Sunday, May 25, 2014

"The Real Bad Friend" and "Lucy Comes to Town" by Robert Bloch from Gravetapping

Gravetapping by Ben Boulden

Posted: 24 May 2014 10:46 AM PDT
This 1978 collection included "The Real Bad Friend"
When I think of Robert Bloch, I think of his novel Psycho, which isn’t completely fair because Mr Bloch wrote a number of excellent stories—both novels and shorts. But Psycho is special in his cannon simply because it, due to Alfred Hitchcock’s film, has become a cultural icon. It is something of an originator of the modern serial killer novel (but so much better than most of the modern fare), and it really is a classic of both suspense and horror.

Something I didn’t know, until very recently, is the novel is preceded by two short stories that share a theme—psychotic multi-personality antagonists—which act as something close to building blocks for the novel. The stories are, “The Real Bad Friend” and “Lucy Comes to Town,” published in 1957 and 1952 respectively.  

“The Real Bad Friend” is, of the two stories, the easiest to trace directly back from Psycho. The protagonist is one George Foster Pendleton. George is a dull, unimaginative vacuum salesman with a mother fetish—he married his wife Ella because she reminded him of his mother and he wanted a woman to care for him—and a solitary friend named Roderick. Roderick is something of a mystery. He comes and goes at odd times, and while he and George often travel together Roderick has never met Ella. In fact, Ella knows nothing about George’s friend Roderick.

The catalyst of the story is Ella’s inheritance of $85,000, which gives Roderick an idea, which germinates into a plan. A plan George is something of a passive, almost unwitting, accomplice.

“George Foster Pendleton would never have thought of it. He couldn’t have; he was much to dull and respectable. George Foster Pendleton, vacuum salesman, aged forty-three, just wasn’t the type. He had been married to the same wife for fourteen years, lived in the same white house for an equal length of time, wore glasses when he wrote up orders, and was completely complacent about his receding hairline and advancing waistline.”

“The Real Bad Friend” is a full-bodied psychological dark suspense story. It is written in third person in a pedestrian and unadorned style. The prose is the physical embodiment of George’s personality (and lifestyle); dull, dry, reliable. But the prose is key to the success of the story. It is hiding a psychotic rottenness with an ordinary complacency. It shares a commonality with both “Lucy Comes to Town” and Psycho; a primary character who is much more than he (or she) appears.

“Lucy Comes to Town” is a simpler story than “Friend,” but it is no less interesting. It is written in first person by an alcoholic woman named Vi. Vi is both confused and scared, and her friend Lucy makes matters worse. Lucy convinces Vi that her husband is holding her hostage in their home. He is intentionally keeping Vi’s friends away, and the nurse he hired to help Vi rehab is actually nothing more than a guard.
Lucy helps Vi escape from the house, and the bulk of the story takes place in a dingy motel room as conversation between the two women. Lucy leading Vi back to the bottle and in the process into a dark ranting paranoia.

“I lay down on the bed and then I was sleeping, really sleeping for the first time in weeks, sleeping so the scissors wouldn’t hurt my eyes, the way George hurt me inside when he wanted to shut me up in the asylum so he and Miss Higgins could make love on my bed and laugh at me the way they all laughed at me except Lucy and she would take care of me she knew what to do now I could trust her when George came and I must sleep and sleep and nobody can blame you for what you think in your sleep or do in your sleep…”

The relationship between “Lucy,” “Friend,” and Psycho is obvious as one reads the stories. All three feature a primary character with multiple personalities, but more importantly are the stylistic and thematic relationships. Each has the feel of a generic crime story that Mr Bloch handily transforms into something darker, developing a psychological element and a disturbing realism. A dark realism that not only envelopes the characters, but also is relevant (the realism part) to the reader who, very likely, fears the possibility of insanity.         

I read both “The Real Bad Friend,” and “Lucy Comes to Town” in the anthology Murder in the First Reel, edited by Bill Pronzini, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg and published by Avon Books in 1985.

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