“Psycho” by Robert Bloch (1959)

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psycho

Eeek, eeek, eeek!

“Norman Bates heard the noise and a shock went through him.”

The book is always better than the film. Yes, I’m one of those people. Generally though I do experience both, just to confirm that. Most of Hollywood’s greatest films once started out as books – Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, Cloud Atlas, The Martian are all great films, but the books just edge them out. Sometimes though, I haven’t seen the film. And in this case, I don’t intend to.

Psycho is one of the most famous films of all time, to the point that we are far more likely to associate the story with Alfred Hitchcock than Robert Bloch, the man who actually wrote the story. As noted above, I’ve never seen the film but its fame is such that details of the plot have seeped through to me via cultural osmosis. Still, not all of it has, meaning I went into this book with suspicions as to what was going to happen, but not necessarily knowing all the details. If anything, that made this whole experience much worse.

Norman Bates is a middle-aged man who runs a motel with his domineering mother. She doesn’t let him drink or smoke or socialise with women, and she firmly disapproves of the books that Norman spends his time reading. But with no one else for company, the two are stuck together in their motel in the middle of nowhere, with just occasional guests to break the monotony. One night, Mary Crane arrives, carrying the $40,000 she’s stolen from her boss and intends to take to her lover. Things, however, don’t go to plan. When Norman is caught by his mother spying on this woman in the shower, his mother takes matters into her own hands and … well, I’m sure you all know what happens next.

When Norman finds out what his mother has done, he endeavours to protect her, but he knows that more people will soon arrive at the motel to find out where Mary and the money have gone. Norman is going to have to lie through his teeth to save himself, his mother, and his motel.

OK, so hands down, this is one of the scariest fucking books I have ever read in my life. Although, as I said, some of what was going to happen was known to me, I didn’t know everything, which means the suspense was racked up to eleven. Had I remembered correctly, too? That was another concern. Bloch’s style is painfully atmospheric and in this short novel he manages to create a world and a character so haunting that they will be lodged in my brain for a very long time. I’m already starting to wonder if I’ll ever sleep again. It does however contain one of the best lines and best examples of zeugma in literature: “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

If you’re not one with a faint heart or stomach that turns over at horror, then you might have a better time with this than me. By the way, I’m not at any point saying I didn’t like this book. It’s absolutely brilliant, so tightly plotted and able to bring to the forefront true fear and anxiety. It’s not fun to read, but it’s great to have read. Just don’t make me watch the film now.

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“The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson (2011)

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Psychopath-Test

Get ready to suspect everyone…

“This is a story about madness.”

I’ve never read Jon Ronson before but his reputation naturally has not escaped my attention. He’s famous for his previous books Them (a look at society’s extremists) and the curiously titled book The Men Who Stare At Goats, which was later turned into a film. He is skilled at finding the most bizarre sections of our culture and turning the microscope to them.

The Psychopath Test is billed as “a journey through the madness industry”. I had never considered madness to be an industry particularly but given how many psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists, schizophrenics, psychopaths, sociopaths and Big Brother contestants there appear to be these days, I suppose it is. And once you’ve got the people out of the way, you get to find a list of all the mental disorders that seem to exist and you can be sure that you’ve got at least seven of them.

However, the book focusses are more on the aforementioned psychopaths and makes use of the eponymous Psychopath Test, a twenty point checklist that is used to diagnose people as psychopaths. It mentions several personality traits that are common among people who can be labelled as psychopaths, such as irresponsibility, glibness, manipulative, pathological lying and early behaviour problems. There is also always said to be a lack of empathy, being constantly detatched from horror in the real world.

Ronson interviews a collection of very colourful individuals, both those diagnosed with disorders and those who perform the diagnoses. There’s a young girl who died because she was being given pills to cure her of a mental disorder that she didn’t have. There are the Scientologists who believe that psychiatry is a complete waste of time. There’s the man who spends his free time posting out curious manuscripts to notable scientists. There’s the woman who was a guest-booker for television, ensuring that she people ready to appear on programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show and The X Factor who were just the right level of mad.

But two stories stand out. The first is the curious world of David Shayler. Click the link if you want a fuller picture of him but in short, he was an agent for MI5 who (among other things) failed to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi, was prosecuted for breaching the Official Secrets Act and went on the run in France to escape trial. He was eventually brought to justice, and slowly appeared to be going mad. It is the latter part of his life that is central to this book. He began to claim that no planes had ever hit the Twin Towers, that the 7/7 bombings was an inside job and later informed the world that he was the Messiah. Ronson interviews him a few times to find out if he is a psychopath.

The other very powerful story is that of Tony who pretended to be insane to get out of a prison sentence and ended up stuck in Broadmoor for twelve years, unable to convince any of the staff that he was sane. It’s an incredibly amazing story of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” as everything he does is used as evidence of his madness.

It’s a good read for any armchair psychologist, and although there’s no big training session involved like Ronson goes on to become a psychopath-spotter, the full list of personality traits is included, as well as other ways to spot them. In fact, I even found myself relating to several points on the list. However, the book clearly states that if you are able to identify with the list, you aren’t a psychopath. How true that is, I don’t know.

Still, in the mean time you can begin to look at your neighbours in a new light.