Psycho and its paratexts: the material production of a gothic horror text. Part 3.

Posted by Glennis Byron on May 05, 2011 in Blog tagged with , , , , ,

Part One here. Part Two here.

Stage 4. Check In. Relax. Take a Shower: 1995 – 1999.

The horror boom didn’t last very long. The self-referentiality that had functioned to define it gave way to pure formula and by 1995, horror seemed all but finished. The question of the author and authority now became particularly important for such writers as Rice and King who came to prominence and achieved wide popularity during the horror boom years. They survived as brand names, but  Robert Bloch did not. Bloch remained significant only for a smaller fan core of readers who enjoyed fantasy and weird tales. For the vast majority of the reading public, Bloch was an unknown: Psycho was the only one of his works to have a wide and continuing success, and with Psycho, as the editions at the end of the twentieth century demonstrate, the author had become increasingly detached from his text.

Renewed interest in Psycho was provoked when on April Fool’s Day 1998, it was announced that Gus Van Sant had started production on his Psycho. Heavily promoted as the closest remake in film history, Van Sant’s film was considered by some to be designed primarily to rekindle interest in Universal’s most prestigious property, Hitchcock’s Psycho, and to serve as advance promotion for the release of the new digitally enhanced print of this original in 1999.

Both Bloomsbury and Robert Hale, the original British publisher of Psycho, took  advantage of the moment by producing new editions in 1999, and it is these editions I’d like to consider in this last post on Psycho.

The Robert Hale edition immediately announces on the front flap of the dust jacket that it is resissued to coincide with the national release of the new print of Hitchcock’s film and the whole effort suggests an utter lack of interest in Bloch’s Psycho. The cover art is relatively predictable, offering two images from the shower scene: Norman as mother with the butcher knife on the upper cover and Janet Leigh’s mouth opening to scream on the lower. The dust jacket text is more interesting, if only because it is so puzzling. The first point of confusion is on the back dust flap where there is a short bio of Bloch:

Robert Bloch is the author of two dozen novels and hundreds of short stories, many of which are now considered among the masterpieces of modern mystery and horror. Psycho, his best known novel, was made into Hitchcock’s unforgettable film, and his scenarios include classic episodes of the still popular ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ television series. [These episodes are not exactly the highlights of Bloch’s career, but the book seems primarily designed to promote Hitchcock, not Bloch.] A past president of the Mystery Writers of America, Mr Bloch lives in Los Angeles, California.

It might be worth remembering a couple of basic facts here: this edition is issued in 1999: Bloch died in 1994. The claim that he is still ‘living’ in Los Angeles, California is consequently a touch alarming. The front flap has been updated to announce the 1999 release of the new print of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Why, at the same time, did they not bother to update the information about Bloch on the back?

The second puzzle is the summary on the front flap:

Robert Bloch’s novel which was later made into the classic chiller by Hitchcock is recognised as a masterpiece of the genre. [Although the syntax identifies the novel as the masterpiece, this is clearly not true; it is the film that has been recognised as the masterpiece.] From the opening page the scene is set for the menace to come. The lonely Bates Motel, the obsessional Norman Bates, the runaway secretary, the face at the rain-soaked window and at the end the terrifying stabbing in the shower.

At the end? The decapitation (and in the book it is a decapitation rather than a stabbing) in this large print 185 page edition takes place on page 39. What about the events that follow? There’s much more ‘menace’ to come. What about the attempt by Sam and Lila and Arbogast to track down Marian, the murder of Arbogast on the staircase, Lila’s discovery of the ‘mother’ in the fruit cellar and so on. The book is flatly reduced to the opening episode of the film, to the moment made so notorious by Hitchcock. Bloch’s Psycho seems to have disappeared.

If the Hale edition looks primarily to Hitchcock, Bloomsbury’s 1999 edition, which soon became the standard edition for teaching the text, looks more to Van Sant. The professed aim of Van Sant’s supposedly shot by shot remake was to duplicate so as to recreate the effect of the original while updating it, setting it in the 1990s and using modern technology rather than, as numerous other films such as Dressed to Kill had done, to use it as a point of departure for a new interpretation. The notoriety of Hitchcock’s film, and in particular the shower scene, meant that Van Sant’s version would necessarily lack the element of shock provided by the death of the heroine early in the film, a moment which provided Psycho’s original audience with one of the greatest surprises in film history. But this is something that Van Sant seems to emphasise and exploit, emphasising what we know, encouraging the viewer to join in on the joke with his tongue in cheek publicity line:

Welcome to the Bates Motel. Relax. Take a shower.

Van Sant may have lost the shocking Hitchcock, the Hitchcock of suspense that first time viewers of the film would have encountered, but he nevertheless reinstates the ironic Hitchcock that those same viewers, unaware of the storyline, would have been unable to identify in the film.

The back cover of the Bloomsbury edition seems to be an advertisement for Van Sant’s film – except for one detail:





Bloch’s name appears nowhere here, and yet between the original logo and the identification of cast and crew there is ‘The Original Novel’, bringing novel and film together in a strange and curious way, almost conflating them, and eliminating difference.

The front cover of the Bloomsbury 1999 edition reproduces one of the two main images with which Van Sant’s film was marketed.

The image on the left, which they didn’t use,  seems with its claw like hand to be more in line with traditional horror images. The image on the right which they did choose is more stylish and restrained, but also serves to position Psycho in a more complex and interesting way. Inevitably, given the publisher is Bloomsbury, this is a far more up-market edition than those old Corgis. It suggests that Psycho is not schlock horror but something that has assumed the status of art and received the benediction of the critics. It’s also a highly stylised piece of work, and if you try to read it in terms of straight narrative it doesn’t really make sense. What initially seems to be important is the references of the visuals rather than any coherent and cohesive meaning the visuals may in themselves possess. The woman, seen in soft focus through the shower curtain, is clearly very much still alive and unstabbed, and yet her lower half is submerged in a sea of blood. This leads down to the original logo for Psycho reproduced in the same blood red. Bloch’s name, beneath this, stands out in white lettering. Bloch, Hitchcock and Van Sant seem to be brought together through this cover…  although perhaps there are one or two others in this particular relationship.

To explain: Stephen King’s The Shining has a number of quite obvious connections with Bloch’s Psycho. Both tell the story of a psychopath produced within and primarily by the institution of the family and both are primarily concerned with the disintegration of identity. And when Stanley Kubrick produces his film version of The Shining, further connections are established with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. For example, Saul Bass, who had produced the title credits for Psycho produced the original poster for The Shining.

And the events in Room 217 of the Overlook Hotel, as filmed by Kubrick, amount to a  rewriting of Hitchcock’s shower scene in Room 1 of the Bates Motel. Again the outline of a woman’s form is seen behind a shower curtain (here unnecessarily pulled across since she is having a bath). But if in Psycho the monstrosity is standing outside the curtain, in The Shining it is what lies behind that curtain, the woman who will, as soon as Jack embraces her,  turn into an rotting oozing putrid corpse.

If, then, Kubrick references and reverses Hitchcock in The Shining, then with this image

we have Van Sant referencing Hitchcock through Kubrick, combining the shower scene with one of other most notorious moments from The Shining: the sea of blood that pours out of the elevator doors:

With the conflation of three moments, connecting the late 50s, late 70s, and late 90s, what this cover seems to suggest is that authorship, as much contemporary film scholarship suggests, is not something that can be defined through specific textual markers but is instead defined in historical terms. Robert Bloch’s Psycho is in a sense now eclipsed, unimportant. But Psycho as a idea survives, repeatedly written and rewritten, referenced and appropriated, removed from any conventional and stable sense of authority, and ownership, identified not with any one single individual, author or auteur, but instead part of a tradition, something always available for appropriation and rewriting, the ever changing product of the whole history of gothic horror.

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