Psycho and its paratexts: the material production of a gothic horror text. Part 2.

Posted by Glennis Byron on April 24, 2011 in Blog tagged with , ,

Part 2: Psycho and the establishment of modern horror. (Part 1 here)

In the last post I discussed some of the editions from the date of first publication until the early 1970s.

Stage 2. 1974 – Stephen King and the establishment of modern horror as a genre.

Corgi editions, 1977 – 85

Ten years later, Corgi had completely changed their tactics in the marketing of Psycho. In the intervening years, the horror novel had taken off. The popular success of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1967 and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist in 1971, as well as the film adaptations that followed soon after the books, had convinced publishers and film makers that there was a market to be exploited, opening the way for the publication of Stephen King’s Carrie in 1974, and for the flood of imitators that were to follow.  At the same time, Bloch and Psycho are recognised – or perhaps the better word would be produced – as a part of this booming horror scene. Bloch is even called on to write blurbs for the first books of both King and Peter Straub.

The advertisement at the back of the 1977 Corgi edition of Psycho now dispenses with all those categories found in the previous editions and simply offers ‘A Selected List of Horror Stories Published by Corgi Books’. Horror is now a defined category for the publisher. With the exception of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, it is perhaps not the most impressive list. It consists mainly of anthologies of horror fiction such as Michel Parry’s Reign of Terror and a collection of stories from Bloch, The Skull of the Marquis de Sade, which Corgi seem to be hoping will, like Psycho, be interpreted as another horror novel rather than the ‘weird tales’ they are.

By 1985, however, Corgi had managed to get a much larger share of the horror market and expanded their selection to include a number of books that had become popular bestsellers and reached a large audience, if primarily through the filmed versions. The selected list of horror at the back of Corgi editions now includes The Exorcist (Blatty 1971/Friedkin 1973); Halloween (Carpenter 1978/ Curtis Richards 1979), and The Hunger (Strieber 1981/Scott 1983). Simply advertising these other books,  already firmly positioned as horror, within Psycho, functions to position Psycho itself more firmly within the genre.

The disturbing eroticised violence of the 1969 Psycho cover is replaced in 1977 with something anticipating a new kind of horror:

Corgi 1969

Corgi 1977

As the blood splattered walls of the 1977 edition suggest, the age of the slasher was about to begin – John Carpenter’s Halloween was released in the following year. It is still called Bloch’s ‘classic chiller’ here, but the visuals have clearly moved more towards horror. The shower scene continues to be referenced by the cover, but in a slightly different way, no longer eroticised, but capturing the combination of humour and horror that would also come to mark the slasher film and anticipating a number of the issues that would become central to this genre, including gender slippage and the monstrous mother.

If the original Gothic is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, put together out of many different genres and literary sources, one of the things that distinguishes later twentieth-century horror is its attempt to define itself more clearly as a genre through self-referentiality. Few genres have been quite as loud and emphatic in announcing themselves. This is particularly noticeable in the slasher subgenre and Psycho takes on a particularly important role in developing the genre competence that would be increasingly required of and developed by the horror audience. The glut of slasher films claim Psycho as antecedent and in doing so position the text, both book and film, increasingly within the genre of horror. When John Carpenter’s Halloween appears in 1978, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh who played Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Donald Pleasance plays a psychiatrist called Sam Loomis – the name of Mary/Marion’s lover in Psycho. The name Loomis then reappears in Wes Craven’s Scream cycle while Janet Leigh returns in Halloween H20 (1997) playing Norma Crane, personal assistant to a school principal played by Jamie Lee Curtis. And on it goes…

And it is not only that Psycho began to be seen and frequently referenced in other fictions as the father – or mother – of all modern slasher films. With later editions of Psycho, other horror texts become incorporated in various ways into the peritexts. No doubt influenced by the popular success of horror, Bloch had finally decided to publish a sequel to Psycho in 1982. The Corgi 1985 edition of Psycho contains a back page advertising this sequel which plays on the studio line from Jaws 2 (1978): ‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the shower…’ And now, along with such old reviews as ‘A terribly chilling tale’ from Bestseller in 1960, the reader is offered more up to date testimony from one of the most popular horror writers of the eighties, Peter Straub, who affirms that ‘Robert Bloch is one of the all-time masters’.

Stage 3. 1985-1995: Anti-horror.

Around 1985, there is a shift within horror, a movement away from the conservatism associated with earlier horror towards a subversion of traditional values and identities: the monster becomes the victim or the anti-hero with whom we empathise. The progenitors of this new kind of horror were such books as Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and in contrast with Rice’s sophisticated and intellectual aesthetes, Robert Bloch’s Norman Bates, short, dumpy bespectacled Momma’s boy, simply doesn’t have much of a chance. Even Anthony Perkins could not turn Norman into an empathetic character. His Norman may have pathos and a boyish sinister charm, but as film critics often note, while Hitchcock does everything possible, after brutally breaking off our identification with Marion, to shift the first time viewer’s sympathies to Norman Bates, once the story is known, the viewer actively resists identification with the psychotic.  With the shift to anti-horror and its more sympathetic monsters, the interest of the mainstream publisher in Bloch’s Psycho fades.

Hitchcock’s Psycho, however, had by now achieved iconic status, as the various parodies paying tribute to the shower scene well demonstrate, such as Maggie attacking Homer with a mallet in The Simpsons, season 2, episode 9, December, 1990:

Three items seems of particular relevance in capturing the essence of the shower scene here: the music, of course, grabbing the shower curtain and pulling it down, and the notorious Hershey’s chocolate syrup being poured down the drain. Looking at a later parody from Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), with Bugs Bunny enacting the part of victim, demonstrates a similar focus:

During the years 1985 – 1995, Psycho continues to be published, but only by smaller presses, such as Buccaneer Books, usually in limited editions, and often by presses that focused on the science fiction and fantasy market such as Tor Books.

One American edition is, however, of particular interest in showing what happened to Psycho during this period: the Gauntlet Press edition of 1994. Gauntlet is a small American press that started by providing collectors with signed limited editions, using high quality materials, of classic horror, dark fantasy and suspense: these are beautifully designed books. What is particularly notable about Gauntlet is that the press offers the author quite a degree of control over the material production of the book: the author can choose the artist and approve the cover art and the general look of the book.

According to the publisher Barry Hoffman, Bloch had only one request. He said that of all the dozens and dozens of copies of Psycho he had, all the covers referred to the film, and he wanted one that did not. He chose the image and the artist and this is the cover he eventually approved:

Interestingly, the choice of cover re-positions Psycho not back within crime fiction or stories of psychological suspense but within Bloch’s corpus of fantasy and weird tales. For the first time, Psycho is provided with a Preface by Bloch and with an introduction and an afterward: these are written, however, not by any of the new generation of horror writers but by Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, authors more firmly positioned within the fantasy/scifi market. In his afterward, Bradbury offers his personal recollections of Bloch and refers primarily to the impact of the film, with a reference to the ‘dark seedbed’ that is the novel ‘that woke the night of the long knife and the shower-curtains and the dark rain in Hitchcock’s serene head’ (183).

But on the whole, this edition is designed to reject the authority of Hitchcock and reinstate the authority of Bloch; Matheson’s introduction takes the form of ‘An Open Letter to Robert Bloch’, a very personal tribute to the man which repeatedly insists ‘the film was your story, Robert. Totally’ (11) ‘To the detail’ (12). Both Matheson and Bradbury pay tribute to the warm, humane Bloch, the ‘gentleman’, who is the ‘definition of class’, the man with the dark twisted humour who once memorably claimed ‘Robert Bloch has the heart of a small boy. He keeps it in a jar on his desk’ (a line by the way, once lifted by Stephen King to describe himself).

In his Preface Bloch wryly comments on his own loss of authority: ‘It’s hard for some people to believe that thirty-five years have passed since I wrote Psycho’, he begins, ‘At times, it’s hard for some people to believe I wrote Psycho at all’ (15). This sets the tone for what is, rather disappointingly, an extended three page complaint about the way in which the credit for Psycho has gone to Hitchcock and, even worse, how the credit for writing Psycho was claimed by the screenwriter Joseph Steffano. This is an edition with a clear objective: to reclaim Psycho for Bloch fans, not for Psycho fans. Bloch’s annoyance is, of course, entirely understandable. He received very little for the film rights (his agent got most of the money) and Hitchcock, with his notorious publicity campaign, did everything he could to make the story appear to be his. ‘Don’t give away the ending’, the original poster says, ‘it’s the only one we’ve got’. There’s no concession at all here to the fact that the book was already published and well received, and that there might be any number of people who had read it and already knew the ending.

Next: Stage 4. 1995 – present.

Tiny URL for this post: