Bloch, Robert Albert

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Bloch, Robert Albert

(b. 5 April 1917 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 23 September 1994 in Los Angeles, California), author and screenwriter specializing in suspense-mystery and supernatural horror, best known for the novel Psycho.

Robert Bloch (called “Bob”) was the elder of two children of Raphael A. Bloch (known as Ray or Ralph) and Stella Loeb. During Bob’s childhood the family lived in May-wood, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, where he attended Emerson Grammar School. A bright child, he was skipped four semesters, advancing from first to fourth grade in one year. The family was culturally but not religiously Jewish, attending the Methodist church for social reasons.

Bob enjoyed Chicago’s Art Institute and Lincoln Park Zoo. He read copiously, including the Tom Swift novels and the dime-novel adventures of Buffalo Bill and others; later he relished the Oz books and stories about Tarzan and Dr. Fu Manchu. He also enjoyed early films, especially The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, Sr. Most importantly, in 1927 Bloch discovered Weird Tales magazine, a showcase of supernatural horror fiction.

His father worked as a banker in Chicago but lost two jobs after each bank closed due to bad management; though the fault was not his, he had difficulty finding work. When Bob was in his early teens the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his mother, a teacher and social worker before her marriage, had been invited to return to her former job, working with immigrant families and their children at Abraham Lincoln House. His father found sporadic work, but the mother’s job supported the family. Bloch attended Steuben Junior High School and Washington High School, then graduated from Lincoln High School in June 1934.

By then Bloch’s life as a writer had begun. In 1933 he had written to H. P. Lovecraft, whose short fiction in Weird Tales he admired; Lovecraft, a voluminous correspondent, encouraged his teenage friend to write fiction. Bloch was not paid for his first two published short stories (“Lilies” and “The Black Lotus”), but by July 1934 he had sold two stories to Weird Tales, “The Feast in the Abbey” and “The Secret in the Tomb.” Within eighteen months his fiction was selling regularly.

Bloch supported himself by writing, in many forms, for the rest of his life. He joined the Milwaukee Fictioneers, which included science fiction writers and editors, and wrote for Amazing Stories. Moving away from the deep influence of Lovecraft’s style on his fiction, Bloch consciously turned to mainstream influences—Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann—and other popular writers, such as Damon Runyon, James M. Cain, and Thorne Smith. In the late 1930s, Bloch sold jokes to the radio comics Stoopnagle and Budd.

In 1939, with his high school friend Harold Gauer, Bloch wrote publicity releases and speeches for a dark-horse Milwaukee mayoral candidate, Carl Zeidler. However, when Zeidler won, Bloch and Gauer were considered too young and uneducated for positions in the administration. Bloch married Marion Ruth Holcombe on 2 October 1940 and made a living primarily by writing fiction for magazines including Unknown Worlds, Imaginative Tales, Fantastic Adventures, and Rogue. They had a daughter, Sally, on 28 July 1943. Because he had to assist his wife, who suffered aftereffects of tuberculosis of the bone, Bloch did not serve in World War II.

From 1942 to 1953, Bloch wrote copy for the Gustav Marx Advertising Agency and continued to write fiction. The first collection of his stories, The Opener of the Way, was published in 1945 by August Derleth’s Arkham House (founded to publish Lovecraft’s works). His first novel was The Scarf, published in 1947; Bloch also began writing scripts—mainly adaptations of his short stories—for the radio show Stay Tuned for Terror. In 1953 the Bloch family moved to Marion’s hometown, Weyauwega, Wisconsin, where Bloch wrote novels and commuted to Milwaukee to appear as a regular panelist on a cartoon quiz show, It’s a Draw. In the 1950s landmark short stories such as “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and “Water’s Edge” were published, reprinted repeatedly, and adapted for radio and later television.

Bloch’s most famous novel, Psycho, was published in 1959; this story of a mother-obsessed, murderous motel manager was inspired by the rural Wisconsin ghoul and murderer Ed Gein. While the novel was still being made into an award-winning film (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock, Bloch and his family moved to Los Angeles. Bloch began screenwriting—including Strait-Jacket (1964), starring Joan Crawford—and adapting his own and others’ work for television. Personable and genuinely nice, Bloch made many friends, including such film greats as Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff, and Fritz Lang, as well as fellow-writers Charles Beaumont, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, and others.

Marion never fully adapted to Los Angeles, and she and Bloch were divorced. During the long proceedings, the writer met and fell in love with Eleanor Alexander, whose writer-producer husband had recently died. Bloch and Elly married on 16 October 1964, a sound marriage that lasted until his death.

During his last three decades, Bloch produced screenplays for movies and television, short stories, novels, and an endearing volume of memoirs. He won the Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Convention in 1959 for his story “That Hellhound Train.” In 1975 he was guest of honor at the First World Fantasy Convention, where he was given the Life Achievement Award, and in 1991 he won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America for lifetime contribution to the field. Even when terminally ill with cancer of the esophagus and kidneys, Bloch thought first of his friends, graciously saying goodbye to distant friends and joking until the end. His ashes, in a book-shaped urn, are kept by the University of Wyoming.

The epitome of a professional writer, Bloch took seriously every job, always seeking to entertain and thrill the reader, viewer, or listener as well as to make money practicing his craft. Moreover, he was kind and thoughtful, reaching out to new writers, and an honest gentleman even in as competitive a milieu as Hollywood. The combination of humor and horror gives his work unique appeal—a combination seen in his oft-quoted self-description, “I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

Bloch’s manuscripts, correspondence, and personal memorabilia are in the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. His “unauthorized autobiography,” Once Around the Bloch (1993), is indispensable, charming, and informative. Works about Bloch tend to be from small publishers and hard to find but worthwhile, such as Graeme Flanagan’s Robert Bloch: A Bio-Bibliography (1979); Harold Lee Prosser’s The Man Who Walked Through Mirrors: Robert Bloch as Social Critic (1989); and The Complete Robert Bloch: An Illustrated, Comprehensive Bibliography (1986) and Robert Bloch (1986), both by Randall D. Larson. Robert Bloch: Appreciations of the Master (1995), edited by Richard Matheson and Ricia Mainhardt, includes factual pieces and emotional tributes and reprints of some of Bloch’s best short fiction. An obituary is in the New York Times (25 Sept. 1994).

Bernadette Lynn Bosky