Book Review: Norman Bates Returns in PSYCHO: SANITARIUM

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SHOCK reviews the excellent PSYCHO sequel PSYCHO: SANITARIUM.

Close your eyes and picture Norman Bates. What do you see? Lean, broad-shouldered, boyishly handsome and nervously twitchy Anthony Perkins, no doubt. Your perspective on the ride depends on when you get on the train for most of you reading this, the version of Norman Bates personified by Perkins and created by Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano in 1960’s PSYCHO is the one that you – and history – will remember forever.

And yet, the initial incarnation of Bates in Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel was the antithesis of the Bates we now know and love/loathe. Bloch’s Norman was a middle aged, pudgy and unattractive “momma’s boy” who only let the persona of “mother” in when he was passed out drunk, as opposed to the sober maniacal state Hitch and Stefano’s sketch of the character slayed in.

 

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Bloch’s book-based Bates also exists in a separate void from the film sequels as well. In 1982, when Bloch got wind that Universal were mounting their PSYCHO II, Bloch made his bid to write the story and screenplay for it. They declined. Bloch went ahead with a novel called PSYCHO II in which Norman escapes the sanitarium he’s been locked up in for 23 years and, dressed as a nun, escapes to Hollywood to kill on the set of slasher movie based on his life! It’s a broadly satirical gorefest, completely alien to the elegant Tom Holland/Richard Franklin movie, but it’s a great, meta Bloch book and is years ahead of its time, considering the SCREAM series (in particular, SCREAM 2) would claim that same self-referencing style as its own almost 15 years later.

Robert Bloch passed away in 1994, but his spirit, sensibilities and his vision of Norman Bates is alive and well in PSYCHO SANITARIUM (or Robert Bloch’s PSYCHO SANITARIUM as the book jacket insists), an excellent new novel penned by Bloch disciple Chet Williamson that takes place in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, mere months after Norman had been committed there at the tail end of PSYCHO. In it, Norman is in a near catatonic state, having allowed his “mother” to almost completely take over his senses. However, his kindly psychiatrist Dr. Felix Reed refuses to lose his most prized patient. Resisting suggestions from his superior, the shock treatment-happy Dr. Goldberg, Dr. Reed continues to use sensitivity and empathy to drag Norman out of his shell. With the aid of his equally progressive nurse, Marie, Norman begins to communicate, to think clearer, to enjoy simple pleasures like reading the endless supply of macho pulp western novels Dr. Reed supplies him with and to slowly, surely come to terms with his violent legacy of mental illness.

But when Dr.Reed discovers that Norman actually has a long lost fraternal twin brother named Robert Newman, things start to change. Initially, Norman is thrilled to connect with family and, during Robert’s regular evening visits, the two bond and share stories of their childhoods.

But suddenly, a spate of murders grips the hospital; patients, nurses and orderlies alike who have previously harassed Norman and wished harm upon him, meet bloody ends. Though the reader knows these victims are indeed dead, no one can find any bodies, they simply appear to vanish. Could Norman be up to his old tricks, again? And if so, who is letting him loose from his cell to do so? And where are the corpses?

Williamson is obviously an admirer of Bloch’s prose and manages to capture the author’s no-nonsense, hard boiled style, wherein graphic deaths are plainly detailed, the sex is rough, the tone always pulpy and lurid and the pace moving at a breakneck clip. PSYCHO: SANITARIUM is indeed a “page turner” and that’s not a dismissal. Like Bloch, Williamson simply doesn’t believe in padding or wasting space, he just gets right to it.

And even though we can guess part of the big reveal right off the bat, Williamson makes sure to throw in at least one other berserk twist that no one will see coming and whose topical relevancy cleverly ties into the time in which the novel is set. 

With its narrative (and epilogue) tipping its top hat to the mother of all “snake pit” shockers, Robert Weine’s THE CABINENT OF DR. CALIGARI and its continuation of Bloch’s version of the Bates character, PSYCHO: SANITARIUM is a classy, wildly entertaining gift to horror fans, one that organically adheres to both the original novel and sets up the events that would follow in Bloch’s PSYCHO II. Hugely recommended reading and an essential part of a fascinating parallel universe to the PSYCHO movies.