Friday, May 3, 2013

Robert Bloch – Comedic Horrorsmith

Some memories by J. D. Crayne

When I was a child my father owned a small collection of science fiction and horror pulp magazines from the '40s and '50s.  Among the stories in them was one about a magicians' convention at a hotel that was invaded by a group of sorcerers from the nether regions.  It was a delightful bit of comedy, especially a sequence where some very drunk conventioneers went to a wax works Chamber of Horrors and decided to take two of the "axe victims" out to breakfast with them.  This was a scenario worthy of humorist Thorne Smith at his best.  Growing up, I did not know the name of the tale or of the author, but it was a story that always stuck with me.  It wasn't until many years later that I discovered it was "Black Magic Holiday" by Robert Bloch, published in Imaginative Tales in 1955.

Probably best known for the novel Psycho, Bob Bloch wrote some amazingly creative horror stories that can still send a shudder along the spine.  He also had a wonderful sense of comedy noir and he wrote some of the funniest bits of fantasy you will ever be able to find.  It is this versatility which makes him such a remarkable writer.  His output spans crime, horror, and comedy with equal facility, and his  writing is clear, concise, and yet manages to convey an extremely rich sense of atmosphere.  

He began his writing career with horror stories that were modeled on those of the Lovecraft Circle and added two titles – De Vermis Mysteriis and  Cultes des Goules -- to the imaginary source library began by Lovecraft with the Necronomicon.  After Bloch wrote The Shambler from the Stars in Lovecraftian mode,  Lovecraft wrote him into The Haunter of the Dark as a character named Robert Blake, who naturally dies a horrible death. After Lovecraft's death in 1937, Bob Bloch began to move away from his mentor's type of fiction and swiftly developed a style of his own. His tales about the time and space traveler, Lefty Feep, filled with riotous puns and tongue-in-cheek humor are still amusing after sixty years (and make me wonder if they inspired Grendel Briarton's "Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot"). At the same time he was writing horror that can make one's skin creep. His output was phenomenal, with over thirty novels to his credit plus hundreds of short stories. He was one of those writers who make writing look easy. Along with all of his fiction, he was a prolific screen writer with numerous horror movies to his credit.  (Not Psycho, alas.  It was scripted by Joseph Stefano.)

As a person, he was a delight to know.  Tall, swarthy, and suave, he was the perfect picture of a Hollywood screenwriter. I remember him best in a suit with an ascot tie, gesturing with a long cigarette holder. He was always ready with a quip or joke and his facility with words could be both inventive and hilarious.  He was a regular attendee at the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society in the 1960s,  when it was meeting at various park clubhouses, and was often present at parties thrown by club members.  I remember that when he came to one of my birthday parties, he brought me a jack-in-the-box as a present.  The figure inside of the scarlet box was a shrunken head with a bone through its nose and long black dreadlocks. 

As a young man Bob had corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft and had a large collection of letters from him.  Unfortunately he ran into trouble with the IRS in the 'Sixties and was forced to sell the letters to meet his tax debt.  I have always sort of wondered about the identity of the lucky purchaser.  (It is interesting to speculate that collections of letters like those of Lovecraft will be fewer and fewer in the future, since so many writers have changed to electronic correspondence. The days of trying to puzzle out some writer's nearly-indecipherable cursive are about gone. The same thing applies to literary manuscripts.)

Bob and his wife, lly – a charming and lovely woman (at the time a buyer for an interior decorator) - had a comfortable home in the Hollywood Hills, one of those houses that are perched at the top of a steep slope, in this case covered with flowering azaleas.  He had set up a bird feeder further down the slope and they used to watch the local birds with binoculars – until rats showed up and became regular visitors and seed thieves.  Somehow, that seemed only appropriate for someone of Bob's reputation.

I knew him and Elly best from the mid 1960s through 1993, when my husband and I moved to Northern California.  We all belonged to a writer's club which met monthly at different member's homes, and I remember the two of them on those occasions with great affection. They were an extremely harmonious couple, always sociable, friendly, and filled with a wide fund of information on practically any subject. I remember one time, when the monthly meeting was at our house, I found Bob looking over some shelves filled with rather shabby books and I said, rather apologetically, that they were only readers' copies.  "Those are the best kind," he replied with a broad smile.

Towards the end of his life, Bob wrote Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography which was published by Tor in 1993.  I recommend it highly to any Bloch enthusiast, giving as it does his reflections on a long and productive life. For those of you who were not privileged to read his short stories on their original publication, there are three collections which can be nosed at your favorite used book store, The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, published in three volumes in 1987.   There is an article about him on Wikipedia, which has an extensive chronological bibliography and is well worth reading.

J. D. Crayne is the author of the Captain Spycer send-ups of rip-roaring space opera for Futures-Past Editions, and of cozy mysteries, including the Mark Stoddard series for Deerstalker Editions

An omnibus book edition of her feline detective novels featuring "Lucky Pierre," Three Cat Mysteries, is available free via the Amazon Lending Library for all Amazon Prime Members.

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