloch included writing scripts for Star Trek, episodes for Hammer Films, and features for Amicus Productions.

Starring the classic horror partnership of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, produced by Amicus Productions, The Skull is a 1965 film inspired by Bloch’s The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.

In recognition for his decades of fantasy writings, in 1975 Bloch was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention, held in Providence, Rhode Island, a place associated with Bloch’s close friend and mentor H.P. Lovecraft; the award itself was actually a bust of Lovecraft.

Entering into the 1980’s, and continuing as the decade progressed, Bloch continued to write scripts for television shows, including Tales of the Unexpected and Tales from the Darkside, amongst other programmes. Returning to past creations, Bloch’s novels Psycho II and Night of the Ripper were published in 1982 and 1984, respectively. Published in 1990, with his novel Psycho House, Bloch again returned to his ‘Psycho setting’.

In 1993, Bloch had published Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography, the following year, aged seventy seven years old, Bloch died, finally losing his battle with cancer. In a career which spanned six decades, including his numerous contributions to pulp magazines, Bloch penned many stories, recorded numerous radio shows, wrote television scripts, screenplays, and influenced some of classic horror’s most revered films.

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