The 13th Floor

Review: PSYCHO: SANITARIUM – Bringing Back Robert Bloch’s Norman Bates!

Confession – it’s takes me a really long time to read a book. It’s not for lack of trying! But unlike with a TV show, which I have no problem binge-watching on my couch in my pajamas over the course of one long weekend, books are more a special affair. I like to take my time with them. I like to savor and relish in the story. I don’t want it to end. And quite frankly, considering there are 3 books with “PSYCHO” in the title from the grand master Robert Bloch, I doubted that I’d ever get the chance to spend more time with the wacky characters that populated his version of the PSYCHO-verse. But miraculously, with the approval from his estate and with writer Chet Williamson in tow, PSYCHO: SANITARIUM, a book that takes place directly after the events of the original PSYCHO novel but before Bloch’s own 1982 sequel, PSYCHO II, was born! And I wanted to make this read count!

So just to clarify, the events of the first PSYCHO novel take place roughly around 1959 and very much mirror what transpires in the movie pretty closely, except for one minor detail. In the book, Norman Bates doesn’t look like the boy next door that Anthony Perkins so perfectly captured. The book version of Norman is 40-ish, slightly over-weight and balding. He’s somewhat a sad looking character, which makes his manipulation and domination by Mother all the sadder still. The novel PSYCHO II takes place 22 years later in around 1982 and opens with Norman’s escape from the asylum that he’s been committed to this whole time. There’s a long chunk of time between the original and sequel, both in the books and the movies. How no one had ever thought before to tell the story that takes place right after the events of PSYCHO is a mystery to me! And I personally couldn’t imagine what that story would be, but here we are! And this is it.

Art by Felipe Echevarria from the Innovation Comics adaptation of PSYCHO
Art by Felipe Echevarria from the Innovation Comics adaptation of PSYCHO

At the opening of this book, we find Norman committed to the State Hospital For The Criminally Insane, formally the Ollinger Estate. It’s not too long after his capture and instatement into the facility & he’s for the most part in a completely catatonic state. He isn’t responding to the taunts of the unusually mean head attendant Myron Gunn, nor the head nurse Eleanor Lindstrom, whom Myron is having an affair with. Same goes for his appointed doctor Felix Reed, who desperately wants to reach Norman. Instead, we can still hear Mother poking fun at her son in his head.

Because of the kindness of both Dr. Reed and Nurse Marie Radcliffe, slowly but surely Norman begins to show some progress. He successfully manages to suppress his Mother alter-ego and comes out of his shell a bit. There are challenges, though. Ronald Miller is one of the most vile and evil criminals in the facility and once Norman attempts to eat in the public cafeteria, Miller sets his sights on bullying Norman and threatens to do terrible things to him after dark. There’s also Dr. Isaac Goldberg, the head of the hospital that has an obsession with using the radical “shock therapy” on patients. He’s desperate to start implementing this cruel, unusual means of therapy and is constantly reminding Dr. Reed that if Norman doesn’t improve more quickly, he’ll gladly volunteer him for the shock treatments.

Things take a turn for the better, however, when a mysterious character from Norman’s past emerges. One day, Dr. Reed brings in someone that Norman never knew existed… his twin brother, Robert! Not identical twin mind you, but both in the womb at the same time. Robert was born with an abnormality on his head and was not expected to survive post-birth, so Norma gave him up and somehow, he did survive and managed to have a happy, healthy, normal life. He’s married with two kids and runs a local diner. And he really wants to be a part of his brother’s life. The fact that Norman now has someone that can understand him and love him unconditionally is a huge breakthrough. And while the idea of a mysterious twin brother may sound silly initially, their conversations and interaction are so beautifully written and realized that it makes total sense that this is how this story is supposed to play out! Also, major kudos for naming him Robert, no doubt after Robert Bloch, but I also like to think Chet Williamson saw my documentary and realized I was equally as obsessed with the PSYCHO franchise. OK, OK. It’s definitely named after Bloch.

When Ronald Miller threatens bodily harm on Norman, he mysteriously (and quite suddenly) vanishes. We know that he’s been violently murdered, but to the hospital, they assume it’s an escape. Pretty soon, though, other people that have had some sort of negative effect on or that have threatened Norman start disappearing one by one. Norman has vivid dreams about their awful fates. But are they just dreams? Or does he have a psychic link to his brother Robert, now? His newfound brother has confessed that he’d never let anyone hurt Norman now that he’s there. Could he be the one responsible, taking on his brother’s murderous impulses?

Or is there any truth to the rumors of the old ghosts that inhabit the halls of this sanitarium (that used to belong to Dr. Ollinger) are back & restless? We get snippets from his journal that date back to the beginning of the century explaining the dark past of this place, so there’s always the thought that perhaps something supernatural is at play here too?

Regardless of what you think is going on, nothing is as it seems and in traditional Bloch fashion, the final chapters pack a lot of fun surprises and leave the door wide open for Bloch’s own PSYCHO II novel. It’s a wonderful bridge between the two pre-existing books and as a PSYCHO fan, a truly thrilling read. Williamson most certainly has his own well-established voice. I can’t imagine the challenge of trying to emulate the distinct voice of Bloch but he eventually gets there. Not right away. There is a lot of set up with these characters. And my vague memory of Bloch’s stuff is that each chapter would often end on a shocking pun or cliffhanger, forcing you to move onto the next chapter. Best example I can give is the shower scene from the original PSYCHO novel which read, “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

For me, it picks up and doesn’t relent from the moment Norman’s brother Robert is introduced. The way the mystery unfolds and the glorious finale twists that emerge would’ve absolutely made Bloch proud. Again, I never thought it’d be possible to get another story with Bloch’s version of Norman and yet Williamson has delivered in spades and made something that easily fits right on the shelf in between the Bloch books. If you’re a fan of these novels, or even just the first PSYCHO book, I’d strongly recommend taking this dark journey with everyone’s favorite mama’s boy.