Robert Bloch. Mention his name, and images will unfold in the mind's eye: grainy, black-and-white images, flickering in the dark. A slim, pretty blonde is in the shower, her soft body framed against dazzling white tiles and gleaming fixtures. Unseen to her, the bathroom door opens. A shadow falls across the shower curtain. A hand pulls the curtain aside and a tall, gaunt figure - a woman? - stands still for a moment, wielding a butcher's knife. As the music grows louder, she moves forward.
These images are, of course, from one of the best known sequences in film history: the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 motion picture, Psycho. The story behind the images started a few years earlier, in 1957, when the police of Plainfield, Wisconsin (Population 640) traced a missing woman to the farmhouse of gentle, soft-spoken Ed Gein. What they found there was too shocking for the newspapers to report in full. Robert Bloch was then living within 40 miles of Plainfield. According to his pun-riddled, 'unauthorized' autobiography, he knew very little of the details concerning the case and virtually nothing about Gein himself at the time. He nonetheless found enough inspiration in Gein's exploits to write Psycho, which saw publication the following year. His tale of the nice, quiet man next door who turns out to be a psychotic killer was a watershed in popular fiction. When Hitchcock drew on Psycho for his film classic, Bloch became a household name throughout the world and was, from then on, inextricably linked with his most celebrated work. On my bookshelves there are several books by him, ranging from yellowing paperbacks issued in the Sixties to...well, more recent paperbacks. Every one of them bears the words 'Author of Psycho' on the cover. Yet, when the novel on which Bloch's fame would primarily rest appeared, he had been a professional writer for almost twenty-five years.
Bloch was barely seventeen when he published his first short story in the pulp magazines - so named because of the cheap, grainy wood-pulp paper on which they were printed. His mentor was Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the recluse from Providence, Rhode Island, who created the Cthulu Mythos. Within a few years, Bloch had moved from Lovecraft's fan to correspondent to fellow author. In The Shambler from the Stars, he paid a homage of sorts to the master by killing off gruesomely a character patterned after him. Lovecraft returned the compliment in The Haunter of the Dark, where one Robert Blake meets a grisly end. Many of the short stories Bloch wrote during his pulp-fiction period, whether humorous, gruesome, or both, are memorable. Perhaps the best known of them all appeared in the July 1943 issue of Weird Tales. Its title was Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper. It was Bloch's first venture into the Ripper's legend and, incidentally, the first modern work of fiction in the English language to call him by his trade name.
In his autobiography, Bloch remarks that an oddity connected with the Ripper was that he had christened himself in his letter to a news agency signed 'Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper':
'This interesting little detail, although often recounted, had implications that others seemed to have overlooked. I was fascinated by the phrasing the murderer used for self-identification and upon due reflection, realized that these five words could constitute both the title and the plot of a short story.'
Bloch took the basic elements of the Whitechapel murders and added some embellishments of his own. The times are contemporary - 1943, the year the story got into print - and the setting, an American city - Chicago. The central characters are Sir Guy Hollis and John Carmody; an Englishman on the trail of the Ripper and the American psychiatrist whose help he is trying to enlist. There is a war going on, but one wouldn't know it from these two. It is with the Ripper that they concern themselves. Their conversation shows that Bloch had done his homework. The number of murders, their dates and circumstances are set forth with accuracy. The victims are not singers or dancers - as Hammer or Hollywood would have them - but drabs and alley sluts. Martha Tabram is among them, and perhaps she shouldn't, but how many people would have thought of this in 1943? There is fog rolling down those mean London streets, and perhaps there shouldn't, but, then, who could have resisted that particular touch?
On the other hand, I feel a bit let down when Sir Guy talks about the Ripper, Crippen and Springheel Jack in the same breath. True, Crippen was the most celebrated murderer of early twentieth century Britain. Even Sir Melville Macnaghten, he of the three suspects fame, has said that 'no case has fascinated the British public, and indeed, engaged the attention of the whole world, in quite the same way that the case of Dr Crippen did...' After all, Walter Dew's memoirs were entitled I Caught Crippen, not I Roused the Ripper. Yet it is hard to think of the mild-mannered doctor as in the same league with the Ripper. And Springheel Jack was only a figment of Victorian imagination!
Scrupulous research also shores up the overview of the theories then prevailing about the murders. 'Who was he? What was he?' Bloch asks, 'A mad surgeon? A butcher? An insane scientist? A pathological degenerate escaped from an insane asylum? A deranged nobleman? A member of the London police?' Quite impressive, for someone who was writing in 1943! Sir Guy even mentions that the Ripper might be a woman. It is intriguing to speculate on Bloch's sources. Leonard Matters had published his book on the Ripper in 1929; Edward T. Woodhall his, in 1935; William Stewart, in 1939. Bloch seems to follow none of them, but may have taken elements from all. In his story there is a doctor, as in Matters, and a Jack who may have been a Jill, as in Woodhall and Stewart. Eventually, Bloch's Ripper turns out to be a black magician whose murders are ritual sacrifices to the dark gods who keep him eternally young. Shades of Alistair Crowley?
Comedy was Bloch's first and most enduring love. He often said that he would have liked to be a comedian and, was, in fact, quite sought after as a witty, debonair speaker at conventions and other public occasions. According to him:
'Comedy and horror are opposite sides of the same coin...Both deal with the grotesque and the unexpected, but in such a fashion as to provoke two entirely different reactions...'
Indeed, Bloch structures many of his short stories as if they were jokes. He builds them up as though they were going to evolve in a certain direction and then, all of a sudden, turns a different way and springs a surprise upon us, provoking a brief chill, a laugh, or, sometimes, a smile of admiration at his craft. As ghost story specialist Jack Sullivan puts it:
'Bloch is fond of clever, grisly one-liners, used frequently as trick endings. He has said that he often writes stories by thinking of a nasty final line or pun, then constructing a tale around it.'
So it is with Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper. Its strength derives essentially from two elements: its basic premise - the Ripper still alive after all these years - and its punch line. The plot is carried forward mostly through dialogue, as the main characters discuss the Ripper against a handful of backgrounds: a psychiatrist's office, a wild party, a seedy bar, the slums of Chicago. Although we don't know it, nothing outside their talk has any bearing on the outcome of the story. The locations are irrelevant, and the secondary characters - the party goers, the black bartender - are all red herrings. Sir Guy is absolutely right in every one of his assumptions about the Ripper and runs him neatly to earth. He has plotted a chart of past crimes to determine when and where they will recur. On that basis, he predicts that the Ripper will kill within the next two days. And, at the very end of the story, the Ripper obliges. His knife-play ensures his continuing survival by both making the necessary blood offering and eliminating his would-be Nemesis. As a final touch, he delivers the punch line.
Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper is clever, but perhaps not profound. Years later, with Psycho, The Dead Beat and The Scarf, Bloch would become the prime practitioner of the novel of psychological horror. In his hands, Norman Bates, Psycho's protagonist, was a pathetic loner who attracted a great deal of sympathy. But the Ripper does not rate such treatment. Bloch does not explore the motives behind his killings. No Freudian undertones there. His Ripper is a full-fledged bogeyman, immortal and remorseless. He is not motivated, as the historical one certainly was, by the dark side of his soul but by the demands of the plot. Another of Bloch's stories, The Skull of the Marquis de Sade, is also based on a real person. De Sade was an eighteenth-century French nobleman who left behind a vast body of work setting out his philosophical beliefs and his unsavoury sexual fantasies. Yet none of these materials was used by Bloch, who substituted for the real Marquis a supernatural force of evil.
While writing Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, Bloch thought of it as just another assignment, paying a penny a word. The entire life cycle of a story published in the pulps consisted of the thirty days the magazine was displayed in newsstands. After that, the next issue took its place and the story was quickly forgotten. So Bloch pocketed the 80 dollars he was paid for his 8,000 words, read some comments in the letters column of Weird Tales and felt that his work had, as usual, gone unnoticed. It had not. Before the year was over, Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper earned its author 25 more dollars upon publication in The Mystery Companion. That was only the beginning. Among the numerous anthologies which later featured it are The Harlot Killer, The Unexpected, The Opener of the Way, Alfred Hitchcock's Fireside Book of Suspense Stories, Red Jack and Jack the Ripper. Next, it turned up as a radio script aired in the Kate Smith Hour in January 1944. The show's star, Laird Cregar, was also playing the Ripper across movie screens in The Lodger. It may have been just a coincidence that this was the first version of Mrs Belloc Lowndes's tale to call the Ripper by his true name. The Molle Mystery Theatre dramatized it in March 1945. It was done once more for Bloch's own show, Stay Tuned for Terror, and still once more for Murder by Experts. When television came, Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper was neatly refashioned for the new medium in April 1961 as an episode of Thriller, a series hosted by Boris Karloff. Scriptwriter Barre Lyndon, who had adapted The Lodger for the 1944 film version, expanded the original story to encompass a prologue set in Victorian days, a street singer, a detective called Peter Jago and a stripper called Beverly Hills. In his autobiography, Bloch estimated that his little story had continued 'to lead a charmed life in print, and on radio and television, for a total of fifty revivals thus far.' That was in 1993. The story is, to this day, going strong.
What is the reason for Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper's unabated popularity? Certainly not its plot - and its dénouement - which, after so many years and so many reprints, no longer carry the punch they once undoubtedly did. There remains a finely crafted, highly readable narrative. Some have remarked that its few settings and dialogue-driven action make it ideal for other media, as shown by its many radio and television adaptations. Others underline that its protagonists are one-sided characters, easy to visualize. One is a 'stage Englishman'; the other, a stereotypical American psychiatrist. When they are described as 'The Walrus and the Carpenter,' the image evoked links them directly with the illustrations for Alice. Finally, even though the story is ostensibly set in contemporary times in a modern American city, there is actually nothing to anchor it firmly in Chicago in 1943: no description of its locations, no use of current slang, no mention of fashionable pop stars or - as we have already observed - the World War then raging. It might be precisely because of its utter lack of topicality that the story has borne its increasing age without becoming in any way dated.
Bloch returned to the Ripper in A Toy for Juliette, which he wrote for Harlan Ellison's celebrated 1967 anthology, Dangerous Visions. In this story, he takes us even further in time than in his first Ripper tale. We go far beyond the present, to a city of the distant future whose jaded inhabitants know no ethical or physical boundaries. Beautiful, spoiled and amoral Juliette has been named, for good reason, after one of the Marquis de Sade's most notorious characters. To this paragon of vice a gift is brought: a reluctant time-traveller, a relic from the long-forgotten Victorian era. Juliette is planning to enjoy her toy boy in various ways, not all of them pleasing. Her intended tools are her beguiling body and her collection of instruments of torture: boots and thumbscrews, electrical prods, dissecting tables and the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg - the original. But her prudish Victorian visitor turns out to be more than a match for her.
This time, the Ripper is the Lodger, complete with top hat, dark garb and little black bag. Bloch didn't have much to say about this story in his autobiography, except that it was not the sort of thing he had done for Weird Tales. Yet he managed, within a few pages, not only to provide an original theory for the Ripper's escape, but also to explain out the disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart and the mystery of the Marie Celeste. For good measure, he inspired Ellison himself to write a sequel, The Prowler in the City at the End of the World, which has become a classic on its own.
Thanks to Psycho's phenomenal success, Bloch was now in demand in other media as well. In the same year he gave us Juliette, he wrote a script for a new television series, Star Trek. Wolf in the Fold, the episode based on his script, reached American screens in December 1967. While the good spaceship Enterprise is at berth in peaceful planet Argelius II, Chief Engineer Scotty enjoys a night in the town. Women are murdered in circumstances that point to Scotty as the killer. The real killer is the Ripper, in the occurrence a disembodied being that feeds off the terror it inspires in others. Forced to flee its human hideaway, it seeks refuge in the ship's computer. But this computer-dwelling monster does not prevail over its human opponents, like Deep Blue. Instead, like Hal in 2001 and Alpha 60 in Alphaville, it bites the dust.
In 1976, Bloch combined the odd couple from his first Ripper tale with the time machine from the second one. The result was A Most Unusual Murder, a short story that deserves to be better known. The city is London, the year is presumably the year of publication, the central characters two men, Englishmen both. It is a convention in pulp fiction that every second-hand bookstore stocks grimoires, copies of the Necronomicon and Ann Boleyn's prayer-book, and every old curiosity shop, stuffed mermaids, bottled djinnis and vampire cloaks; in short, whatever the plot may require. Thus all the Englishmen have to do is walk into such a shop to find a locked medical bag, covered in American cloth. The bag was once the property of one John Ridley, MD, a previously unknown Ripper suspect. As they search for a key to the bag - and to the mystery - the Englishmen review the theories in vogue. Over a quarter of a century after Bloch's first effort, the cast has expanded to include Cream and Klossowski, Pizer and Pedachenko, the barrister, the surgeon and the Prince. The end bears some resemblance to the end of Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, yet it is not quite the same. There is, as could be expected, a plot twist; but not a punch line.
After bringing the Ripper to Chicago in the Forties, to London in the Seventies and to the world and the universe in the far, far future, Bloch went back to the Ripper's own age. In 1984 he published The Night of the Ripper, a full-length novel that, in his own words, both summarized and exorcised his preoccupation with the prototype of today's mad slashers.
Chapter One is wonderful, a real tour de force. Eva Sloane, a spirited nurse at London Hospital, is returning from a music-hall outing to her lodgings in Whitechapel. As she walks home through back alleys dense with the sounds, sights and smells of the slums, her innermost thoughts are interwoven with her reactions to the thousand stimuli encountered. When a barrel organ echoes the music-hall songs she has just heard, she remembers their lyrics, but, instead of allowing herself a faint smile at their effrontery, she realizes that these songs reflect the hapless condition of the poor, besieged by disease, alcoholism and despair. Through her eyes we see beggar children, a gypsy with his dancing bear and a 'tipsy troupe of costers in pearl-studded costumes.' The Jews' Cemetery leads her thoughts towards these recent settlers in the area and, in this way, we are unobtrusively briefed on the racial and cultural composition of the East End. Finally, the thrill that we have been half-expecting arrives: 'a plunging mass of monstrous figures, horned and hooved like the hordes of hell' comes at her out of the shadows. They are cattle, terrified and terrifying, in the run from a slaughterhouse nearby. In the nick of time, a mysterious young man in a deerstalker cap saves Eva from being trampled to death. When she turns to him, he disappears into the fog. As Chapter One ends in this exhilarating note, we move eagerly on.
But the book's early promise is not kept. The mysterious young man turns out to be Mark Robinson, an American doctor doing an internship at London Hospital and, not surprisingly, our hero. Yet no sooner does he appear that he gets locked into a long debate with one of many medical suspects to come. Our expectations rise when Martha Tabram makes her entrance, even though, as could be expected, her part is rather brief. Then, at the end of the chapter, Mark disappears into the night. And he disappears through the door at the end of Chapter Six and into the night at the end of Chapters Seven and Nine. By then, something is happening to the plot, which starts going in all directions at once and getting nowhere. At the beginning of Chapter Nine, Inspector Abberline plods in, 'portly, proper and plum,' and, for a moment, it seems as if the novel might finally take off. Somehow, it never does.
In the honoured tradition of historical thrillers, The Night of the Ripper's cast features, besides its fictional protagonists, real-life supporting characters. The whole gang is here: Warren, Chandler, Forbes Winslow, Smith, Matthews, Dr Openshaw, Bowyer, Hutchinson, Lees, Gull and many others walk on stage, say their lines and exit, as in a bedroom farce. Even Sir Melville Macnaghten - who did not join the police until one year later - hovers in attendance as Warren runs with the bloodhounds. Prince Eddy, Leather Apron, Montague James Druitt and Severin Klossowski pause dramatically, soliloquize and get out, never to be seen again. As if that were not enough, Bloch also manages, through a series of chapter headings contrasting actual atrocities through the ages with the Ripper's crimes, to bring a number of historical villains into the picture. Chapter Thirteen, for instance, guest stars one Vlad ÚepeŐ of Wallachia, also known as Dracula. The problem with the novel is not that a few characters, both real and imaginary, play speaking parts; the problem is that they all do. And though several get killed, few come alive.
The victims, the policemen and the suspects - usual and unusual - rub shoulders with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and the Elephant Man. But when Wilde speaks, his bon mots sound more like Bloch's borscht-belt burlesque than Wilde's West End wit. Even though the title of Wilde's best loved play contains a pun, I think of him as a master of the epigram, not the pun. Bloch, by contrast, will have his puns, some of which even his most fervent admirers have described as horrible or outrageous. In Night of the Ripper, Wilde - or rather, Bloch's Wilde - refers to 'a gilded youth - but not, thank God, gelded.' Is this the Oscar Wilde? Later, he quips 'Biddies should use bidets.' This last line not only illustrates Bloch's fondness for puns, but also the fact that he - in common with many Americans - seems to find bidets irresistibly funny.
At heart, The Night of the Ripper is a novel about doctors and nurses. Its action is centred on London Hospital; its nominal hero, assorted villains and major suspects, are doctors; the love interest is a nurse. It appears that while he was writing this novel, Bloch had encounters with the medical profession which he had little reason to enjoy. 'I was done with the Ripper,' he says in his autobiography, 'but the rippers weren't finished with me.' It might be a bit simplistic to suggest that Bloch's poor health accounts for his use of doctors as bad guys. Yet there is a telling detail. Throughout the action, Abberline suffers from acute indigestion - a touch perhaps designed to make him a more human, more rounded character, in the manner of Inspector Maigret. What is remarkable is that, although he is surrounded by doctors, it takes him until page 283 (out of 284 pages in my paperback edition of the novel) to get a prescription to alleviate his illness. This may be Bloch's final judgement on doctors.
Bloch had given us several classics featuring the Ripper and almost single-handedly reinvented him as a modern fictional archetype. But the past was not his country as the future had been. Smothered by a heavy cast, slowed down by huge, undigested chunks of research, its plot long fallen by the wayside, The Night of the Ripper does not career towards a terse, witty punch line but drags itself ponderously to its conclusion. And the Ripper, when revealed, comes as a bit of a disappointment.
In 1988, Bloch contributed a foreword to a story collection published on the centenary of the murders. 'The identity of Jack the Ripper remains a mystery...' he says, '...and an even greater mystery is this - why, after a hundred years of hypothesis, do we still seek an answer?' Plainly, not because of the charms of his victims. Nor because of the Ripper's brutal methods. The Victorians may have been shocked by his serial slayings, which were new to them, but, why should we remember him, used as we are to the crimes of Landru, Kurten, Christie and the Son of Sam? Perhaps, continues Bloch, because we do not know his name:
'Thus the Ripper remains as a symbol of all our secret fears - the fear of a stranger in a darkened street, fear of the neighbour whose commonplace exterior may conceal the beast within, even the fear of a friend we think we know; a friend who may become a fiend once the mask comes off and the knife comes out.'
A 'clue within a clue' might lie in the fact that we do not know what the Ripper was:
'Can it be we continue to seek the Ripper not just as a symbol of our secret fears but also as a symbol of our innermost hatreds?
'Does the Ripper serve as a scapegoat?
'If we are prejudiced against any profession, any class of society, any race or religion, we can probably find a candidate for our convictions amongst the suspects.'
'Jack,' concludes Bloch, 'is all things to all men.' And the inescapable corollary is that the Ripper is in all of us.
Did Bloch have any ideas of his own about the Ripper's identity? Indeed he did. "After much study and consideration," he says in his autobiography, "I now firmly believe that Jack the Ripper was actually Queen Victoria."
During the last years of his life, Robert Bloch fought a valiant battle with his final illness. His friends and his admirers remember him as unfailingly brave, courteous and witty until the very end. He died on 23 September 1994 in Los Angeles, California.
The main source, as indicated by various references in the text and the notes below, was Bloch's autobiography, Once around the Bloch. Other sources are mentioned in the notes. In addition, I have reread all Ripper works by Bloch, as well as Psycho, which Jack Sullivan calls 'perhaps the most nauseatingly influential of all Ripper novels.' I have also consulted Anobile, Richard J. (Ed.), Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho; Gollmar, Judge Robert H., Edward Gein; Montgomery Hyde, H., The Cleveland Street Scandal; Matheson, Richard and Mainhardt, Ricia (Eds.), Robert Bloch: Appreciations of the Master; and Rebello, Stephen, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.