Tag Archives: Psycho

The Intel: Chet Williamson

Author headshotYou may have heard of a novel called Psycho. Some fellow made a movie of Robert Bloch’s novel which, arguably, changed the course of movies and horror fiction forever. Without Norman Bates there wouldn’t have been a whole slew of slasher movies, or sly, charming killers such as Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan.

In the years since Hitchcock’s movie, Bates, the nerdy fellow with the Mummy issues, has been reinvented several times — sequels followed, and a TV series. But Bloch’s original novel has remained somewhat under the radar. Now Chet Williamson has taken Bates back to his gritty midwestern roots. He’s written an authorised sequel to Bloch’s book, called Psycho: Sanitarium.

In this terrific interview, Williamson talks about what is like to get his hands on one of the most famous characters in fiction, about how Hitchcock’s Bates swerved from Bloch’s original vision — and how, if you want to be a successful writer, it’s perhaps best to stay pessimistic…

How does it feel to have got your hands on one the most iconic characters in crime fiction – Norman Bates? 

It feels fantastic! The film of Psycho terrified me when I saw it as a kid, and I immediately bought the Robert Bloch book and have been a Bloch fan my whole life. To be offered a character that is such an icon of suspense and horror fiction was a dream come true. Having done some licensed characters in the past, I’d determined never to do so again, but to have the opportunity to create a novel with Norman Bates?

There was no way I could say no, especially since it was an immediate sequel to Bloch’s original novel, and I could tell the story of what happens after we leave Norman (and Mother) in his little cell after his arrest. I’d always loved the character, who is as sympathetic and empathetic as he is frightening.

We’re familiar with Hitchcock’s adaptation, but maybe not so much with Robert Bloch’s source novel – how does it differ from the movie?

For one thing, Norman isn’t nearly as physically attractive as Anthony Perkins. He’s in his forties rather than his twenties, and he’s somewhat overweight, which makes his discomfort with the opposite sex more believable. Also, the original isn’t set in California. Bloch never names a state, but internal evidence suggests somewhere in the Kansas/Missouri/Oklahoma/Arkansas area.

How has Norman changed since we last met him?

Not much, really. Only a few months have passed since his arrest and confinement, and he’s remained almost completely incommunicative. He’s trying to break out of his shell, but Mother’s having none of it.

Cover imageWhat do you think you have brought to the character that wasn’t in Bloch’s original vision?

I may be a bit more sympathetic toward Norman than Robert Bloch was. While Bloch makes you feel sympathetic toward him in the original novel, when he wrote Psycho II, which is set over twenty years later (and which has nothing to do with the Psycho 2 film), he makes Norman quite monstrous, and his initial acts of violence, which are perpetrated by Norman himself rather than Mother, are shocking in the extreme. I’ve tried to elicit in the reader a greater empathy toward and understanding of Norman, the same feelings that Bloch elicited in the original Psycho back in 1959.

Norman’s in a Hospital For The Criminally Insane, which is fertile ground for crime and horror writers – did you have any other favourite authors or movies you returned to for inspiration? 

Nothing fictional, really, though I did turn, for both research and inspiration, to the 1967 Frederick Wiseman documentary, Titicut Follies, set in Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. If you think fictional films about early psychiatric care are shocking, the real thing as seen in this film is utterly horrifying.

If you could get your hands on another iconic crime fiction character, who would it be?

Well, I do love villains. I’ve always wanted to do something with a super-criminal along the lines of Fantomas or Dr. Mabuse, which I think would be fascinating in these times when he who controls the Internet controls the world.

How did you start writing?

A: I came to it through acting. It’s a long story, but as an actor, which I did professionally for a time, it wasn’t long before I realized that the true creators were the writers. I started writing for theatre, and then turned to fiction. I still keep my hand in as an actor by narrating audiobooks — in fact, I’ve just completed the audiobook of Psycho: Sanitarium. It’s always a delight for me to record my own work, since I know the characters will sound as I intended them to sound.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

A: Not to give up, and never to expect too much. Stay pessimistic and you’ll never be too disappointed to continue. Write for yourself and for those readers who relate to your work.  It’s a rough way to make a living, even more so now with all the competition from self-published writers on the Internet. Fortunately I’ve had a supportive wife all these years. It’s very tough to survive on your own.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Of the old masters, Joseph Conrad, for his ability to make readers see,  P. G. Wodehouse, for never failing to make me laugh, M. R. James, for his truly terrifying ghost stories, and H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most alien writers and human beings imaginable. From my childhood, Robert Bloch, whose clean style I’ve always admired and tried to emulate, and Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, for their unfettered imaginations. Contemporary writers include Joe R. Lansdale, pound for pound the best writer in America today, and the UK’s Ramsey Campbell, a superb stylist and storyteller.

Give me some advice about writing… 

My advice is to not ever take any advice on writing. Seriously. Everyone works in different ways. Be true to your own method of working. If outlining works for you, then outline. If you’re happier just forging ahead without an idea of where you’re going and can fix things during revision, then do it.

The only books on writing I’ve ever read that were worth a damn were the American John Gardner’s trilogy, On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction, and Oscar Lee Brownstein’s Strategies of Drama, which is primarily for playwrights but equally valuable for fiction writers. Whatever you do, avoid books that say, “This is what you must do.” No, you mustn’t.

What’s next for you?

It’s been a full year, with the Psycho book and two collections having come out (The Night Listener and Others from England’s PS Publishing and A Little Blue Book of Bibliomancy from Borderlands Press). So after Psycho: Sanitarium is safely launched, I’m planning on doing some reading and research in preparation for a new novel. I have a thematic idea, but little else, and being that I’m an outliner, there’s work to be done!

***

Psycho: Sanitarium is published by Canelo, price £3.99 in eBook.

 

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Magic – William Goldman

MagicWhen the sad news of Richard Attenborough’s death was announced, I’d just started reading William Goldman’s Magic.

Adapted for the screen in 1979, Magic proved to be an obscure  footnote in Attenborough’s directing career, wedged into the cracks of a CV crammed with sumptuous epics such as Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom.

I remember some random images from the movie – mostly of the ventriloquist doll Fats, with those bulging dummy eyes, red cheeks and neat centre parting. Anthony Hopkins played the deranged protagonist a full decade before he was launched to stardom thanks to some similar onscreen lunacy.

At the time, William Goldman, the writer of Magic, both the book and the movie, was one of the first screenwriters to stick his head above the parapet. His non-fiction memoir/writing manual Adventures In The Screen Trade was an unlikely bestseller – and remains still one of the best books about the business.

This was the guy who wrote Butch and Sundance, All The President’s Men and Harper for the screen – and many others. But I remember as a kid being absolutely blown away by the first shocking chapter of his novel Control – a thriller which is, mind-bogglingly, out of print these days. He also adapted his own novels Marathon Man and, of course, The Princess Bride.

So I was interested to see what I made of Magic all these years later… and, hell, what a novelist that man was – sadly, Goldman’s last fiction was written in 1986. It’s almost impossible to discuss without giving some of the game away, so here goes…

Corky is a talented but failed magician, whose  career only takes off when he incorporates a dummy called Fats into his act. When he’s offered a TV show, Corky goes on the lam, frightened that executives will discover that it’s Fats who increasingly calls the shots in Corky’s head. He heads back to the Catskills where he meets his old childhood crush Peggy Ann. Throw in Corky’s wizened agent and Peggy Ann’s oafish husband, and things start to get murderous in the woods as Fats’s true nature is revealed.

As you can tell, Magic is a book which is very much in the Psycho mould, a claustrophobic chamber-piece. It takes a couple of chapters to warm up, but when it does it really delivers as a portrait of a damaged personality. Despite his, er, homicidal issues (and some hints that he’s got previous in this area) Corky is a hugely empathetic character in the George Harvey Bone mould.

Fats gives Corky confidence, he gives him a voice, and he give him an act with which to present his beloved Magic. But one part of Corky’s brain is increasingly fighting a disastrous rearguard action against the other half. We root for Corky to pull himself together and yearn for him to find happiness with his lost love even as we know that the worst is yet to come.

As you’d imagine from a screenwriter, Goldman’s dialogue is to die for. It just zings off the page and straight into your brainstem. Magic is tight and focused and would make Ira Levin proud, with some nail-biting set-pieces, including one fabulous scene where Corky’s agent, alarmed by his relationship with the dummy, challenges Corky not to speak as Fats for five minutes, just five minutes…

If this book was written now, or filmed as a movie, the chances are, the publisher would want more shocks, more out-and-out horror moments, but like all the best horrors, Magic is absolutely rooted in character. And the biggest character of them all is Fats, a malevolent little guy with tiny wooden legs. His voice, charismatic and sarcastic, rings fully-formed in your head as you read.

TV Crime Log: Bates, Blinders & Bradley

The telly schedules will be filling up with crime thriller series over the coming months – The Tunnel, The Blacklist and the return of Homeland, among them – as the networks unveil their autumn goodies. And there are a couple of new series tomorrow night that you must, or must not, watch, as you see fit.

Peaky Blinders is the BBC’s attempt at a period crime drama in the Boardwalk Empire vein. Set in Birmingham just after the First World War, it follows the Peaky Blinders gang – so named for their charming practice of sewing razor blades into their caps – as they make money from illegal betting, protection and the black market.

Here’s some blurb :

Birmingham, 1919. Thomas Shelby is a war veteran, and head of feared gang, the Peaky Blinders. When he comes into possession of a crate of guns from the local arms factory, Thomas sees an opportunity to increase the gang’s power and move up in the world. Meanwhile, tough Belfast copper Chief Inspector Campbell arrives in town, tasked with the recovery of the guns by none other than Winston Churchill. Will Thomas listen to the Peaky Blinders’ family matriarch, Aunt Polly, who instructs him to ditch the weapons rather than take on the police?

At the same time Thomas incurs the wrath of his older brother, Arthur, when he stages ‘the powder trick’: a magic spell which will encourage the locals to bet on a horse. It’s the first step in fixing a race, but Thomas did it without the permission of Billy Kimber, the kingpin who runs the racetracks.

Thomas’s younger sister Ada, meanwhile, is secretly having a relationship with his former best friend and the man who saved his life in the trenches, Freddie Thorne. Freddie is a Marxist, encouraging workers to strike over their recent cuts in pay.

Like Thomas and the Peaky Blinders, Freddie and the Communists are on Chief Inspector Campbell’s list of suspects: organisations he intends to decapitate in his ruthless search for the missing guns.

608There’s Cillian Murphy, looking like he means business – we like him. I don’t know the name of the horse, but I can confirm that Sam Neill is in Peaky Blinders, and we absolutely love him around here.

If you’re still umming-and-aahing about whether to watch it, be aware that it was created by Steven Knight, who wrote Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things. That title, though — I keep wanting to say Pesky Blinders, which makes it sound a bit Scooby-Doo.

Peaky Blinders is on Thursday night – that’s tomorrow for the terminally bewildered among you – at 9pm. It may require an hour of your attention should you intend to watch the whole thing.

Aimages-1nd who, you may ask, is going to fill that loveable-serial-killer shaped hole in your heart now that Dexter is finally going to be put out of his misery – one way or another – in a few, short weeks?

Why, it’s our old friend, Norman Bates, coming out of mothballs, and bringing  his deranged – but undeniably hot – mother with him.

Bates Motel has already been commissioned for another season in the States. I think a lot of people were very sceptical about the idea of retooling Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho, but actually, the reviews for Bates Motel have been very good.

It follows Norma and little Norman’s new life in a small town as they attempt to set up a new motel business and get to know the locals, very possibly by killing and burying them.

Bates Motel clashes – would you believe it! – with Peaky Blinders. It’s on the Universal Channel – there is such a thing, I assure you, check your EPG – at 9pm, tomorrow night. Yes, Thursday. So something, as they say, has to give.

CRIME_THRILLER_AWARDS_01

Look, I’m terribly sorry about the photo of Bradley Walsh, but there is a good reason. You see, him off Law And Order: UK presents a new six-part series on Monday called – wait for it – Crime Thriller Club.

It’s a studio-based… hold on, I’m just going to cut-and-paste the blurb to save time:

Bradley Walsh presents this new six-part studio-based show celebrating the very best of crime fiction and television with high-profile guests, quizzes, bluffer’s guides and peeks behind the scenes of popular dramas.

Culminating in the glittering Crime Thriller Awards 2013 in October at the Grosvenor House Hotel, the series gets exclusive access to the stars and sets of some of Britain’s best known crime thriller programmes like Bletchley Circle, Silent Witness and Midsomer Murders.

Each week the programme gives viewers a bluffer’s guide with a short run-down of the key features of a popular crime drama – from Scott and Bailey to Foyle’s War.

A book of the week is featured, focusing on high-profile authors such as Linwood Barclay and up-and coming names like Diana Bretherick. Living legends of the crime writing genre are also profiled, including Martina Cole, Patricia Cornwell and Wilbur Smith.

Finally, the studio guest and viewers are encouraged to take part in a quiz on a popular crime programme – from Sherlock to Inspector Morse.

Face-palm! Can’t they just leave it to excellent and informative blogs to do this sort of thing? I can’t think of any off the top of my head but, I mean, there are a few out there, right?

So that’s it, then. You won’t need the likes of me any more. All you’ll have to do is set your recorder for ITV3 – that’ll be a first, I bet – on Monday night at 9pm.

*Storms off in a huff*

Criminal Minds: Alfred Hitchcock

Born in Leytonstone, East London, in 1899, Alfred Hitchcock directed more than fifty movies across six decades, and is as legendary as anybody in the crime thriller genre. Perhaps the most-famous film director ever, his timeless work is endlessly analysed.

1/ Many of Hitchcock’s films feature heroes who are  wrongly accused. Film historians have suggested this relates back to an incident when the five-year-old Hitchcock was sent by his disciplinarian father, a grocer, to a police station with a note asking that he be locked up for bad behaviour.

2/ Hitchcock always suggested that he found filming a chore, and famously imageslikened actors to cattle – in a sarcastic response, Carole Lombard bought some cows along with her when she reported for duty on set. Hitchcock said he saw the entire completed film in his head before he shot it, right down to the edits, and shooting lost 40 per cent of his original conception of it.

3/ The director’s practical jokes were legendary – he once served a meal of blue food to bewildered guests. But as his reputation has taken on darker hues, many of his more sinister jokes are perhaps more apocryphal. For example, Hitchcock reportedly bet his floor-manager he couldn’t stay handcuffed overnight in an empty studio, and when the fellow agreed, Hitchcock offered him a snifter of brandy to fortify him through the night – however, the alcohol was laced with laxative.

4/ Hitchcock worked with an incredible rosta of writers in his career, including Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker – his cameo in Saboteur was originally intended to be shared with Mrs. Parker – Ernest Lehman, Ben Hecht and John Michael Hayes. A young writer called Evan Hunter wrote The Birds – Hunter later become successful as crime writer Ed McBain.

5/ The director’s favourite of his own movies was Shadow Of A Doubt, starring Joseph Cotton as the sinister Uncle Charlie. Two of the scriptwriters on that film were Thornton Wilder, who wrote the theatre repertory mainstay Our Town, and Hitchcock’s own wife, Alma Reville.

poster_rear-window6/ For Rear Window Hitchcock built an extraordinary indoor set: forty feet high and 185 feet long, complete with more than one thousand arc lights. The courtyard of the five-storey apartment block set was actually the excavated basement of the studio. There were 31 apartments built for the movie, complete with running-water and electricity apartments, and many were fully-furnished.

7/ Psycho was something of an experiment for Hitchcock after a string of glossy, expensive movies such as North By Northwest. He filmed it in black and white to keep down costs, and used the crew of his television show. The shower-scene, perhaps the most-famous scene in the history of movies, lasts 45 seconds and includes 70, ahem, cuts.

8/ His cameo appearances in his own movies are well-known, but he appears in only 39 of his 52 surviving films – the joke really took off when he went to America. His first was in UK film, The Lodger, where he faces away from the camera. The longest appearance is in Blackmail, in which he appears on the London Underground. In Lifeboat, he appears in a newspaper advert, and he often made an appearance with a musical instrument case in tow. In Psycho II, which was made three years after his death, his silhouette appears at the Bates Motel, as a homage. And his daughter, Patricia, often appeared as an actress in his movies.

9/ Hitchcock’s appetite for blonde leading ladies is well documented. His famous quote is: ‘Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.’ Among his most actresses were: Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint. Many acres of print have been devoted to his alleged obsession with cool blondes, and his reputed manipulation and control of his leading ladies. Tippi Hedren said that Hitchcock ruined her career when she rejected his affections.

Unknown10/ Hitchcock had always wanted to film a French novel, which became the classic Les Diaboliques. Frustrated, he turned to another novel by Boileau-Narcejac, which became Vertigo. Hitchcock had worked several times with James Stewart, but their last collaboration was on that film. Over the years, Vertigo’s reputation has increased and it’s often cited as one of the best films ever made, but when it was released n 1958, it was reviewed badly and suffered at the box-office. As a result, Hitchcock went out of his way to avoid working with Stewart again, delaying production of North By Northwest until his former leading-man wasn’t available. Vertigo also has perhaps the greatest film poster ever.

Friday Crime Shorts:

Brain frazzled at the end of a long, tedious week? Here’s some short paragraphs about stuff, that won’t tax you too much.

imagesRandom House have released the first of Arne Dahl’s Intercrime books, The Blinded Man, to tie in with the Arne Dahl series currently showing on BBC4 on Saturday night. Those of you who are driven to apoplexy by lazy, cliche phrases may want to look away now… Arne Dahl is the latest, yes, Scandanavian crime sensation. He’s quite a big deal on the continent, where he’s sold two and a half million copies of his books.

The second book in the Intercrime series, The Blinded Man was first published back in 1999 and Dahl – real name Jan Arnald – has written a further nine novels in the series, which is about an elite police team in Sweden.

pi4741629396b5e0f6@largeMeanwhile John D. McDonald‘s Travis McGee novels are slowly being rereleased as e-books. The first five have already been made available, and there’ll be another two released every month – there are twenty-one in the series overall, each with a colour referenced in the title. Each book also features an introduction by die hard fan Lee Child.

The Deep Blue Good-by — or Goodbye. As you can see, the perenially awkward spelling has undergone a tidy-up — was first published in 1964, and the last novel in the series, The Lonely Silver Rain, in 1984. The central character of Travis McGee is a Salvage Consultant — basically, he finds things and people, for half the value of the missing item — who lives on houseboat in Florida called the Busted Flush. In the novels, which span the counter-culture of the 60s and the Reaganite 80s, McGee matures in real time.

The character hasn’t really been well-served in the movies, unless you’re a Rod Taylor fan, but perhaps the books are being reissued because of the news that Leonardo DiCaprio is circling the character for a movie.

But you may be more familiar with a movie based on another of McDonald’s books, The Executioners, which was published in 1957 — it’s been filmed twice, both times as Cape Fear.

images-1With Dexter almost coming to an end, American TV bosses are looking for a new friendly serial killer with which to engage audiences. The TV prequel-series Hannibal is soon to be broadcast on Sky Living — more about that when it comes out — and now Universal has bought the UK rights to broadcast the latest adventures of our old friend Norman Bates, in the A&E show Bates Motel.

It follows the adventures of a baby-faced young man who lives with his mum Norma as they open a new motel in Oregon – the motel seems to have relocated from California. Baby-faced Norman, played by Freddie Highmore, struggles with all the usual problems  that young men do when they move to  a new town — making friends, getting to know girls and getting away with multiple homicides.

I can hear you groaning at the prospect, Psycho is a classic, innit, but actually this TV update has garnered decent reviews and ratings on its, admittedly small, network, and has already been renewed for a second season, so it may be worth – ahem – a butcher’s.

The showrunner is Carlton Cuse, formerly of Lost, and Mrs. Bates looks a touch more glamorous, and certainly more alive, than she did in Hitchcock’s movie.  She’s played by Vera Farmiga – her off Up In The Air and Source Code, but my sources cannot confirm whether her rocking chair makes an appearance.