Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Scarf by Robert Bloch; Mystery Scene Winter Issue

"This is a thread that runs through all of my mystery/suspense fiction," Bloch has pointed out. "The terrible inability to understand the irrational behavior of certain human beings, what is it that impels that sometime senseless sadistic cruelty, and I tried to familiarize myself with it because I can recognize that, deep down within, there are certain of those aspects within myself which I probably manage to exorcise by way of the typewriter."

This was Robert Bloch talking to an interviewer about why his early career shifted from Lovecraftian horror to the more frightening horror of the human mind.

Bloch had long been fascinated with the fact that while some killers were transparent many others were hidden safely inside a studied disguise of normality.

Daniel Morley, for instance, the narrator of The Scarf, is a young man gliding through life. First a novelist and then a screenwriter, always attractive to women and smooth with the men he must deal with.

One thing I admire about this novel is Morley's agonizing over what he does. He is not in control of his urges and he suffers for it. He's not the sleek stereotype of the mastermind serial killer of today. And his fetishistic attachment to the red scarf with which he strangles his victims haunts his nightmares.

I'm sure many readers will disagree with me that The Scarf is at least the equal of Psycho and maybe even a little bit better. Bloch had a good time playing humor off the Norman Bates character. You could even imagine Bloch smiling if not laughing out loud in places. For that reason I suspect that the Daniel Morley character was more difficult to make human. More pitfalls in making him believable. This is Jim Thompson country.

Much of Bloch's work has faded, the fate of most prolific writers. I was never a particular fan of his humor and it has not worn well. But he wrote two remarkable and timeless novels, Psycho and The Scarf, and a fine single volume collection of his very best stories could be set on the same shelf with the two books.

Hell, very late in his career he wrote a masterpiece, the long story "The Yugoslavs," one of the finest, darkest and most original stories I've ever read. The Scarf is well worth looking up.

--------------------------------------------From Kate Stine at Mystery Scene Magazine

Dear Readers,

January has flown by. In between big mystery award announcements; welcoming Mystery News readers; and diving into the MS Blog, Twitter, and Facebook; we're also finishing up a great looking Winter Issue #113, which should be out mid-February.

We're looking forward to bringing you a terrific cover story with Randy Wayne White, as well as a chat with G.M. Malliet, Lawrence Block's memories of Ross Thomas, a tribute to G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, and a look at P.D. James's new Talking About Detective Fiction. Hope your 2010 is off to a wonderful beginning and we'll see you next month.

Kate Stine


Todd Mason said...

Depends on which humorous story you refer to, Ed, but I think I probably like even his Lefty Feep stories well enough...at leat two fat collections, the two 1970s Ballantine retrospectives, are pretty damned impressive. And these aren't his only good novels, even if no one probably needs to read PSYCHO HOUSE.

Also, I'd suggest that this shift in his work was actually picking up Lovecraft's ball and running with it, even as Leiber did in a slightly different direction--Lovecraft's endless dread of alien ancestry and the control exerted by unseen and indescribable forces fits neatly into looking into the drives and compulsions that Bloch explored. That and his eventual lean, contemporary style that was the antithesis of most of early WEIRD TALES school helped him blaze trails for so many...rather neatly in parallel with Cornell Woolrich, who substituted shrillness at worst for Bloch's corniness at worst.

Ed Gorman said...

I like Psycho House but I don't think it's equal to Psycho or The Scarf. Sorry to say but I couldn't read a Lefty Feep story, not all the way through.

A friend reminded me that when I said "the fate of most prolific writers" is to have their work forgotten, I should have said "just about ALL writers period will have their work forgotten." True enough.

I didn't mean to diminish Bloch in any way. Over thirty years of publishing novels I've probably been compared to him--no exaggeration--fifty or sixty times. He was one of my primary influences.

All I meant to say is that these two novels and a carefully chosen collection will stand the test of time. Very few writers of any kind write anything that will be remembered.

Also I put his Woolrichesque novels just below the ones I named. He was a coherent version of Woolrich. Much as I love old Cornell's stuff sometimes the sloppiness of it makes me nuts.

Anonymous said...

Keep on posting such stories. I love to read articles like this. Just add more pics :)

Anonymous said...

Night of the Ripper is a fun historical mystery/horror novel.