Psycho Thomas Ellison Makes a Mess

The latest dust up over bizarre comments made about Howard by a blogger arises out of a post made by Thomas Ellison over at the Retro Slashers blog. Bashing Howard has recently elevated itself from a minor annoyance to his fans to what seems like an all out assault on the reputation and character of Robert E. Howard.

Using “findings” based on what I call “selective research,” guys like Ellison mold what little facts they have to fit a preconceived notion of who Howard was.  If you note their cited sources are always outdated and in some cases debunked. This flawed method was one favored by L. Sprague de Camp, who started this “Howard was a crazy momma’s boy with no personality or life of his own who killed himself when his mother’s death was imminent” school of thought.

The premise of Ellison’s post is that besides Ed Gein, the later days of Howard’s life was also an inspiration for Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho and its main character, psychotic killer Norman Bates. The Howard connection supposedly comes from letters Howard wrote to Lovecraft and other correspondents, along with Bloch’s own correspondence with HPL. This assumption does not hold water. Virtually none of Howard’s letters had been published when Bloch wrote Psycho, circa 1957-1958, so he could not have used those for his inspiration.

All of Mr. Ellison’s comparisons between Psycho and Howard are just ridiculous. Let’s review a few of them: Howard was from Texas, so are some of Bloch’s characters, Bates and Howard had extensive libraries, (wow, a smoking gun – both were well read) and both had pornography collections (shocking!). The phrase “grasping at straws” comes to mind.

As an example, here Ellison seems to be making sport of an elderly woman’s fatal illness by equating fictional Norman Bates’ “Mother” personality making messes (i.e., killing people) with the real-life, painful needle aspirations and night sweats of Hester Howard:

One of Norman’s duties as a good son is cleaning up when Mother makes a mess. In Psycho, Norman cleans the bloody bathroom and hides Mother’s victims in the swamp. Robert Howard, also a good son, had to clean a different type of mess. A letter from Robert Howard to Lovecraft dated February 11, 1936 reveals Howard has “had little opportunity to do any writing of any kind” due to his mother’s deteriorating health.  According to Howard, his mother” requires frequent aspirations” and “is subject to distressing and continual sweats, and naturally has to have constant attention.” The Howard family hired several women to help with Hester’s care, but none of them lasted very long. Hester Howard’s constant care always fell on Robert’s shoulders.

There is no shame in being a caregiver. In fact it is a very noble thing for one to undertake, caring for someone who is unable to care for themselves. Yet Ellison seems to equate it with cleaning up the bloody mess after a murder has been committed. I hate to burst your bubble Mr. Ellison, but the connection between Howard and Robert Bloch’s Norman Bates exists only in your mind.

Ellison’s Ed Gein angle doesn’t hold up too well either. Even though in 1957 Bloch lived just 35 miles from the site of the heinous crimes, Ed Gein was not the inspiration  for Psycho.  Here is excerpt  from The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock’s Classic Shocker by Joseph W. Smith:

Remarkably, Bloch claimed that at the time he wrote Psycho, he was unaware of Gein’s transvestism and obsession with his mother – that he knew no details of the case and virtually nothing of the fiend himself until much later, when he began research for his essay on Gein in Anthony Boucher’s true-crime anthology The Quality of Murder (1962)

“I based my story on the situation rather than on any person,” Bloch wrote in his delightful memoir Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography. When he first conceived Psycho, Bloch was simply interested in the idea that “the man next door may be a monster” – and with this in mind, he set out to create his character “from whole cloth.”

When you boil it all down, this is a form of cyber bullying.  While Howard is beyond the realm of these outlandish statements, his fans are not and must step up to defend his legacy and reputation. But, I fear this will not end here no matter what we do or say to counter it.