Psycho and its paratexts: the material production of a gothic text. Part 1

Posted by Glennis Byron on April 16, 2011 in Blog tagged with , ,

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

Part 1 – Psycho as thriller


From the initial publication of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, with its preface offering an elaborate counterfeit origin, what we now think of as Gothic has been intricately tied up as much with the way in which the text is presented to the public as with what that text might have to say. I want to expand this idea to consider Gothic not just as a narrative emerging out of one particular social and historical moment in time, but also as a material commodity that, through various editions, is produced and reproduced in a successive sequence of  historical moments, even as the actual text found between the covers remains just the same. Any individual Gothic fiction can come to mean different things throughout its publication history: as our ideas about Gothic change, so the book is produced and reproduced differently, and the rhetorical aims and functions of the text can actually be altered by the paratexts and by the processes of material production and distribution. In a series of three posts, I want to demonstrate this process by looking at the ways in which Robert Bloch’s Psycho comes to be materially constructed as a work of gothic horror.

Robert Bloch began in the 1930s as a writer of stories in the Lovecraft mode for Weird Tales, but after 1945 he turned from these fantastic monstrosities to focus more on the horror of the human, in particular, on the workings of the criminal mind, the evil that could be found within society and not that which threatened it from without.  Such works as The Scarf, Spiderweb, The Kidnapper, The Will to Kill, Shooting Star and Terror in the Night are first person narratives of psychopaths and serial killers, but they are by no means horror in the sense we would now understand the term. They are basically crime or suspense novels with an intense interest in the psychology of the criminal and show the influence of such writers as James Cain and Raymond Chandler. And it is these stories of psychological suspense with which Bloch was primarily associated when Psycho was first published in 1959.

In America, the Simon and Schuster first edition of 1959 uses the logo that Hitchcock subsequently bought for his film title and the book is announced as one in the series of ‘Inner Sanctum’ mysteries.

The ‘Inner Sanctum’ was a series of mysteries, sometimes with supernatural overtones, that led to the radio programme of the 1940s famed for opening with the sound of a creaking door.

In Britain, the Robert Hale edition of 1960 positions Psycho more firmly within the category of crime fiction with the logo of the smoking gun that identified its crime series on the title page:

Robert Hale (UK) 1960 cover

Robert Hale (UK) 1960 title page

The text on the dust jackets that is supposed to entice the curious to buy and read the book is almost identical in these two first editions (US and UK). It is basically a slightly abridged version of the moment when Mary, after stealing the forty thousand dollars, realises she has to rest for the night before driving on to meet her lover Sam Loomis:

The girl was a fugitive, lost in a storm. That’s when she saw the sign MOTEL – VACANCY. The sign was unlit, the motel dark. She switched off the engine, and sat thinking, alone, frightened. The stolen money would not help, and Sam could not help either, because she had taken the wrong turning, she was on a strange road. No help for it – she had made her grave and must lie in it.

Why had that word come into her mind? It was bed, not grave.

She was puzzling it out when the dark shadow emerged from the other shadows and quietly opened her car door.

The text suggests a vague threat, and emphasises the crime Mary has committed and her fear and isolation. It aims to raise questions about what happens next, what the past crime was about, who the dark shadow is that opens her door, and what the threat to the girl so clearly anticipated here will be. Basically, it provokes curiosity and suggests suspense. Psycho is primarily being marketed as a mystery.

Stage 1. From Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to Stephen King’s Carrie (1974)

The event that has the most influence on paperback editions of Psycho is, inevitably, the release of Hitchcock’s film in June of 1960, and, in particular of course, Hitchcock’s shower scene. Like Dracula and FrankensteinPsycho assumed iconic status in the twentieth century primarily through film. There can be few other moments in the history of film that have been so repeatedly referenced and reworked and parodied. The shower scene has assumed much the same cultural resonance as the image of Dracula’s fangs poised to penetrate the neck of some bosomy blonde or electricity streaking down to animate Frankenstein’s creature.

Not surprisingly, then, there are very few reprints of Psycho during this period that don’t, either through text or image, evoke the shower scene. Here, for example, is the back cover used for the 1964 and 1969 Corgi editions, and every Corgi I’ve seen has offered some variation on this:

Bloch’s name still appears on the back cover at this stage, even though he has to share the spotlight with Hitchcock. The viewer’s eye, however, is inevitably drawn by the block of colour primarily to ‘She stepped into the shower stall’. The text presented on these Corgi back covers is an abridged and slightly changed version of Bloch’s original, and comparing it with this original is quite revealing. This is the back cover version from the Corgi:

She stepped into the shower stall. She let the warm water gush over her. That’s why she didn’t hear the door open. At first, when the shower curtains parted, steam obscured the face. Then she saw it …

A face, peering through the curtains. A head-scarf concealed the hair, and glassy eyes stared inhumanly. The skin was powdered dead-white and two spots of rouge were centered on the cheekbones.

She started to scream. Then the curtain parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife…

Unlike the text on the dust jackets of the first editions, this text is not designed to arouse curiosity,  to prompt the reader to buy the book to find out what happens. It deals not in suspense but in knowledge; it plays with what we know, not what we don’t know. After Hitchcock’s film, the reader knows that what happens next is an extended voyeuristic blood bath, and, this back cover suggests, with its final ‘…’,  that the same thrilling scene will be found within the pages of the book. But of course it actually won’t be.

In Bloch’s text, free indirect discourse is used to place the reader right inside Mary’s mind. Here is some of the original text that this cover blurb is taken from:

A head-scarf concealed the hair and the glassy eyes stared inhumanly, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be. The skin had been powdered dead-white and two hectic spots of rouge centered on the cheekbones. It wasn’t a mask. It was the face of a crazy old woman.

Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream.

And her head.

Since we are encouraged to think and see things along with Mary, we see no more than she does; when her perceptions are cut off, along with her head, so are ours, and the chapter abruptly ends right here. Although we are later told that Mary’s body is left as a ‘hacked and twisted thing’, the famous slashing scene in Hitchcock’s film is just not part of Bloch’s book; there is simply no extended voyeuristic moment of horror. The back cover, then, suggests something is going to happen that never actually does: Bloch’s Psycho is marketed as though it is going to reproduce the experience of viewing Hitchcock’s Psycho.

I don’t want to suggest that these references to the shower scene on the book covers always function in precisely the same way, however, and at this point they are not necessarily being exploited in order to produce Psycho as a horror novel. Partly, the way these references function in manipulating the reader’s response to the book is inevitably tied in with how Hitchcock’s Psycho is being interpreted at any given moment in time. As Linda Williams argues, while the film has now become ‘the familiar antecedent for familial “slice and dice” horror … audiences who first went to see it did not go to see a slasher horror film; they went to see a Hitchcock thriller with a twist – about which there was a great deal of excitement and quite a bit of mystery’. And what was crucially significant about Psycho for its first viewers, as she goes on to observe, was not its representations of sex or violence: other films had shown far more. What was crucially significant was that it sexualized the motive and the action of violence (Williams 178).

And that takes me to the front cover of the Corgi 1964 to 1969 editions:

The book is generically defined here as ‘Robert Bloch’s Classic Chiller’, and the cover art seems to evoke precisely the eroticised violence of which Williams speaks. While there is no information in the book about this cover art, it is clearly a reworking of part of the shower scene. More specifically, it is a reworking of the montage unit from the sequence that subsequently caused particular controversy. According to the myth propagated by Hitchcock and the screenwriter Joseph Steffano, at no point in the shower scene did the knife penetrate flesh. As later studies of the sequence demonstrated, however, it is precisely at the moment echoed on this cover that the knife did in fact penetrate flesh:

Robert Kolker has suggested that perhaps Hitchcock insisted on the lie because to admit that there was a stabbing wound would take Psycho a little too close to a snuff film (Kolker 247). What this cover of the Corgi edition in the 1960s shows, however, is that there is no need for actual penetration to occur for this to be an image of eroticised violence, with the all too phallic knife pointed at the navel and the drops of water trickling down rather suspiciously. (Interestingly, although the segment from the film shows the knife moving down, in the Corgi representation, the knife is turned up.)

Other elements of the peritext suggest, however, that Corgi is still not attempting to produce the text as horror. Most revealing of all is the advertisement for other books at the back. In 1969, after announcing ‘A Selection of fine reading available in Corgi Books’, the subsequent list is divided into sections. There is no section identified as horror. Instead, the sections include Novels, War, Romance, Science Fiction, General, Westerns, and Crime. Psycho is included under ‘Crime’, along with books by Mickey Spillane and Julian Symons.

The list as a whole seems to reveal a great deal about what the publisher thinks of Psycho and its target market and, combined with the eroticised violence of the cover, the list suggests that, at this particular moment, Psycho was considered the kind of book that would appeal primarily to readers of men’s magazines of the Playboy variety, a magazine for which Bloch wrote quite frequently. Women are apparently not expected to account for much of the market: there are only three entries under ‘Romance’ as opposed to thirteen under ‘War’.  ‘General’ seems to be specifically directed at a male readership and is where the racier works get euphemistically filed. It includes Barbarella, for example, which, the reader is encouragingly advised in leering parenthesis, is ‘illustrated’. (Jane Fonda, star of the 1968 film version, had featured three times in Playboy since 1966.) A number of books from the popular nude photographer of the 1960s, Sam Haskins, are also included under ‘General’. And there are various books by such sexologists as Ivan Bloch and Eustace Chesser, the latter best known as the man who popularised the idea that marital bliss required mutual orgasm. Erotica and sexology are offset in ‘General’ only by Nobby Stiles’s Soccer My Battlefield and Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Karate. During the 1960s then, Psycho is produced primarily as a ‘chiller’, a crime story aimed at a predominantly male audience that will be expecting the same titillation of eroticised violence that was provided by the film.

Next: Stage 2: Psycho and the establishment of modern horror.

Kolker, Robert, ‘The Form, Structure and Influence of Psycho‘, in Robert Kolker, ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 206- 256.

Linda Williams, ‘Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema’, in Robert Kolker, ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 164-204.

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