(The Early Fears; The Weird ed. Jeff & Ann Vandeermeer)
At first there were two of them – he and she together. That’s the way it was when they bought the house. (first paragraph)
A young couple buys their first house, an old house needing some repair. They are mildly surprised they have found such a good house until they begin to feel a presence.
This story would make an interesting companion piece to John Collier’s “Bird of Prey” (a future post) – and maybe Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One”; an early scene is reminiscent of a scene from Onion’s story – since it, too, is about a young couple in their new house. There is a different socio-economic feel, though: First published in 1951, Bloch’s post-WWII couple has nowhere else to go; their money tied up in this house, they are at least temporarily trapped. Bloch creates an oppressive atmosphere, small incidents feeding a slowly dawning comprehension and apprehension.
This is more of a mood piece than I usually expect from Bloch, whose reputation largely lies with his sense of graveyard humor. That said, Bloch was one of the most important American writers of horror to come after H. P. Lovecraft, with whom he corresponded late in Lovecraft’s life and who encouraged his writing. Like Lovecraft, most of Bloch’s major works of horror fiction were in short form (all the stories mentioned in this paragraph are also in The Early Fears, but he wrote a great deal besides these]: “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (The Dark Descent ed. David Hartwell – outside of Psycho this is Bloch’s best-known work); “The Cloak” (American Fantasy Tales ed. Peter Straub); and his Hugo winning story, “That Hell-Bound Train” (Sympathy for the Devil ed. Tim Pratt)
Most other pulp writers of Bloch’s generation wrote horror in addition to, or as a small part of their fantasy and/or s.f. work, while Bloch (who wrote some s.f. and some fantasy) gravitated more toward mystery/crime. A stint in advertising and branching out into crime/mystery guided Bloch away from his early Lovecraftian approach, toward a shorter, quicker paced style and structure, also removing him from the company of Lovecraft's antiquarian characters and placing him firmly among more common characters, including a share of carnys, con-men and grifters.
As a novelist Bloch wrote only crime novels until the late 1970s, often with macabre elements, most notably, Psycho, based loosely on murders committed by Ed Gein (as was the movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Bloch’s sense of humor and wit made him popular in s.f. fandom and he often served as emcee at fannish events. That sense of humor informed many of his stories so that they read like templates for EC comics horror, often ending in a pun. An example of Bloch’s graveyard humor, appropriated by several later writers including Stephen King, came when Bloch was being pressed by a reporter about why he would write such gruesome, macabre work: (paraphrasing) “Look, I have the heart of a small boy,” he said. “I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
Another novel of interest by Robert Bloch: American Gothic (based loosely on the activities of the serial killer, H. H. Holmes)
Other fine stories by Robert Bloch: “The Mannikin”; “Enoch”; “Return to the Sabbath”; “The Cheaters”; “Talent”; “Notebook Found in a Deserted House”; “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade”; “The Yougoslavs” (the last four are not in The Early Fears, the others are; while his old paperback collections used to be easy to find in second hand bookstores, they no longer seem to be)
Two anthologies of haunted house stories: The Mammoth Book of Haunted Houses ed. by Peter Haining (this includes Bloch’s “House of the Hatchet”); House of Fear: An Anthology of Haunted House Stories ed. Jonathan Oliver [I haven’t read much of the former; those two or three stories were enjoyable. I only just recently bought the latter and hope to include a story or two from it in future posts.]
Other mood pieces: “The Festival” & “The Hound” by H. P. Lovecraft (The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories; H. P. Lovecraft: The Fiction); “The Foghorn” by Ray Bradbury (Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1; The Stories of Ray Bradbury; American Supernatural Tales ed. S. T. Joshi); “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” by Poppy Z. Brite (Wormwood; Cthulhu 2000 ed. Jim Turner: this is a good piece to read after reading Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” since it draws on and expands that story); “When the Zombies Win” by Karina Sumner-Smith (The Best Horror of the Year: Vol. 3 ed. Ellen Datlow)