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Robert Bloch: The Early Fears

by Robert Bloch

(Feddogan & Bremer, 1994; 514 pages; $29.00; 1-878252-12-7.)

Flowers of the Moon and Other Lunacies

by Robert Bloch

(Arkham House, 1998; 296 pages; 0-87054-172-2.)

 

Review by William P Simmons

A macabre myth-maker whose emotionally scathing, darkly poetic tales of horror, supernatural menace, mystery, and science fiction where often as intelligent as they were thrilling, Robert Bloch sparked a fire in the dark pits of our perception at the same time that he unlocked heights of pure cosmic terror. A master surgeon of anxiety and terror, frights and funeral finery, Bloch knew what was best and worst in both our species and in the cosmic void. With a minimal style and straight forward voice he evoked awe and terror in his short fictions with more alacrity and psychological effectiveness than many authors accomplish in novels. A self-taught writer who was collecting rejection slips when other would-be authors were attending creative writing courses, Bloch's narrative attacks against expectation live and breath (and scream!) with a searing knowledge of the human psyche and an even greater attention to characters that his blunt yet elegantly crafted and darkly humorous prose lent believability.

Reaching for the farthest cosmic heights of space and time in traditional supernatural fiction, and plummeting into the darkest depths of human motivations of greed, lust, and violence for parables of murder most foul, Bloch was proficient in the literary disciplines of supernatural, fantasy, crime, and erotic storytelling. While he may be forever best known by his novel Psycho, or his screenplays for such Amicus film productions as Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood, for true devotees of horror and fantasy he is revered for his short attacks against expectation and taste, which bleed their monstrously effective influence over three decades (which saw at least that many collections!).

A son of the pulps and literary protégé of some visionary minds as H. P. Lovecraft, Bloch learned by loving, self-study, and, most importantly, by doing. Since history is cruel enough to expose his earliest, less polished efforts alongside his later dark gems, we may trace his evolution from pulp-apprentice to master storyteller. Even in his sloppiest, uninspired, formulaic worst he is far better than most writers of genre fiction today. Reading his work is visiting other worlds or, better yet, our own lives turned upside down, with the frail curtains between the possibilities of the banal everyday and the horrifically supernatural drawn tight. In his short fiction more so than in his novels, Bloch created surreal circumstances (realistically depicted) where day-lit world of certainty and the illogic of nightmares became indistinguishable.

The Early Fears reprints all of the supernaturally charged horrific, cosmic science fiction, and ironic suspense stories from the long out-of-print collections The Opener of the Way and Pleasant Dreams, each of which were originally published by August Derleth at Arkham House, and constituted the first collection sales for the youngish Bloch. This welcome assemblage also includes three additional tales, adding spooky spice to an already tasty ghoulish goulash. This collection presents Bloch at his versatile, bleeding best, practicing what he preaches in stories as much scathing, insightful examinations of intimately described people (and the often cruel the world around us) as they are lively accounts of vampires, shape-shifters, vengeful spirits, madmen, femme-fatales, curses, and moments of time and space where up becomes down, light becomes dark, and the monsters in each of us all are given temporary faces.

Because Bloch's writing is so involving in its crisply paced minimalist style, squeezing the ultimate effect out of as few words as possible, things we should fear we are instead drawn to, wanting to re-visit descents into decadence time and again. This was his gift, his dark ability. A warlock of old, a shaman spinning fables by firelight, Bloch's fears are both timely and timeless. Likewise, his heroes and anti-heroes, his swindlers and hustlers and outsiders living, loving, killing, cursing, and sleep-walking between the cracks of society, law, and a night-time existence somewhere between the everyday and the nightmarishly impossible, are as complex in psychological makeup as they are in motivation. Bloch simply made it all look easy. It isn't, of course, and if you doubt it, give it a try! One is tempted to think that Bloch suffered in his learning years every bit as much as his shiftless wanderers, realistically depicted men and women like you and me on one hand, trying to eat and sleep and find meaning in this uncaring world, and nightmarish denizens from the local graveyard on the other. Both victims and victimizers, one of the chief pleasures in these stories is the ease with which his seemingly simplified plots and characters actually defy slip-shod characterization.

Ah, and then there are the endings, his bitter-sweet, dark dead-pan finales running the gauntlet from funeral funny to sadistically cruel. While teachers and critics (despoilers of joy) often criticize pulp and genre fiction for being derivative, pointing their ugly little fingers at writers like Poe or Bloch for being 'formulaic' (gasp!) when they could be writing about professors having affairs with their thesis papers, it's often overlooked that writers like Bloch aren't simply formula writers; they are, in fact, the gents who discovered the formulas. And if their work is sometimes ("sometimes," I say, not with the frequency these nay-sayers would have you believe) regimented in its plot's structures or themes, than there is usually an esthetic purpose, namely the creation of terror or awe or suspense! While this collection certainly has its share of failures and pointless re-hashes written, it seems, for the rent check, even these are fun. Even his failures are strangely successful.

Yay, batty brethren, these are choice cuts from Bloch's delicately butchering hands. Vivisecting our condition with a wit and love of puns that add endearing humor and bite, his artist's tools are as often the inner turmoil, agonies, lusts, and faults of humankind as murky tombs, dust-littered costume shops, and the lairs of midnight sabbats. This is the gent who in "The Shambler from the Stars" boldly oversaw the death of his mentor and friend Lovecraft, who returned the dubious favor in "The Haunter of the Dark". Within the time-frame and evolution of themes in these stories we see a Bloch of many faces and seasons. There is the Bloch of the wonderfully atmospheric, bitter-sweet, undeniably moody and terrifying "The Cloak," one of the genre's finest Halloween stories as a cloak purchased from an unusual store transforms a man into a seasonal creature of the night, and there is the Bloch of such squirm-fests as "Beetles," "The Fiddler's Fee," and "The Mannikin," part folklorist and sociologist, all storyteller. In these dark delicacies Bloch interweaves occult lore and history with the resonance of cosmic nightmare, polishing his efforts until we believe with all our hearts that black magic and specially cut cloth can bring the dead to life, and that curses summon Gods of elder times.

Pieces like "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" expose a Bloch as at home in the realm of science fantasy as writing "The Dark Demon" and "The Faceless God," the later two of which stand out as pulpy if fun contributions to the literature of unearthly deviltry. If the writing herein is at times simplistic, and the endings savor too strongly of irony, lacking the precise 'surprise' or effect of shock that the author intended, than the loving detail and enthusiasm driving the words makes one forgive such inconsistencies. More interesting yet for us seekers of celestial whisperings are such pieces as the Lovecraft-inspired "The Opener of the Way" and the aforementioned "Shambler from the Stars," but two examples of the author's ability to evoke universal dread and nameless horror worthy of the gentleman from Providence.

It is not in Lovecraft inspired mythos fiction that Bloch is at his best. No, he shines most brightly when investigating the darkest motivations of all-too-human monsters and the supernatural shadows which sometimes parallel them. Almost inventing the psychological sub-genre of modern popular culture, Bloch brought maturity of theme into his emotional approach to the sensational. Attacking every medium, from comic books and radio to television and cinema, TV and film, his work in the shady byways of the disturbed psyche included such novels as Night of the Ripper and Firebug. This side of his personality in Early Fears (and to a lesser effect in Flowers from the Moon) is represented by the grand-daddy of all thrillers "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," which still packs a wallop. Foreseeing the "serial killer" interest in fiction and cinema of the 70's and 80's albeit with more sensitivity to character and creativity of scenario, Bloch combines the murderous with the uncanny in "House of the Hatchet," and indulges in an old fashioned yet effective gothic supernaturalism in such occult mind-storms as "The Seal of the Satyr," a wonderfully conceived if choppily written ode to an awoken paganism, "The Feast in the Abbey," recounting a young man's journey through the wilderness and into an hospitable abbey of demon worshipping monks, and the self-describing "Return to the Sabbath." Such pulpy fare as "Slave of the Flames Mother of Serpents," "The Eyes of the Mummy," and the rather insipid "One Way to Mars" shares space with the delightfully demonic "Sweets to the Sweet," featuring a young girl who takes after her witch of a mother in more ways than one. Also of interest is the light-hearted (open-hearted!) piece "Hungarian Rhapsody."

Throughout each of these stories one thing is certain: Bloch usually reached his aesthetic and emotional goals, and rarely disappoints. If not every story is profound, it must be recalled that Bloch was admittedly more concerned with storytelling than literature as self-reflecting art. He told interesting stories and he told them well, which is all any professional writer can ask for, and perhaps despite himself a fair degree of retrospect does lurk between the lines of his plainly told terrors. The loneliness of time, of man, and of space; the fear of estrangement, pain, loneliness, and death; fear of others and of the self, dark hungers and the darker actions that baser instincts propel us to -- you can make your own list.

A medicine for melancholy, and a balm for the baneful banality of the commonplace covered in such morbidly loving detail by adherents of the so-called realism that has stomped the spirit out of fiction for a century or more, Robert Bloch is in even finer form in Flowers From the Moon and Other Lunacies, a collection wherein dark miracles and enchanted events are twisted through the author's fragmented lens of moonlit madness and demented delight. These stories are equally macabre, gruesome, and doom-laden.

A prolific contributor to the genre magazines of Pulp-dom, Bloch was a working-writer for all seasons (and specialties), yet his most effective sales explored the horrific and macabre, the seedy and the sordid that only he could bring such a unique ménage of cynical, biting humor and atmospheric touch to. Splattering the pulp pages with murderous deeds and devilish dementia, his work of this period included everything from traditional supernatural romance and gothic terrors to murder mysteries and space opera (with his own distinct twists). Learning as much from the counte cruelles of an earlier age as he did from the cosmicism of Lovecraft and the morbid beauty of Poe, Bloch wove traditional supernatural elements into a contemporary tapestry enlivened by his trademark minimalist style and cutting wit, making them his own. This volume collects for the first time several of his early pieces from the Weird Tales and Strange Stories days. From the surprisingly whimsical to the deadly serious, from maniac humor to scathing social commentary, Bloch is a writer first, and as such, his primary goal is entertainment. Once he hooks you with vivid descriptions, masterful plots, and seedy characters you may even learn something. If not, you've at least enjoyed the ride. Robert Price explores facets of Bloch's writing in further detail in his customary fine introduction.

Long lost between the moldering covers of magazines stored in attics, these pieces deserve the loving treatment that hardcovers afford. Herein wait voodoo and vampires, witches and deliciously wicked women, pagan groves and blood-stained minds. Shades of Cthulhu run with legions of Pan, and voluptuous women walk the same grimy shadow-stained sidewalks as madmen. While a number of these tales are devoted to the awe and sense of primal mystery evoked in Lovecraft's cannon, a focus on the thrills of traditional supernaturalism is also represented. Bloch infuses fresh blood into ancient archetypes by masking primal moods, emotions, and hungers in modern dress. Indulging in a small amount of heroic fantasy and science fiction, the author's versatility and far-reaching interests are displayed. Despite the era or the sub-genre, the tradition or the approach, Bloch breathes earnestness into his work, thrilling and questioning our vlaues with equal aplomb.

This collection presents rarities in an age where only the flavor of the month is deemed worth preserving. Thank the dark gods that not everyone agrees with this sentiment, and that some have the foresight and taste to savor the traditional chills. While Bloch's characters and menaces often come from other worlds, his style and approach clearly places him in our own, draped in steel and concrete surroundings, and within the emotional environment of the struggle for sex, money, and power. Pretty faces bring a man down just as quickly as a monster's claws in these tales, and the sweetest smiles in Bloch's darkly lit world hide the sharpest teeth! Such minor masterpieces and long-lost eerie epitaphs as "The Druidic Doom," "A Question of Identity," "The Dark Isle," "He Waits Beneath the Sea," and "Wine of the Sabbat" resonate with fear and a sense of awe. Bloch found these emotions and more in his flights of fear and fancy, and these volumes will go a long way in securing him a place beside Lovecraft, Long, Wellman, and Matheson as a champion of the dark fantastic.


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