Chet Williamson, Psycho writer:
Horror writer tackles the scarred psyche of Norman Bates in new thriller

Chet Williamson was 12 when his parents took him to see Psycho on the big screen.

The Alfred Hitchcock thriller had an immediate effect on the boy. While some folks developed an aversion to showers, Williamson wanted more. So he found a copy of the original novel, written in 1959 by Robert Bloch.

"My parents weren't too pleased, because they knew how much the movie had scared me," he recalls. But it led to a lifelong love affair with Bloch's work. Williamson, who later became an author of note in his own right, lists Bloch as a major influence.

"I became a disciple of Robert Bloch," he says. "I bought everything of his I could find."

Now Williamson, of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, has penned a novel about, arguably, Bloch's greatest creation: Norman Bates, the titular psycho of Psycho. Psycho: Sanitarium was released in April 2016 by Thomas Dunne Books.

No-brainer decision

Norman Bates is a hot commodity these days. The critically acclaimed Bates Motel explores the life of young Norman, pre-Psycho, weekly on A&E. Bloch also wrote two sequels before his death -- Psycho 2 and Psycho House, neither of which is related to the film sequels, Psycho II and Psycho III.

Williamson says Macmillan Entertainment, working with the Bloch estate, pitched the idea for a new tale. Williamson's name was floated for the job, and he seized on the opportunity.

"I had sort of sworn not to do any more licensed work," he says. "But a chance to write Norman Bates -- that was a no-brainer."

Psycho -- both novel and film -- are masterworks, Williamson says.

"They changed the way people thought about serial killers," he says. "'Psycho was a trailblazer, and Norman Bates became a cultural icon."

Confined to a sanitarium

He began plotting the novel in 2014 and spent much of 2015 writing it.

Being locked into the framework of a sanitarium -- Williamson's novel had to connect the end of Bloch's Psycho with the beginning of Bloch's Psycho 2 -- made plotting difficult, he admits.

"It was really hard," Williamson says. "Something has to happen. People have to die. But in a state hospital for the criminally insane, everyone's in a cell. I had to figure out how to write what is essentially a murder-mystery in that setting."

In the novel, Williamson introduces the characters of Dr. Felix Reed, whose job it is to bring Bates out of his catatonic state in a setting that is more prison than hospital, and Robert Newman, Bates' damaged twin brother.

Of course, people begin to die.

Scarred psyche

Many people know Norman Bates from Anthony Perkins' cinematic portrayal, but Williamson says someone reading Bloch's version for the first time will recognize the character.

"Hitchcock was very faithful to the novel," he says. "He took the soul of Norman Bates from the book, and that's what he put on the screen."

The novel delves more deeply into Bates' scarred psyche, Williamson says, and the character is described differently -- older and heavier, he says. Bloch's Bates is an unattractive man.

Williamson took his cues from Bloch's vision, rather than Hitchcock's.

"It's easy to mimic Bloch's voice in a way," he says. "He has a very clear, simple style, and I have always kept that in mind."

"He would construct a story the way you construct a joke," Williamson adds. "You start with the punchline and work backwards. The conclusion is surprising but inevitable, and all the pieces were there if you put them together. It's a perception shift. It sounds like a trick ending, a gimmick, but it's more than that. It wouldn't be very satisfying if that's all it was. The ending has to grow out organically."

He expects readers of Sanitarium will develop some level of empathy for Bates.

"Sure, he does terrible things, but it's not really his fault," Williamson says. "He's basically an innocent. He's not stupid, but there's a part of Norman Bates that never grew up."

An end to Bates

While he hopes the book performs well, Williamson says he doesn't anticipate more sequels.

"I think this is enough," he says. "He's not a continuing character. He's not Hannibal Lecter ... and anyway, that's been done."

Williamson, whose previous licensed work has included books in The Crow and TSR's Ravenloft series, says he met Bloch on a few occasions, and the elder wordsmith gave Williamson favorable reviews.

"He was a very nice man," Williamson recalls. "Very funny -- always cracking jokes. A real sweetheart. Down to earth."

Williamson says he's grateful he had a chance to dip a toe into Bloch's world.

"Because Robert Bloch was such a great influence on me -- and because Psycho is such a big part of my life -- I just couldn't say no," he says.

About the author

Chet Williamson, a native of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, has written nearly 20 books and more than 100 short stories.

Perhaps best known in his hometown for his humorous children's book, A Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas, he has written primarily in the horror vein, with novels including Soulstorm, Second Chance, Dreamthorp and Reign. The Night Listener & Others, his second collection of short stories and novellas, was published in May 2015.

Also known as a local actor and musician, Williamson has recorded more than 40 audiobooks, including Robert Bloch's Psycho. His next work, he says, will likely be an original play.

Read reviews of several Chet Williamson novels here.

Critics say...

"Horror author Chet Williamson ably succeeds in the tough task of creating a sequel to Robert Bloch's masterpiece, Psycho; a prequel to the less effective Psycho II; and a solid story in its own right. ... Whenever Norman gets the spotlight, the novel feels like a lost Bloch work."
- Publishers Weekly

"This brilliant projection of a horror classic is also a surgical deconstruction, a look not only inside the mind of a maniac, but into the milieu of 'treatment' of the criminally insane. There's a million reasons to read this one, but the most compelling is the lesson it teaches: Real horror is real. And never that far from home."
- author Andrew Vachss

"Taking his lead from Bloch's original Psycho, Williamson devises an amazing horror story that goes a few steps beyond the first."
- RT Book Reviews

"Chet Williamson has written a brilliantly compelling novel filled with mystery, humanity and dread."
- author Tim Lebbon

interview by
Tom Knapp

24 September 2016

what's new

Robert Bloch's Psycho
Robert Bloch's Psycho 2
Robert Bloch's Psycho House
Chet Williamson's Psycho: Sanitarium

Psycho II
Psycho III