Chet Williamson talks Psycho: Sanitarium and Norman Bates

We talk to Chet Williamson about Robert Bloch, Norman Bates and Mother!

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As far as horror icons go, there’s no one quite like Norman Bates. The quiet, polite and deadly villain of Robert Bloch’s classic novel Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of a film has been one of our most enduring characters. He’s never gone away and his popularity has never waned, as evidenced by the success of A&E’s prequel TV series Bates Motel.

Now, he’s returning to his literary roots with Chet Williamson’s authorised sequel novel Psycho: Sanitarium, the first to pick up where Bloch left off. Williamson took the time to talk to us about his first memories of Psycho, the shadow of Anthony Perkins and his love of horror.

What can you tell us about Psycho: Sanitarium?

It’s the first sequel to Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, since the two sequels Bloch himself wrote in 1982 and 1990. And it’s the only one that deals with what happens after Norman Bates goes into the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane immediately following his arrest. Bloch’s own sequels took place twenty years after Norman had been incarcerated.

How did this project come about?

Macmillan Entertainment got together with the Robert Bloch estate and came up with the idea of doing an immediate sequel to Bloch’s first book. The agent for the estate was familiar with my work, and recommended me for the project. When it was offered, I said yes — how can one turn down a chance to work with Norman Bates and Mother?

What is your first memory of Psycho?

The film. My parents took me to see it on its first release when I was twelve. They’d taken me to other Hitchcock films like North By Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but those didn’t prepare any of us for Psycho. The shower sequence freaked me out, but Mrs. Bates was the image that haunted my dreams for weeks afterward. Still, I loved the movie and quickly found Bloch’s novel and read it. I’ve been a Bloch fan ever since.

Did Anthony Perkins’ incredible portrayal make it easy to find Norman Bates’ voice, or does that unforgettable interpretation make that more difficult

Oddly enough, Perkins’ Bates wasn’t Bloch’s Bates. In the novel, Norman is fortyish, overweight, and not particularly good-looking. Nevertheless, Norman’s soul is very similar in both book and film. When I wrote the book, I tried to keep Bloch’s version of Norman and his voice in mind, and to banish Anthony Perkins from my memory, which is easier said than done.

It’s the authorized sequel to the novel, but did that mean that you had to kind of ignore the movie?

Yes. Bloch’s universe and the universe of the Universal films and TV shows are completely different. So it’s Bloch’s Psycho world that we’re dealing with here.

Author Chet Williamson
Author Chet Williamson

Did you feel any pressure from the legacy of the character, or did you feel quite free to make it your own?

I felt a great deal of pressure. Let’s face it — who am I, and who is anyone really, to pick up the pen where Robert Bloch left off? I tried to be faithful to Bloch’s style, and to the characters as they appeared in the original novel. I’ve always been an admirer of his very simple and clear style anyway, so it wasn’t a stretch as though, say, I were writing a sequel to something of H. P. Lovecraft’s, whose style and my own differ widely.

Why do you think the Norman Bates character has stayed in the popular consciousness to this extent?

In a way, Norman Bates was the first serial killer to really have an impact on popular culture, due primarily to the popularity of the Hitchcock film. In the wake of Psycho, there was a whole new genre of films and novels dealing with what, in the old days, had been called homicidal maniacs. And that influence continues to the present day. Even if people have never seen the film nor read the book, everyone knows something about the shower murder and Norman and “Mother.”

Have you always been drawn to the horror genre?

Yes indeed. When I was a tiny tot, I was hearing the stories of Edgar Allan Poe from my older friends, and I was quick to find Poe on my parents’ bookshelves. I discovered the American magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland (which I subtly name-check in Psycho: Sanitarium), when I was eleven, and the early 1960s were a great period for paperback horror fiction reprints, so I found all the classic writers — Blackwood, Lovecraft, M. R. James, Machen, and so many more. I’ve always had a warm spot for the fantastic and horrific, so getting to spend nine months with Norman Bates as I continued to tell his story was a dream come true!

Psycho: Sanitarium is published on 12th April by Canelo, price £3.99 in eBook. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.