"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Alone in the dark at last: Such Stuff As Screams Are Made Of by Robert Bloch (1976)

Such Stuff As Screams Are Made Of

by Robert Bloch

Del Rey 1979

Introduction (Such Stuff As Screams Are Made Of) • (1979) • essay by Gahan Wilson

…. The thing about Bloch's stories is, literally, their knack of haunting the reader. They have a core happening which stays, rather like a fable or a story from the Brothers Grimm. I suspect this is what has made his stories so much in demand for adaptations. When you leave the theater after seeing a Blochian horror, it tags along behind and follows you on the empty sidewalks all the way home. When you turn off your television set, that Blochian climax continues to phosphoresce in your head. The crazy old lady in Psycho put a lot of small motels out of business because she wouldn't leave the people who saw it, and I think you'll encounter the same kind of lingering effect with at least one of the stories gathered here, depending on which one grabs your particular insecurity.

Maybe it'll be the silver skeleton tinkling somewhere in the darkness on your bedroom floor, or could be it'll be the horrible headsman lurking in your closet, or perhaps it'll be the snaky lady prowling out there on the lawn or the fire escape. It's hard to tell.

The Tunnel of Love • (1948) • short story 

But if that was Dolores out there in the water, then what . . .

Marco turned his head, ever so slowly. For the first time he glanced down at the seat beside him, at what lay cradled in his arms.

The Unspeakable Betrothal • (1949) • short story

Bloch has a merry time ringing the changes on "The Whisperer in Darkness."  His heroine Avis cannot wait to go.

No matter how often Doctor Clegg pursed his lips and hinted about calling in a "specialist," she wasn't afraid. Of course Avis knew he really wanted her to see a psychiatrist. The doddering fool was filled with glib patter about "retreat from reality" and "escape mechanisms."

But he didn't understand about the dreams. She wouldn't tell him, either. He'd never know the richness, the fullness, the sense of completion that came from experiencing contact with other worlds.

Avis knew that now. The voices and shapes that came in the window were from other worlds. As a naive child she had invited them by her very unsophistication. Now, striving consciously to return to the childlike attitude, she again admitted them.

They were from other worlds; worlds of wonder and splendor. Now they could meet only on the plane of dreams, but someday, someday soon, she would bridge the gap.

They whispered about her body. Something about the trip, making the "change." It couldn't be explained in their words. But she trusted them, and after all, a physical change was of slight importance contrasted with the opportunity.

The Girl from Mars • (1950) • short story 

A carnie owner's comeuppance.

"Sure. And my Girl from Mars skipped. So the way I figure it, why don't you come along with the show? You can have the same setup, sixty a week and chow, travel around and see the country. Nobody to tell you what to do or when to do it, see? Your own boss. Free. Get it—free?"

He wanted it to sound good. Sort of subtle, about being free. Even if she was a whack, she had enough sense to bust out and probably knew she'd have to keep moving. Not that he'd let her tie up with the show, that was all con, but he wanted her to go for the deal. Then he could start.

"But that is not what you speak. Hungry—"

Ah, to hell with it! You don't waste your breath on a screwball. And here in the dark she wasn't a screwball. She was a disheroo, a tall blonde, hot, better than Mitzie, damn Mitzie anyhow, she was here and he could feel her, feel the warmth just busting out of her—

The Head Hunter • (1950) • short story

They came—pallid, noble faces molded in sadness or rage; three thousand death-masks, and the end not yet! And with them came a message.

"You, Otto Krantz, are our Master! You are the most powerful man in the Reich. Not Hitler, not Goebbels, not Himmler or the others. You, Otto Krantz, hold the real power of life and death!"

At first, Krantz was afraid of such thoughts. But every day came a dozen new reminders, a dozen new faces to review in darkness, to remember, to relish.

To relish? But of course, it was a pleasure now. To be quiet. To dress in black. To wear a mask. To hide the secret thoughts and then come home to revel alone with three thousand memories!

The Weird Tailor • (1950) • novelette

All those weird colors in "The Colour Out of Space"? You can have a suit made like that.  And there's a poverty-stricken abusive jerk of a tailor who will make it for you wholesale.

Lucy Comes to Stay • (1952) • short story

She held the secret up. It glittered under the light, like the scissors, only this was a nice glittering. A golden glittering.

"A whole pint!" I gasped. "Where did you get it?"

"From the cupboard downstairs, naturally. You knew George still keeps the stuff around. I slipped it into your purse, just in case."

I had the shakes, but I got that bottle open in ten seconds. One of my fingernails broke, and then the stuff was burning and warming and softening—

"Pig!" said Lucy.

"You know I had to have it," I whispered. "That's why you brought it."

The Pin • (1953) • short story

Reapers are hired by accident and coincidence. But forever.  

I Do Not Love Thee, Doctor Fell • (1955) • short story

"Who are you?" Dr. Fell asked the question softly. "That's really what's bothering you, isn't it? Who are you? You can answer that question if you want to, you know. So try. Try. Who are you?"

It was the wrong question. Bromely felt it, and he froze. Somewhere, deep inside, words formed an answer. But he couldn't find the words. He couldn't find that spot, inside him, where the words came from.

For the rest of the hour he just lay there on the couch.

Luck Is No Lady • (1957) • short story

A dizzying, whirligig fantasy with a simple moral: You can't win.

"….If I could only learn the secret of what attracts Fortune, I'd ask for nothing else. Perhaps it's just a matter of real belief, or of worship. Fortune is a goddess and goddesses demand adoration. Being female, she requires constancy. Could it be that the so-called fortunate ones are merely those who have learned this secret and swear fealty to Fortune in return for her favors?"

"I dunno," Frankie mumbled. "Me, I'd go all-out for any dame who'd change my luck."

He picked up his glass, swallowed, then turned. But the old Professor guy had stumbled out. The bartender came up, shaking his head. "Funny how it hits them all of a sudden," he said.

"Yeah," Frankie answered. "But what gets me is why a guy like him hangs around this joint."

"I dunno about that," the bartender said. "We get some pretty classy trade, on account of the game in back."

The Cure • (1957) • short story

Thieves fall out.  A "one joke story," but what a joke!

The Screaming People • (1959) • novelette

A sweeping and ambitious noir tale about madness, control, and the treacheries to which medical science is bent.  Bloch is never better than in a story like this, brilliantly portraying shards of consciousness attempting to regroup themselves into a rational semblance of personality. Surpasses Aldritch's film Kiss Me Deadly.

Even now—even here in the womb, where nothing could harm me—I still didn't care to dwell on what happened. Actually, it all came to me via second-hand report, because when Wagram came I slipped down into the merciful oblivion of concussion-induced coma. And there I stayed for the next ten days, while Wagram accompanied me to the nearest town, supervised the work of the doctor who put the casts on me, represented me in the police investigation which followed, and finally—after two surgeons flew out from L.A., examined my head injuries, and pronounced my condition hopeless and my brain-damage so extensive as to render the case inoperable—chartered a private plane and flew me back to his own clinic here. Then he operated; Dr. Carl Wagram, who learned his neurosurgery in war-torn Munich. He put the plates into my skull and my head healed and he grafted the skin and hair grew and there was even a touch of cosmetological miracle involved. By the time my casts were off, my physical recovery was assured.

This left me with but one problem.


Complete and total amnesia.

Oh, I could comprehend consciousness, and I could even speak after a fashion. But I was unable to remember a single solitary moment of my life before that crash. Existence, for me, began with a scream of pain out there on the desert.

The Big Kick • (1959) • short story

If you hate Beatniks – and who doesn't? – this is the story for you! Brilliant and as always with Bloch, the style is seemingly effordless.

"But don't you ever worry about the future?" Judy asked.

"This is the future, dig?" Mitch answered. "The whole thing's a circle, with us in the middle having kicks. Now take like squares, what have they got? The study-and-work-hard pitch, the get-a-steady-job thing, real draggy. And then it's marry-and-settle-down and buy-on-easy-terms and take-care-of-the-wife-and-kids. So you end up at fifty, doing the coronary bit."

"Awright awready," Judy said. "You aren't going to marry me, and I'm not queer for that wife-and-mother scene myself. But a girl has to think about things, you know? And I don't have any money, you don't have a job—"

"So get with it." Mitch shrugged. "You want some loot, find a live one."

"You mean some fat old character with a wife and six kids? I should sneak in and out of motels with him for peanuts?" Judy was scornful. "Look, Pops, I don't need it. I've been getting passes from such jerkies for years. All I'd catch is a bad dose of trouble."

"Figures," Mitch agreed. "But why sweat? You don't even have to bother looking. Just relax and enjoy it. Let it come to you. Like Kenny here."

He jabbed his thumb in the direction of a tall, thin man who stood leaning against the hall doorway, squinting at the smoky room through his horn rims.

"A real creepnik, that one," Mitch said. "Used to be an assistant prof up at the U., but he doesn't have to bust a truss making a living. He's loaded. Phil tells me he popped for three jugs tonight, just to get in. Likes to make the scene, you know? And he's got eyes for you."

The Masterpiece • (1960) • short story

A minor key anecdotal traveler's tale.

Talent • (1960) • short story

Like "The Screaming People," this story is a masterpiece.  The emotional, mental, and physical transformations of its protagonist, Andrew Benson, would fit comfortably into the surrealist fiction spaces of Ramsey Campbell.

…. If his foster-parents were a bit strict, he made no complaints. If they punished him because they suspected he sometimes slipped out of his room at night, he made no complaint or denials. If they seemed apprehensive lest he be disobeying their set injunctions not to attend the movies, he offered no overt defiance.

The only known clash between Andrew Benson and his family came about as a result of their flat refusal to allow a television set in their home. Whether or not they were concerned about the possible encouragement of Andrew's mimicry or whether they had merely developed an allergy to Lawrence Welk and his ilk is difficult to determine. Nevertheless, they balked at the acquisition of a TV set. Andrew begged and pleaded, pointed out that he "needed" television as an aid to a future dramatic career. His argument had some justification, for in his senior year, Andrew had indeed been "scouted" by the famous Pasadena Playhouse, and there was even some talk of a future professional career without the necessity of formal training.

But the Bensons were adamant on the television question; as far as we can determine, they remained adamant right up to the day of their death.

The Final Performance • (1960) • short story

A motel on a lonely stretch of California highway.  A writer with an car breakdown. A maid who will do anything to get to the coast.  And the motel owner? Just take a look at his scrapbooks before it's too late.

Life in Our Time • (1966) • short story

Utterly and infernally hilarious.  A fogey of a college professor takes interest in his younger wife when it is time to stock a time capsule destined for the cornerstone of the new humanities building.

"Everything preserved will be a clue to our social attitudes. Not what we pretend to admire, but what the majority actually believes in and enjoys. And that's where you come in, my dear. You're the majority."

Jill began to dig it, then. "You mean like TV and records?"

"Exactly. What's that album you like so well? The one with the four hermaphrodites on the liner?"


"Excuse me—it's purportedly a singing group, isn't it?"

"Oh, you're talking about the Poodles!" Jill went and got the album, which was called The Poodles Bark Again. The sound really turned her on, but she always thought Harry hated it. And now he was coming on smiles.

"Great," he said. "This definitely goes in."


"Don't worry, I'll buy you another." He took the album and put it on his desk. "Now, you mentioned something about television. What's your favorite program?"

When she saw he was really serious she began telling him about Anywhere, U.S.A. What it was, it was about life in a small town, just an ordinary suburblike, but the people were great. There was this one couple with the two kids, sort of an average family, you might say, only he was kind of playing around with a divorcée who ran a discothetique or whatever they call them, and she was getting the hots for a psychiatrist—he wasn't really her psychiatrist, he was analyzing one of the kids, the one who had set fire to the high school gymnasium, not the girl—she was afraid she'd been caught because of that affair she was having with the vice-principal who was really a Commie agent only she didn't know it yet and her real boyfriend, the one who had the brain operation, had a thing about his mother, so—

It got kind of complicated, but Harry kept asking her to tell him more and pretty soon he was nodding. "Wonderful—we'll have to see if we can get kinescopes on a week's episodes."

Underground • (1967) • short story

A characterization so real, the audience thinks it is true.  And takes action accordingly.

A Case of the Stubborns • (1976) • short story

Bloch says he had to wait thirty years to find a story to match the first line.  It's magic: Americana folk horror in the Manly Wade Wellman vein.

Just then Ma come back out. "We're fresh out of lemonade," she said. "All's I could find was a jug. I know your feeling about such things, Reverend, but—"

"Praise the Lord!" The Reverend snatched the jug out of her hand, hefted it up, and took a mighty swallow.

"You're a good woman," he told Ma. "And I'm much beholden to you." Then he started down the path for the road, moving fast.

"Here, now!" Ma called after him. "What you aim to do about Grandpa?"

"Have no fear," the Reverend said. "We must put our trust now in the power of prayer."

He disappeared down the road, stirring dust.

"Danged if he didn't take the jug!" Grandpa mumbled. "You ask me, the onny power he trusts is in that corn-likker."

Ma give him a look. Then she bust out crying and run into the house.

"Now, what got into her?" Grandpa said.

"Never you mind," I told him. "Susie, you stay here and whisk those flies off Grandpa. I got things to attend to."

And I did.

The Head • (1976) • short story

A small-bore end of the world story.

What You See Is What You Get • (1977) • short story

Long before "The Sundog," instamatic cameras were showing things no human eye needed to see.

Nina • (1977) • short story

The old woman hesitated. "You will not be offended if I speak?"

"Of course not."

Mama's voice sank to a murmur. "It concerns the one outside."


"That is not her name, but no matter." Mama shook her head. "For two days she has waited there. I see you with her now when you return. And I see you with her before—"

"That's none of your business!" Nolan reddened. "Besides, it's all over now."

"Does she believe that?" Mama's gaze was grave. "You must tell her to go."

"I've tried. But the girl comes from the mountains, she doesn't speak English—"

"I know." Mama nodded. "She is one of the snake-people."

Nolan stared at her. "They worship snakes up there?"

"No, not worship."

"Then what do you mean?"

"These people—they are snakes."

Nolan scowled. "What is this?"

"The truth, señor. This one you call Nina—this girl—is not a girl. She is of the ancient race from the high peaks, where the great serpents dwell. Your workers here, even Moises, know only the jungle, but I come from the great valley beneath the mountains, and as a child I learned to fear those who lurk above. We do not go there, but sometimes the snake-people come to us. In the spring when they awaken, they shed their skins, and for a time they are fresh and clean before the scales grow again. It is then that they come, to mate with men."

Author's Afterword (Such Stuff as Screams Are Made Of) • (1979) • essay by Robert Bloch

…. I still believe a writer must do more than try—his job is to succeed in saying what he means. Obscurantism is for politicians.

In discussing my stories I strive for equal clarity. The material in this collection falls into two genres: supernatural fantasy and the conte cruel. But there's a common element—horror, or psychological suspense, if you prefer the term. And that's about all the explanation that seems necessary.

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